Children Can Learn Social Skills through Television

“As Autumn Singer-Califano observes in the 2008 Journal of Educational Psychology article “The Use of Technology in Enhancing Social Skills,” kids and teens can use their television watching as a way to mentally “rehearse appropriate interactions with peers and selectively apply them as appropriate situations arise.” Television can also be used as a kind of tool to help children and adolescents better understand themselves and others.” 

 Excerpt from  I have autism. Watching television helped me more than therapy.


Application of Prosocial Themes in Relation to Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication

What makes television unique in learning? One of the greatest strengths Sesame Street has to offer are its prosocial segments that teach about empathy and kindness, which are fundamental skills aimed to help children develop emotional wellbeing with themselves and others. According to Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication (2002), the perception of media originates from perspective of agency: people are not passively empty vessels that absorb information. Instead, we are “self-organizing, proactive, and self-regulating” (Bandura, 2002, p. 121). There is a degree of choice in our media consumption and how we choose to accept and organize the information. But what motivates us to accept and organize the information? According to Bandura (2002), “vicarious motivators are rooted in outcome expectations formed from information conveyed by the rewarding and punishing outcomes of modeled courses of action (p. 131). This means the viewer is actively comparing their experiences with the subject’s experience on the screen. If there is sequence of events that are relatable and leads to reward or punishment, the viewer can be motivated to change their behavior based on what they vicariously experienced on the screen. For example, in “Abby Helps Clears Things”, the theme of feeling anxious is addressed with stress-management skills. The Muppet Prince is at his first visit to the optometry and expresses that his “tummy feels fluttery” and his “heart is beating very fast” – universal symptoms of feeling anxious. Abby is empathetic and tells Prince, “it’s okay to feel anxious when you’re doing something you’ve never done before”. She then walks through the steps of stress-coping methods by instructing Prince to take deep breaths and breath slowly through the nose and out slowly through the mouth. Here, the viewer’s motivation for modeling these sets of behavior is to learn how to anxiety and overcome uncomfortable psychosomatic symptoms of stress and in essence, overcome change.

Was this an effective way of teaching children about learning how to deal with anxiety? According to Bandura’s modeling determinants of diffusion, “human competency requires not only skills, but also self-belief in one’s capabilities to use those skills well. Modeling influences must, therefore, be designed to build self-efficacy as well as to convey knowledge and rules of behavior” (2002, p. 145). The viewer must believe that he or she can perform this stress-coping skills and Sesame Street furthers the child’s belief of self-efficacy by subsequently featuring the “Kindness Cam” segment in which Elmo directly asks the viewer, “do you remember today’s kind moment?” (14:48), which then shows live footage of an older older sister modeling deep breathing exercises with younger sister in a doctor’s room. From Muppets to live action, this prosocial themes involving anxiety and stress-coping mechanisms can now be translated from the fantasy world to the real world, making it more applicable to the child developing his schema. The “Kindness Cam” is also a perfect example of the type of media used to contribute to a child’s schema as they collect visual and audio information about facial expressions during anxiety, causes of uncomfortable feelings during stress, and the appropriate ways of verbally expressing feelings on screen (Strasburger, 2013, p. 112).  The “Kindness Cam” segment demonstrates this by strategically features children between 2-6 years old. This falls within the target viewer demographic, which can make the material more relatable, thereby increasing motivation for modeling. Modeling appropriate social skills through observation is no longer limited to interpersonal interactions with others in a physical setting. Children –  especially those who are directly or indirectly experiencing anxiety – can now use television as an alternative or supplementary methods to learning about empathetic social behaviors. Sesame Streets allows the viewer to safely observe scenarios and learn about appropriate social interactions; they can study interactions, synthesize, and even practice before playing it out in real life.


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