This month, we interviewed Sruti Kanthan (College of New Jersey), Dr. James Graham (College of New Jersey) and Dr. Lynn Azarchi (Kidsbridge Tolerance Center) who studied the efficacy of a media literacy activity that examines laugh tracks (or “canned laughter”) as a means of increasing empathy among fifth grade students. Their complete article, “Media Detectives: Bridging the Relationship among Empathy, Laugh Tracks, and Gender in Childhood,” can be found in JMLE 8.2 here.
How did you all decide to partner together for this research?
Lynn Azarchi: Kidsbridge has been working with Dr. Graham and his psychology lab for about nine years. Twice each year, Dr. Graham’s lab evaluates Kidsbrige programs and activities relating to media literacy, bullying prevention and diversity appreciation. Sometimes our activities generate statistically significant attitude changes among students and sometimes they do not, but in both cases, the lessons learned from the lab’s analysis inform our strategy and goals to provide evidence-based activities for the students we educate.
James Graham: My work with Kidsbridge Tolerance Center address problems within my research on children’s development of empathy and prosocial behavior with peer groups and friends across childhood. The manner in which children respond to experiences of bullying and discrimination may result in different developmental pathways. Therefore, it is important to examine self-reported empathic concern and empathic distress when children confront these issues.
Sruti Kanthan: I was a student in Dr. Graham’s Social and Emotional Development Lab, and was already familiar with the Kidsbridge Tolerance Center when Dr. Graham told our class about Dr. Azarchi’s new activity regarding media literacy in children. I jumped at the opportunity to get on board with the project because it tied into my interest regarding the relationship between language and social development, and was very excited at the prospect of collecting and analyzing data on this topic firsthand.
How did the idea for this research study come about?
LA: When I noticed students coming into the Tolerance Center and having poor media literacy skills, we developed a new activity to improve media literacy using “America’s Funniest Videos.” Dr. Graham’s students (with the lead student, Sruti, at the helm) tested the efficacy of the activity by executing a pre-and post-survey and analyzing the results. They shared the results with Kidsbridge at the end of the semester. We are proud to say that we had a statistically significant improvement in empathy.
JG: As Lynne noted, children visiting the Tolerance Center had poor media literacy skills. Children are great at navigating the world of social media, but it appeared that media literacy knowledge and skills are lacking. Based on developmental research in psychology, we know that children who understand the motivations and production techniques of media are less likely to emulate anti-social attitudes and behaviors depicted in it.
What do you hope to do with this research in the future?
JG: Our systematic data collection, analysis, and evaluation of the media literacy activity was used to answer questions about the new activity, particularly regarding its effectiveness and efficiency. We are happy to report that Kidsbridge reviewed our analysis from this pilot study and improved the interactive media activity for new visitors to the Tolerance Center. This year, my research lab and Kidsbridge have piloted a new media literacy activity focused on memes and other animated social media tools with a sample of children.
SK: Given my psychology and linguistics background, I am interested in how language and social skills development relate to one another. This focus pertains strongly to my media literacy research, which addresses the role of media literacy in child social development. In the future, I hope to use this research to account for how the media impacts children and how this might affect their social development and in turn develop new child develop studies bearing this information in mind.
How do you hope this research will contribute to media literacy education?
SK: This topic is increasingly relevant in our media-fueled climate. I hope our research will inspire further replications of our study and more investigation into what influences empathy development. I also hope that our work encourages more people to think about the far-reaching extents of media influence and critically think about media that they encounter.
JG: This study is unique because it examines issues in media literacy that have not received much attention (i.e., the relationship among empathy, canned laughter, and gender in a sample of children). We are the first to explore how ingroup bias and conformity pressures can influence a laughter response to canned laughter in children who may lack empathic awareness and the ability to understand the role of laugh tracks in distressing situations depicted in media.
LA: Not many other centers, museums or schools use media that encourages children to critically analyze why we laugh at old people falling down on the TV or the Internet. We are hoping that other media educators will be inspired to be more proactive in replicating our activity to teach more kids to be critical media learners and improve their empathy skills.
Why is media literacy research important to you?
SK: As someone who has experienced and witnessed bullying in elementary school, I wondered how some people could distance themselves from a target and feel little empathy for what they might be experiencing. The advent of today’s media influence adds another dimension to bullying (and empathy) that ought to be explored.
Canned laughter, in and of itself, is not necessarily a harmful concept. However, in the context of seeing laugh tracks played in clips of people falling down and getting hurt, impressionable children might come to believe that laughing at others’ pain is acceptable. Understanding how children experience empathy and how this experience might be affected by the media could be very useful in creating more up-to-date anti-bullying initiatives, developing more comprehensive school curricula, and more.
JG: There is a wealth of information detailing strong support for both positive and adverse effects of media on child and adolescent development. Numerous empirical studies have provided clear evidence of the positive role that media literacy plays in the lives of children and adolescents such as promoting early childhood literacy, improving curricula in a variety of educational contexts, and promoting informative and critical public health and safety messages. Conversely, scientists have documented the negative developmental consequences of a daily media diet on behaviors including violence, eating, sexual activity, and educational disparities. I believe that media literacy can encourage our children to build social, cognitive, and emotional skills, such as considering multiple interpretations of media messages, putting portrayals of themselves and others in perspective, fostering empathy by thinking critically about media messages and influences.
LA: To introduce a new program and not research it is a waste of time. If Kidsbridge is to teach hundreds of children each year, it must be effective and teach children to be more analytical—to learn the principles of media literacy. We will continue to work in partnership with Dr. Graham and his students because they help Kidsbridge to introduce, refine and present activities that can make a difference in children’s lives.
This interview has been condensed and edited.