Communicating with children

Positive and negative

© UNICEF Myanmar/ Books for Tar Thar/U Win Naing

Indeed, our accumulated knowledge about the role of media in children’s lives suggests that they can have both positive as well as negative effects on children, depending on the content we fill them with; the context in which they are enjoyed; the use we make of them; and the individual characteristics of the children using them.

Media themselves are not inherently good or bad: they are technologies that can be used in multiple ways. Research conducted around the world suggests that good-quality media products produced for children (television and radio programmes, books, Internet sites, mobile-phone information services, public-education street-sign campaigns, puppet shows, dramas, etc.), can be effective in promoting a host of development goals (6).

For example, educational television has been proven to encourage school preparedness among preschoolers, to encourage early literacy and to teach specific school curricula effectively. This approach is strongly tied to the field of development communication, which systematically applies processes and strategies of communication to promote social development and change.

UNICEF has also experimented with developing creative materials through landmark projects (including the Meena communication initiative in South Asia and Sara communication initiative developed in Africa to promote gender equality; supporting co-productions of local adaptations of Sesame Street in Mexico and Kosovo; and culturally specific series like The Magic Journey animation, Kyrgyzstan). What has been of particular value for children are strategies bridging entertainment and education (known as “edutainment”), combining their benefits and strengths. In this manner, the appeal and popularity of entertainment is used to bring about social change to promote well-being at individual and social levels (7).

Evaluating the effectiveness of such interventions is a complicated endeavour, as it depends to a large degree on the goals of the project and how one defines effectiveness. For example, a project may serve to open people to think about an issue differently or to be more predisposed to messages about it. It can serve as a role model, or attempt to influence norms by cultivating a different perspective on it. Or it may change the framing of the perspective through which the issue is being viewed. (See Prasad, 2009 and Singhal et al., 2004.)

Several valuable initiatives also exist that promote reading to young children specifically to improve their healthy development. Reading to children from books that portray or promote healthy lifestyles strengthens the communication between them and their caregivers, supports their confidence and learning, enhances their language development and school readiness, and sustains literacy skills among older siblings and adults (8). Still, there is always a need for further reflection and new thinking about better strategies in communicating with children that will help promote their well-being.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-1949/Pietrasik
India:Children watch television at the Samanthanpettai Rehabilitation Complex for families displaced by the tsunami

At the same time that we find some success through new avenues of communication, there is also mounting evidence that media can have very negative influences on children and young people. For example, routine violence on television, films and video games, which is common to media content around the globe, has been found to affect children at multiple levels: behaviourally (increased aggressive behaviour), mentally (heightened fear and anxiety towards the world they live in) and socially (desensitization to the suffering of fellow humans and legitimization of violence as the primary way for resolving human conflict). Even violence portrayed in order to make a moral or educational point, to present social conflicts or children’s rights being abrogated can have negative impacts on viewers. Media violence affects children differently, depending on their personalities, their gender, the nature of their home and social environments, and their life experiences. But cumulatively, it has been associated with many anti-social processes which are not conducive to children’s well-being and healthy development (9).

A second and much researched area of negative effects relates to the short- and long-term influences of human stereotyping in media content. Stereotypical images of boys (as mainly violent and sexually lustful, or as rational leaders, primary problem solvers or more physically active) and girls (as mainly sexy and concerned with their appearance and with romance, and as gentle and emotional and in submissive and passive roles) influence the way boys and girls develop their gender identities, their expectations from themselves and from the opposite sex, their self-confidence, their body image and their early sexual experiences (10). The absence of fair representations of diversity of race, ethnicity, class, religion, disability, geography, age, etc., has been associated with promoting a limited and discriminatory world view among children and young people that affects the way they perceive themselves and others (11).

The question of inclusion in media products is a central one. As media reflect who and what is of value in their societies, children and adults may ask: Do I see myself represented regularly? If not, what does thissay to me? If and when I do see myself, how am I portrayed, especially if I am a girl, disadvantaged, disabled, from a minority group, or living in an extremely vulnerable situation? So many children in a variety of difficult circumstances rarely, if ever, see themselves reflected in the media. If and when they do, they are often represented as disempowered victims in need of rescuing by the so-called “developed first world”.


© It’s Normal to Be Different, 2011. Instituto MetaSocial

6. See for example Fisch, S. (2004). Children’s learning from educational television: Sesame Street and beyond. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum; Lemish, D. (2007). Children and television: A global perspective. Oxford: Blackwell (chapter 5).

7. See, for example, Singhal, A., Cody, M., Rogers, E., & Sabido, M. (eds.) (2004). Entertainment-Education and social change: History, research, and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

8. See for example projects such as Reach out and Read and Reading with Children, Save the Children/Bangladesh and Something to read, something to learn: Print media for and about young children. An example from the Kyrgyz Republic. UNICEF CEE-CIS Regional Office. 

9. See in sources in endnote 1, and also, for example, Kamalipour, Y.R. & Rampal, K.R. (Eds.) (2001). Media, sex, violence, and drugs in the global village. Boston: Rowman & Littlefield; Potter, W.J. (1999). On media violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

10. See in sources in endnote 1, and also, for example, Durham, M.G. (2008). The Lolita effect: The media sexualisation of young girls and what we can do about it. Woodstock & New York: The Overlook Press; Lemish, D. (2010). Screening gender on children’s television: The views of producers around the world. NY: Routledge. (Chapter one); Levin, D.E. & Kilbourne, J. (2008). So sexy so soon: The new sexualized childhood and what parents can do to protect their kids. NY: Balantine Books.

11. See sources in endnote 1 and also, for example Asamen, J.K., Ellis, M.L., & Berry, G.L. (Eds.) (2008). The Sage handbook of child development, multiculturalism, and media. Los Angeles: Sage.




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