Raising A World-Wise Child and the Power of Media

The Impact of Television on Children’s Intercultural Knowledge

Young people around the world spend an average of three hours a day consuming media. That's more time than most children spend playing. Photo: iStockPhoto

It has become a truism to speak of American children as living in a “mediasaturated” environment. Recent research by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that American children from six months to 6 years of age spend as much time with screen media each day as they do playing (about two hours). Moreover, a quarter of infants and toddlers under age two have television sets in their bedrooms. [1]

And American children are not so different from children around the world. For instance, in a comparative study of children’s use of television in 23 countries, Jo Groebel found that, on average, 12-year olds spend about three hours a day watching television— wherever they live. [2] Similarly, studies of children and adolescents in Europe and Israel and in India, Japan, Greece, and Australia suggest the powerful and ubiquitous role television plays in children’s lives. [3]

That television is now present in the lives of most children around the world suggests that it can be a powerful teacher. And, indeed, the last three decades of research on children and television demonstrates that children can and do learn from content on TV. [4] Moreover, young children’s readiness to learn about new and unfamiliar things makes television an especially effective teacher about people, ideas, and events outside of the child’s own experience. [5]

We also know that what television teaches depends on the content to which children are exposed. And sometimes that content is adult oriented or violent— which means that it is inappropriate for children. [6]

While most of the research on the educational impact of television has been conducted on planned educational programming and its effects (e.g., the effects of “Sesame Street” and other preschool educational television shows on children’s academic achievement), there is recent research that demonstrates that adultdirected television news programming is introducing children to the adult world of ethnic conflicts, terrorism, and war. In an analysis of how 32 broadcasters from 23 countries (representing North and South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe) covered the 2003 war in Iraq in their children’s programming, great variation was found. A small number of broadcasters (13%) did not cover the war and wanted to provide a safe haven for children to protect them from such coverage. About one-third of the broadcasters wanted to be authoritative and informative sources of information about the war in a manner especially prepared for children in order to help them cope with the situation. Children are clearly learning about other cultures and national conflicts from war coverage. [7]

If television is both ubiquitous and a powerful teacher and if television is bringing children messages that describe domestic and international conflicts, has it been equally well harnessed to teach about international peace and world understanding? What do we in the United States know about the ability of television to be an intercultural teacher? The evidence in the U.S. reflects the fact that American television for children has not, historically, focused on presenting an international perspective to American children.

It has been conventional wisdom among broadcasters that American children would not appreciate programming from other countries, what with their language and cultural differences. However, exceptions do exist, among them the Canadian-based “De- Grassi” series on PBS and the Noggin network, and even some programs produced in the U.S. that try to introduce “ethnic” American audiences to international themes, such as “Dora the Explorer,” or “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” or “Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat.” And, of course, there has been “Sesame Street,” which from its earliest days, brought the ethnic differences that exist in American society to American children by extending television to teach a full curriculum, from cognitive skills to feelings and dispositions, including the way children think about people who might look or seem different and how they might behave toward others.

These programs aim to address cultural differences for American children. But they are just beginning to introduce America’s global interdependency in their child-directed content.

Teaching Respect and Understanding Around the World
Globally, more overt attempts have been made to harness the power of television to transcend physical and cultural borders, to influence lives, and to prepare children to flourish and learn in our ever more connected world.

Built on this belief, 35 years ago, “Sesame Street” launched its own brand of social revolution. Today, it is the longest street in the world: it runs through 120 countries, is broadcast in over 30 different languages, and provides the foundation for a truly powerful educational program that directly addresses the challenging issues of global awareness and appreciation. The Sesame Workshop has applied its technique in countries around the world to create locally developed and socially relevant versions of “Sesame Street.” The South African production, “Takalani Sesame,” attempts to contribute to the educational goals of humanizing and destigmatizing people with HIV/AIDS through its 5-year-old Muppet character, Kami, who is HIV-positive. Other examples include the Egyptian production, “Alam Simsim,” which addresses the country’s critical need to bolster the education of girls through Khoka, a girl Muppet who aspires to succeed in a myriad of professions. In recent years, the Sesame Workshop has also begun to work in areas plagued by ethnic and religious strife, such as Israel, Palestine, Macedonia, and Cyprus.

Other organizations have been engaged in media interventions to confront some of the most pressing social issues of the time. “Staying Alive,” for example, a multitiered campaign spearheaded by MTV Networks International, is promoting awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS in the international youth community. Talking Drum Studio-Liberia (TDS-L) produces “Golden Kids News,” which airs every week and features popular young reporters who highlight social issues facing children in Liberia. Recent reports have addressed the struggles of child soldiers, separated children, and street children. Search for Common Ground uses a radio station, “Studio Ijambo,” to reach the children and young people of Burundi with music, live phone-in discussion programs, and a children’s program presented by children. The Croatian Women’s Network produced two video cartoons that were promoted in a daily early-morning show on public television as a part of a campaign to reform primary school education by including training in tolerance and eliminating gender stereotypes. In South Africa, re s e a rch has confirmed that children who watched “Soul Buddyz,” a television series for children 8 to 12 years old, had an easier time discussing such sensitive issues as race, gender, and disability than those who did not. [8]

Bringing the World to American Children
Survey after survey has shown that young American adults lag behind their global counterparts in knowledge of current events and in geographic literacy. International education builds respect and ties between nations, advances learning and scholarship, and is a powerful force in replacing myths and misinformation with knowledge and understanding. In order for Americans to compete in the global market, play a leadership role in the world, and enhance national security, there is a profound need to promote deeper understanding and awareness of cultures around the world, recognizing shared values as well as differences.

In response, the Sesame Workshop has created Global Grover. Grover exposes children in America to images of people and cultures in the world around them and teaches them to be sensitive and respectful of differences. This funny and furry Muppet travels from China to Egypt, teaching about the variety of cultures, the different languages, and the varying lifestyles of children. Yet, throughout his journeys, Global Grover also gently identifies the similarities that unite us all. In order to maximize the potential of this approach, the Sesame Workshop is now developing a project with the state of North Carolina to integrate Global Grover into an existing K-2 curriculum to give teachers the direction and the flexibility they need to model global awareness and appreciation in their classroom in a fun, educational, and integrated way.

Other examples of efforts to influence children’s attitudes through television include the Anti-Defamation League and Court TV’s joint educational initiative called “Empowering Children in the Aftermath of Hate,” which is designed to help young people understand the consequences of hate in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In addition, there is “AWalk in Your Shoes,” a critically acclaimed television series that airs on The N, the nighttime network for teens owned by Nickelodeon. The series helps kids learn about cultural, religious, and geographical differences by watching youngsters from different backgrounds switch places for a few days.

Although a lot is being done already, many more similar efforts are needed in today’s increasingly interconnected world. The power of television to promote mutual respect for and understanding of different peoples and cultures has not been adequately exploited or promoted by American television. The proliferation of media in children’s lives and the recognition that world events require a citizenry with international awareness suggest the value of television as an international educator.To build mutual respect, to strengthen ties between nations, and to advance learning and scholarship, it is an imperative that, starting as early as prekindergarten, international television and other media that attract and engage children become central to our efforts to “leave no child behind.”

Authors: Ellen Wartella is the executive vice chancellor and provost, University of California, Riverside. Gary Knell is president and chief executive officer of Sesame Workshop, New York, NY.

This article originally published in Phi Delta Kappan (November, 2004). Reprinted with permission.


1 Vicki Rideout, Elizabeth Vandewater, and Ellen Wartella, Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers: A Kaiser Family Foundation Report, (Menlo Park, Calif.: The Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003).

2 Jo Groebel, “Media Access and Media Use Among 12-Year-Olds in the World,” in Cecilie Von Feilitzen and Ulla Carlsson, eds., Children and Media: Image, Education, Participation, (Göteborg, Sweden: UNESCO, International Clearinghouse on Children and Violence on the Screen, 1999), 61-68.

3 Sara Livingstone, “Children’s Changing Media Environment: Overview of a European Comparative Study,” in von Feilitzen and Carlsson, 39-59; and

Gregory Rose, Vassilis Dalakas, and Frederic Kropp, “A Five Nation Study of Developmental Timetables, Reciprocal Communication and Consumer Socialization,” Journal of Business Research, vol. 55, 2002, 943-49.

4 For several reviews, see Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer, Handbook of Children and the Media, (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2001).

5 Victor C. Strasburger and Barbara J. Wilson, Children, Adolescents, and the Media, (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2002).

6. Singer and Singer, op. cit.

7. Petra Strohmaier, “The Iraq War on Children’s TV,” Televizion, vol. 17, 2004, 18-23.

8. Barbara Kolucki, “A Review of Research About Media and Disability,” Disability World, 2003.