As long as media have created content for children, there have been debates about what defines “quality.” From the “penny dreadfuls” to radio to comic books to music, and onward to TV and digital media, parents have been cautioned about wasted time, moral decay or learning delays. At the same time, creators and distributors of children’s media have proclaimed its great benefits; every recent media innovation from TV (and color TV!) to tablet computers has been marketed first to parents as a breakthrough for children’s learning. Too often, those promises disappear once the technology is entrenched.
Recently, the American Center for Children and Media has been collaborating on a project launched by the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. The goal is to develop a framework for defining and describing quality in (especially digital) media, meant for children aged 0-8. To make a Sisyphean task harder, we believe it’s possible to develop one set of guides that can support producers in creating media, and also parents in choosing what’s right for their particular children.
There are existing efforts to describe quality in children’s media. Some reviewers use rubrics that inform without necessarily endorsing; others give “seals of approval.” Awards give a set number of prizes, usually chosen via a transparent process. Other, research-based efforts analyze particular areas, such as educational content or gender portrayals.
We don’t want to duplicate any of these existing efforts; indeed, whatever we create needs to dovetail with them. Moreover, we don’t want to create a directive set of rules; children’s media is an art, not a science, and a fixed standard of excellence only leads to imitation and regression to the mean.
Still, many current measures grew from attempts to appraise children’s television, and need updating to include digital media. Further, with manifold children’s TV channels or blocks, the wide-open Internet, 24 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, and tens of thousands of mobile apps labeled as child-friendly, it’s impossible to think we might rate and review everything for kids and families. Parents need guidelines they can apply to seek and find (or assess in retrospect) content that is best suited to their children.
Of course, you can’t find quality content if it’s never been created. That’s why we hope to describe properties that every producer could apply, regardless of target audience, platform, genre or purpose. What knowledge about how children grow, learn (in the broadest sense) and consume media could creators use as touch points throughout development and production?
We’re consulting with a wide range of experts in media, education, child development, research and more. Already, from them, we’re able to isolate lessons learned from past efforts:
“Quality” and “education” aren’t the same thing. Media with educational intent can be of low quality, and high quality media can be intended purely to entertain. Like adults, children turn to media to fulfill different gratifications at different times, and deserve excellence in all they consume.
All screens are not created equal. The different screens that are part of children’s lives offer unique opportunities, benefits and challenges. In the television era, a two-dimensional grid based on best practices at different ages or developmental stages might have been adequate; today, at least three dimensions would be needed to define quality.
Quality is far more about what is included than what isn’t. Some quality measures reward absence of violence, stereotyping or negative role models. While it’s important not to exploit these or use them gratuitously, their mere absence Focus on what goes in, not what might come out. Children’s media gets into trouble by suggesting that its use promotes specific outcomes (e.g., smarter children, earlier reading). A quality framework should help creators express what’s gone into their work — their goals, intended audience, technology choices – forestalling others from imposing post facto analysis.
Don’t stifle innovation. A clear and expansive vision of young people’s needs and abilities should open the door to new creative approaches, not simply advocate for what’s been successful before.
Context is crucial. Sometimes, quality must be evaluated across a producer’s or distributor’s body of work (a channel or block, a portal site, a suite of apps) or a child’s media diet. For example, while gender, race and ethnic balance are vital goals, children can easily see through artificially-constructed settings in a single work that achieve balance at the expense of authenticity.
Every framework for defining or describing quality has advantages and risks. Some scale easily to encompass lots of content; others are limited but therefore coveted. Some establish focus and consistency; others value flexibility to respond to evolving platforms and creative innovation. Some give end users specific recommendations; others provide them with tools to reach their own conclusions.
The Fred Rogers Center acknowledges that it has a long road ahead and many choices. The Center’s plan for moving forward relies in very important ways on collaboration with other organizations and developers in early learning and children’s media.
We’re eager for you to contribute to this process: how would you define quality in children’s media? Whether you are a parent, caregiver, teacher, researcher, media producer, writer, or business executive, your expertise is unique and valuable. Please post your thoughts in the comments below, or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Kleeman is President of the American Center for Children and Media, an industry-led creative professional development and resource center. The Center leads the US industry in developing sustainable and kid-friendly solutions to long-standing issues. The Center also promotes the exchange of ideas, expertise, and information as a means for building quality, and looks worldwide for best practices. David is Advisory Board Chair to the international children’s TV festival, PRIX JEUNESSE.