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Kids’ TV teaching children the wrong lessons about pain: new study

Popular TV shows exposing kids to pain

According to new research from psychologists, popular kids’ TV shows such as Peppa Pig or films like Toy Story or Frozen exposes children to up to nine incidents of pain for every hour of TV watched.

How do TV characters portray their sense of pain?

A new study – published on 2nd December 2020 in the international journal Pain from researchers at the universities of Bath (UK) and Calgary (Canada) – examined how characters portray their sense of pain across different media aimed at 4 to 6-year olds.

The team behind the research team was interested in assessing what painful incidents characters were subject to and how they and others around them responded.

Their analysis looked at ten family movies from 2009 onwards (Despicable Me 2, The Secret Life of Pets, Toy Story 3 & 4, Incredibles 2, Inside Out, Up, Zootopia, Frozen, and Finding Dory), as well as popular kids’ TV programs (Sofia the First, Shimmer and Shine, Paw Patrol, Octonauts, Peppa Pig, Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood).

The research team selected these programs to represent either girl-focused, boy-focused, or gender-neutral TV series (dependent on the key characters).

Over the ten movies and six TV series (which equated to over 52 hours of film / TV), the researchers identified:

  • Four hundred fifty-four painful incidents—a mean of 8.66 experiences of pain per hour
  • Violent pain or injury is the most common type of problem depicted (occurring in over two-thirds of instances—79%).
  • Boy characters are much more likely to experience severe pain than girl characters (according to facial expressions).
  • Examples of everyday pain (i.e., a character falling over or bumping their knee) are much less common, represented in only 20% of incidents.
  • A general absence of empathy from different characters in responding to pain: others saw 75% of painful instances, yet in 41% of cases, those witnessing it did not respond, or where they did, they were generally not empathetic.

TV content structures kids’ behavior

Researchers say this work matters because what children watch on TV shapes and models their behaviors. They want producers to use their influence to re-think how pain is portrayed to equip young people better to cope with the ordinary, everyday problem, which they are more likely to experience but is often forgotten and misunderstood. Indeed, sidelining children’s pain is a topic highlighted in a recent and significant Lancet Commission report, authored by pain researchers from the University of Bath.

Lasting outcomes

Dr. Abbie Jordan, currently working at the Department of Psychology and Centre for Pain Research at the University of Bath, described how children experience, model, interpret and manage pain have real-lasting outcomes for themselves and all of us across broader society. In particular chronic pain, pain can have hugely debilitating effects on children and young people’s lives right through into adulthood.

“Part of the challenge in this is how we talk about pain. We know children spend increasing amounts of time watching these programs and films and that what they depict feeds through to their understanding and awareness of an issue. When it comes to pain, as we see from this study, the picture presented by these media is not reflective of children’s everyday experiences. Instead, they focus much more on extreme and violent pain.

A realistic portrayal of pain is necessary for TV programs.

“According to our evaluation, these programs could do much more to help children understand pain by modeling it in several ways and, more importantly, by conferring more empathy when characters undergo pain. That’s crucial and shows how children interact with others when one of them experiences pain, for instance when a friend might fall over in the playground or when they go to the doctors for routine check-ups.”

According to Dr. Melanie Noel, a lead researcher and an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology from the University of Calgary: “We reviewed shows and movies that millions of young children in North America and beyond are watching. The conclusions were, honestly, shocking.

“It is undebatable that the media is a powerful force in how children learn about the world. The unrealistic portrayal of pain teaches young children that pain does not deserve help or compassion from others and that it will be undergone and responded to differently if you are a boy or a girl. We must change these societal narratives concerning pain.”

Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute is funding this research work, and it is accessible via the journal pain.

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