Can Touchscreen Technology Teach Preschoolers About Feelings?

James Alex Bonus and Alanna Peebles have spent hours watching and analyzing children’s TV shows.

Graduate students in communication science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Bonus and Peebles are interested in how children ages 3 to 5 understand narrative.

“When we make these shows for kids, there’s a lot of mental obstacles for them that we might not recognize,” Bonus said. Research finds that kids often miss major prosocial lessons in TV shows because they struggle to recognize characters’ emotions and draw connections between fiction and reality.

Bonus and Peebles, who were recently named early career fellows at the Fred Rogers Center, have developed an inventive tablet app to help children identify such emotions in TV narratives.

The fellowship is a chance for early-career technologists, writers, artists, educators, and others with a stake in childhood development to create high-quality media or conduct research on how digital media and technology tools can be used to support social-emotional development.

“The basis of the project,” said Peebles, “is we’re interested in how media can help children learn, especially learn how to be kinder, nicer, and more prosocial in general,” she said.

Bonus and Peebles want to know more about the potential of touchscreen technology for learning. Because the medium in inherently more interactive than television, some researchers think it may have special potential for learning.

The app that Bonus and Peebles are creating mimics how parents guide their kids through storybooks or pause movies to ask their kids questions. The app adds interactive features to episodes of popular children’s TV shows. At major emotional shifts in the narrative, the app pauses on a character who is displaying a basic emotion. Photos of real children appear at the bottom of the screen, and a voice-over asks the child to choose the photo of the child who is displaying the same emotion as the animated character. Bonus and Peebles plan to test four versions of the episode with differing levels of interactivity and feedback.

“The goal is two-fold,” Bonus said. “One is to get kids to recognize what the character is feeling, and the other is to get them to practice identifying what that [emotion] looks like on people’s faces,” he said.

Right now the researchers have developed this app solely to explore the potential of this technology for social and emotional learning in a research setting. But they may build it out for other uses in the future, for example to help TV producers or busy parents think more critically and creatively about how to use technology to encourage emotional growth.

The project builds on Bonus’ master’s thesis, which explored children’s perceptions of reality in animated shows. The research also builds on the work of Bonus’ and Peebles’ advisor, Marie-Louise Mares, and of University of Wisconsin–Madison developmental psychologist Heather Kirkorian.

“I think it’s absolutely novel,” said Mares of her students’ project. “It’s building on work by Professor Kirkorian that touchscreens have the capacity to focus your attention, and to give you feedback in a way that regular TV viewing doesn’t. She has looked at that with younger children, so we’re looking at the 3- to 5-year-old range, which is the target age range for a lot of educational programming.”

The fellows are testing the app and plan to partner with a local Head Start chapter to study how well it works.

“I do really think that we’re on the path to making really effective, educational products for children,” Bonus said. “But we do need that research, and a commitment to doing research—so we were excited that the Fred Rogers Center was willing to offer us funding to do this.”

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