The Positive Power Of Storytelling For Kids
Research shows that kids can learn a lot from the content they watch, and not just numbers and letters. Social emotional growth is one of the lasting benefits of the right kind of storytelling.
Most of the discussion parents have about screen time revolves around guilt and distress. They lament that the intentions they had before having kids have gone out the window; that they have a vague sense of impending harm and danger but little sense of what to do about it; and unless they follow through on that threat to throw all devices out the window, they are gritting their teeth through a daily renegotiation of the rules and boundaries they do try to set. Have I raised your blood pressure just thinking about it?
But what if there was a different way to frame the conversation? Instead of only talking about the battles, what if we were able to evaluate the positive impact that watching a story told on a screen can have on our children. That was the topic of a panel I recently moderated, jointly hosted by Netflix and Romper, in which I talked about the power of storytelling with Heather Tilert, Netflix’s director of preschool content, and Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D., founder and CEO of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers, an organization that works with social scientists to develop research and insights into how content can help support children’s development and health.
It’s no secret that Netflix has a vested interest in the good news about screen time, but Tilert oversees a team that works hard to create content parents will trust to serve their families in positive ways. (Parents who trust, after all, are parents who renew their subscription.) And Uhls has spent years looking into the ways in which content that builds character can also be successful, fun, and, yes, profitable for the companies that produce it.
What follows are the highlights of our conversation.
Elizabeth Angell: Hello and welcome. At Romper we always know that the topics that people care about the most are the ones that they think about the most and that cause them the most anxiety. And I can't think of a topic that does that more than what their kids are watching and consuming on screens. It's really exciting to be here and thinking about this, not from the "Oh sh*t, did my kid watch too much?" perspective. But to really think: What do we want them to watch? How do we help them make choices? And then how do we talk to them about it?
Heather Tilert: What's been really surprising to me and rewarding, because I've been doing this since before I had kids, is to have my own personal perspective shift and evolve as I've seen how my kids engage with content. What does it mean when a character has a baby sibling born and how influential is that on my daily life in my household, or singing those Daniel Tiger songs to get my kid to try new food or whatever it might be. And to see that evolve over time has been really powerful.
I'd say to your point about what keeps you up at night or the “holy sh*t” moment, something I think about a lot is the kind of tremendous opportunity we have because of the membership of Netflix. We're in hundreds of millions of houses around the world. That's a ton of kids. So it's an awesome responsibility. An opportunity, but a huge responsibility to ensure that we are doing good with that choice and that opportunity.
Yalda Uhls: So I'm very excited to be here because honestly, everything I've ever done and thought about has been about how media can have a positive impact. I do believe media and stories have the ability to change the world, and in particular for young people as they're figuring out who they are, all the way from preschool through adolescence. I was so used to looking at media with a negative lens. I did my doctoral degree while my kids were 6 and 9. My daughter got her phone and I saw everything change because it was 2009, two years after the iPhone was introduced, and I was terrified. I know when you have kids that age and they want to come online, it's scary. And so I was really focused on the negative impact as a researcher, and then I did this research on the positive impact thanks to a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. And I was like, "Oh, my God, there's so much research that shows that media can teach kids really great things like kindness." I launched the center to inspire storytellers to access research that can support them in telling stories that have a positive impact on young people.
Angell: What is the role that storytelling, particularly in TV and movies, which is what we're talking about here, can play in building character and empathy in kids?
Uhls: There's so much research showing how content can teach young kids all sorts of things. It's a really great way to teach perspective taking. I mean, that is what empathy is about — showing a child a different world. There was research on Daniel Tiger, for example, showing that kids who watched that show, they would sing the songs and especially when they talked to the adults in their lives. So that is really key. They learned empathy, they improved in understanding other people's perspectives and feelings at a very young age, too. There's a lot of research that looks at the pro-social impact of content.
Tilert: If you think about your friends going through something, it's really easy to have a point of view on someone else's scenario. You're all of a sudden an expert where it's a lot more difficult to have that perspective for yourself. And I think about stories a lot in that same way. When a kid can see something play out contextually through a character who they have developed a relationship with, now they have the context to take that learning and apply it to their own scenario. So I just think it offers such a core perspective that makes it much more easy to apply and practice in their own lives.
Angell: When does that start? What age can kids start to learn from media?
Uhls: Starting around 2, that's when they start to really learn. Which is probably why the American Academy of Pediatrics says to introduce screens after age 2. And by 4 years old, they can learn almost as much from watching something on the screen as watching something in the real world. Transfer of learning is the gold standard. That means looking at something that's in media and then applying it to your own lives, and that happens after 2. That doesn't mean they can't be engaged with a screen before that, that doesn't mean with a very active adult helping them, they can't learn. But on their own, if they're sitting in front of a screen before they’re 2, it's not that it's going to harm them; it's just they won't learn that much.
Angell: When we think about kids learning things, we often think of literacy skills, numeracy skills, but obviously it’s much broader than that.
Tilert: There are cognitive or academic skills that some shows try to teach, things that feel kind of school adjacent, and then there are these softer social emotional skills. Growth mindset is one. The concept here is there's either people who are good at things, this is a fixed mindset, or if I work a little bit harder, if I keep trying at something, I can improve over time. I can get better at this thing if I keep trying. And failure's part of continuing to get better.
Uhls: I almost think social and emotional lessons are easier because they really are part of storytelling. If you're sticking in math and language, it kind of is more educational. It feels educational, and social and emotional is just part of all of our lives. You need those skills and they're embedded in almost all storytelling.
Tilert: One of our titles, Gabby's Dollhouse, has growth mindset at the core of what the show is trying to impart. And the character really models that over the course of an episode. It becomes a character attribute. If I really love this character, Gabby, and I play as her, I've come to know this about her. This is how she shows up, so therefore when I play as her, this is how I play as her.
Uhls: To your point, the parasocial relationship is when you feel like you know someone. It could be a celebrity, it could be a character. And in kids programming, a child would have a parasocial relationship with Gabby. They'd feel really connected to her. They'd feel like she's their best friend, and then they will learn more from her.
One of the reasons I started the center actually and one of our fun fundamental underpinnings of the way we do our work is we believe storytellers have just as much to offer to us as we do to them. Because Heather knows so much about the way kids learn from doing her jobs. So she knows, “3 to 5, OK, repeat, repeat, repeat.” Actions can't be separated too far from consequences. At that age if the person looks good, then the kid thinks they're good. They're not really into nuance. This is why many of us adults, when we're watching their programming, we want to kill ourselves because it's so boring.
Angell: Well, it depends on if you're on the first watch or the 35th watch.
Uhls: Yeah, exactly. That makes a big difference. But for them, it's so developmentally appropriate. That's how you learn. We did that ourselves when we were young. And then you go to the next stage. Then, as they get a little bit older, they start to have abstract thinking, they start to develop other skills, you can add some nuance.
There is the piece of research that actually inspired me to start the center. It's basically a study designed by a researcher who has spent his whole life studying how kids learn to lie. And he was very interested in moral fables. We teach our kids through stories and morals and character. And sometimes it's way better than a parent saying, "Don't do that." If they see it modeled with a character they love, they're more likely to emulate it.
So this research read kids three stories and he did a fourth control. One was a Boy Who Cried Wolf, one was Pinocchio, and one was George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Then he put them in a situation where it was really hard not for kids to lie. He told them not to peek underneath something. And most of them peeked. Almost all of them did. But fewer kids lied about peeking when they had been read one of the stories. Anyone out there want to guess which one?
Audience member: Pinocchio?
Angell: I was going to go with Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Uhls: Nope. I actually tested this with preschool writers at Henson Studios and also at Pixar. I asked, and everybody said Boy Who Cried Wolf because that's the highest stakes.
Angell: It's the scariest one.
Uhls: So I think there are two reasons why it’s George Washington. One reason is that story is the only one with positive consequences. The other two are negative consequences. So in George Washington, he told the truth and he got rewarded. I mean, this is Parenting 101, too, right? When you punish the kid by taking things away, that's not going to stick as much as “I'm going to reward you for doing the right thing.” We know that as adults too. The other reason, which he didn't test, is I think that the George Washington story was more realistic. I mean, what kid can relate to sheeps and wolves?
Tilert: One interesting thing I've seen with my kid is she’ll be kind of hiding the iPad and I'm like, "Oh, my gosh, what am I going to find on this iPad when I go over there?" And it's my 11-year-old watching PJ Masks or this comfort food that he's sneaking because that's what he needs right now. So we also want to make sure we have that up on offer for our audience.
Uhls: I mean, I saw that with my daughter, too. She would watch Disney shows later on, in her 20s even. But we all have that, right? We all go back to our favorite movie, our favorite show, our favorite story, and kids really do connect deeply with these characters and especially because they're growing with them so there's a much stronger relationship.
Angell: In my day, you would watch TV in the living room, and you just watched your show and it was a public experience. Now kids watch with us sometimes, but they also frequently watch by themselves, and it feels like a very private, personal experience, one that they don't necessarily want you being part of. Heather, I'm curious how you think about that in programming, and Uhls, how you understand that private viewing. Particularly with younger kids, I know the importance of watching it with them, of talking through it, but that's not always possible. And as they get older, it’s much harder to follow through on.
Tilert: We think a lot about the different ages and stages of a kid's life, but the other thing we think very actively about are what are the needs states that a kid and family have, and how are we meeting those? Some shows are very much the family opportunity. Like The Floor Is Lava, where we're going to watch this all together and it's going to be an event for us and then probably we're going to make a obstacle course in our house. It comes into our life because this is something we've enjoyed together. And now we can extend that play as a family.
Also just in preschool, we think about “You know what? I need to make lunch. I need a moment where you can be entertained by yourself and I feel super comfortable having the show that you chose and you love.” And I don't feel like I need to be there to scaffold. This isn't an “us show." We also think about the cuddle moment. This is for a parent and a kid snuggling up. This is a calm down moment.
So just what are those day parts or segments in a family's life where they're looking for different programming? And there are lots of different cultures, lots of different countries, lots of different need states, lots of different value systems, and we hope that we have everybody's favorite. So it's a tall order and we work really hard at that and think a lot about it, but it comes down to need states.
Uhls: I mean, there's a psychological theory or communications theory called uses and gratifications, which it sounds like your needs states is the same thing. We use media for different uses. It's not just one thing. And I think that's really important. And I think also sometimes we judge kids media use because we're like, "Oh, you have to go out outside." Obviously you want them to go outside and move their body and do all these things, but some kids really do need downtime. It's really hard to go out in the world. Having a piece of media that comforts them. Allowing your child to be who they are and have the media that meets those needs.
Angell: I think there's also just a value in entertainment. When you watch your kid watching something and they're giggling, that’s the best.
Tilert: Yeah, a joy shot.
Angell: Uhls, I was hoping you could talk briefly about the concept of character strengths and entertainment. I know that you've done a lot of research around this.
Uhls: When we did this first study, I was at Common Sense Media, and we did a really, really deep dive. We wanted to identify character strengths that could be taught through storytelling. There’s 11, and I’m not sure if I can remember them off the top of my head, but purpose is a character strength a lot of people talk about. You don't really develop that till you're older, and that's not as easy to develop. But persistence, which is kind of growth mindset, that's embedded in every single story. Gratitude, compassion, empathy, teamwork. Teamwork's a huge one. That's not necessarily something that every character strength researcher looks at, but it's so embedded into Daniel Tiger and all sorts of places. And it's so important for culture, for our culture these days. Communication is an important one. We were also thinking about digital media and helping young people learn about how to communicate safely and kindly.
We actually just did a study on how stories that embody these character strengths translate to box office, because we're trying to motivate storytellers to do the right thing. And we found that movies that were tagged with Common Sense character strengths made a lot more money at the box office. In particular, there were a lot of tags in the younger content. There weren't as many tags in teen content because they're not thinking about it as much.
And what was interesting is it made the most money internationally. So when you looked at the life cycle of the movie, by the time it reached the international marketplace, that's where character strengths made the biggest difference in how much money it made. And that, to me, just shows that these character strengths are universal. They're global. Gratitude is something every culture thinks about. Curiosity is one for sure. Curiosity is a great character strength.
Tilert: This makes me feel very optimistic. Because we think about the characters that kids are wanting to spend time with. They're choosing to go on a playdate with these characters over and over and over again. It's a lot of time they're spending with them. So I love hearing that they're choosing characters who have really positive attributes or strong character.
Angell: I'm curious what advice you would give for parents on how to talk to their kids about the content that they're choosing to watch, either about how they choose or once they have chosen, how to talk to them about what they have watched.
Uhls: So it depends on the age of the kid, obviously. But for very young kids, I mean, ultimately you are trying to teach your child to make independent choices about media. So if you are always controlling everything, you're not teaching that skillset. But when they're very young, obviously you are controlling the dial — very old-fashioned term, but it still works. And I think I really try to have the child, if they want to watch something, especially as they get older, do their own research. If it's something I don't feel that good about as a parent, tell me why you want to watch it. What do they think they get out of it? Letting them start to make the choices. And also talking to them about why you don't want them to do something.
When my son was playing video games and his friends wanted to play more violent video games, I talked a lot to him about why I didn't feel those games were appropriate. As he got older, he made choices not to play those games. They always talk about family media agreements. You can make these agreements with your child to say that "Before you decide to watch X, Y, Z, go look it up." There are some good sample agreements on Common Sense Media. Help them to build autonomy so that they're making choices. And when they leave your house, which they will — my kids did — you can feel confident that they know how to serve their needs with media and not go down a rabbit hole of 24/7 media.
Tilert: I only have a little bit to add, and I'll focus on the younger age group. I think it's just talking, period, that is really powerful. And I think leading with curiosity. Why do they like what they like? A lot of times my kids liked stuff that I was very confused by. And only by getting in there, either watching with them and seeing where they laugh or really engaging in a conversation about it, did I understand.
I think a lot of times people underestimate the information we can get from a 2- or 3-year-old kid. I'll tell a very fast personal story. My son took a while to develop language, and he became obsessed with PJ Masks. And of all the shows, this is just one he was really, really hooked onto. And not until maybe six months of watching this did I understand why. It's a really strong formula. Back to repetition. This is how kids learn. Those characters are very clear, you know exactly what those characters can do. Because of this, it was the most empowering thing for him because he knew exactly what he could expect from these characters and from the show to the point where his dialogue exploded because he could explain to our family, "Here's your role, here's what you're going to do. Here's what you're going to do and here's what you're going to do. This is what happens in the story, let's go."
It was a massive thing in our household and for him personally. He was obsessed with the show, with really clear characters and story and we asked him about it. And it really brought him to life in a way that we hadn't seen before. And I think it's just the power of questions and curiosity.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.