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Tufts University research shows TV carries messages that influence infants’ behavior


Expert in ‘emotional communication’ says 1-year-olds can pick up ‘emotional signals’ and base decisions on them

What do infants learn as they watch people talk or act in a certain manner? If a television is on in a room, how much do infants pay attention to it?

These are questions Donna Mumme, assistant professor of psychology at Tufts University, answers in her study, "The Infant as Onlooker: Learning from Emotional Reactions Observed in a Television Scenario." Co-authored by Anne Fernald of Stanford University, the article is published in the January/February issue of Child Development, the publication of the Society for Research in Child Development.

Mumme is a leading specialist in children’s nonverbal communication, focusing on how infants use emotion to gather information and make decisions. She and Fernald have found that 12-month-olds are able to draw implications for their own actions by observing televised emotional reactions of another person toward a particular object, such as a ball.

Much of the time infants are awake, they watch the actions and reactions of other people -- a parent smiling after tasting soup or a babysitter gasping in alarm as a glass falls and breaks. Increasingly, infants are also engaged in observing the actions and reactions of real and animated characters on television. Mumme is interested in how infants make sense of these events they observe.

"Children as young as 12 months are making decisions based on the emotional reactions of adults around them. It turns out they can also use emotional information they pick up from television," says Mumme, adding "This means that adults might want to think twice before they speak in a harsh or surprising tone or let an infant see television programs meant for an older person."

Mumme is one of a handful of researchers working in the field of infant emotional communication. She studied with Dr. Joseph Campos of the University of California at Berkeley, a pioneer in the field.

Mumme and Fernald designed two studies for 10- and 12-month old infants to examine whether they paid attention to what an "actress" on a videotape looked at and how she reacted to an object in front of her. The actress reacted with neutral, positive or negative responses (in terms of her voice tone and facial expressions) toward one object while ignoring another equally appealing one. Some of the objects used as stimuli were a red spiral letter holder, a blue bumpy ball, and a yellow garden hose attachment.

The infants got to play with duplicate objects and, after watching the actress respond positively or with neutral affect, the infants played happily with both objects. However, after watching the actress respond negatively to the target object, infants avoided that object and chose to play with the other one instead.

"What is remarkable is that 1-year-olds paid attention to televised stimuli and used information presented on television to guide their subsequent interactions." Mumme added, "This shows that television is not just a useful and engaging medium; it also carries messages that can influence the behaviors of very young children."

Regarding 10-month-old infants, Mumme and Fernald concluded that they were no more likely to choose to reach for an object in response to positive signals than in response to negative signals. At this age, the infants did not use the actress’ response to figure out if an object was OK or not OK. They simply did not pick up on the emotion.

Mumme is now in the early stages of testing whether live presentations, rather than videotaped presentations will bolster 10-month-olds’ emotion processing skills.

Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives spanning all Tufts campuses and joint degree programs are available for both undergraduate and graduate school students in liberal arts, sciences and engineering, and the University’s seven graduate and professional schools.

Craig LeMoult | EurekAlert!
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