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$1.25 Million NSF Grants Explore Media Characters’ Role in Early Learning

December 3, 2013 –An interactive character on a screen that responds to preschoolers and gives them feedback on an early math skill will be part of research conducted with nearly $1.25 million in grants to a Georgetown professor from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Sandra Calvert, professor of psychology in Georgetown College and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, has received two grants that allow her to explore the influence of media characters such as Elmo and Dora the Explorer.

Calvert notes that “More than any other generation, our children now spend their time with media characters from the earliest days of their lives.” 

Two Major Crises

Sandra Calvert

Sandra Calvert

She and her colleagues, including graduate student Melissa Richards (G’15), plan to examine what she calls children’s “parasocial” relationships – one-sided, emotionally tinged friendships that develop between an audience member and a media character.

One grant will help Calvert address how such characters can promote early mathematical and executive functioning skills while the other will be used to explore how they are used in food marketing to children.

“This research addresses two major crises in our country – that of childhood obesity and that of our nation’s early STEM learning deficiencies when compared to other developed countries,” says Calvert.

The new NSF grants will also allow Calvert to work with researchers from the University of California-Riverside and Northwestern University on these issues.

Artificial Agent

Calvert will work with Evan Barba, an assistant professor in Georgetown’s Communication, Culture, and Technology program, and Georgetown students to develop an initial prototype for an Artificial Agent.

The researchers are in the process of deciding whether the Agent will be an already-established media character or a new creation.

“We will first have an adult control the Agent’s responses to children in order to teach an early math skill to preschoolers,” explains Calvert. “Once the Agent can effectively teach the targeted math skill, we will program it to respond to children without external input from us so that it can create accurate replies to children.”

Calvert and her team also plan to conduct additional studies in the STEM area, including the use of the Curious George character in a computer program or app to examine if media characters can teach executive function skills that involve higher order cognitive skills such as planning.

Food Marketing

Calvert and her fellow researchers believe that children perceive their favorite media characters as trusted friends and teachers, giving the characters’ message more credibility. This trust may also influence their eating decisions, Calvert says.

One study in the obesity area will involve the characters Dora and Diego, of the Dora the Explorer television program, and use a bowling app. Images of each of the two characters, in turn, eating healthy or unhealthy foods will be embedded in a picture of a bowling alley, and the impact of the app will be examined.

The researchers will also explore additional questions, such as gender differences in how well apps can be used to market healthy foods and beverages to children. That part of the research will use an app featuring a popular female character, DW, from the children's program Arthur. 

After new federal nutritional guidelines are implemented in 2014, Calvert’s team will also conduct analyses of the nutritional value of foods and beverages that are marketed by media characters in grocery stores.

One Step Closer

Calvert hopes that both lines of research will lead to significant progress in our understanding of media characters as a driver for children’s learning and behavior.

“Through this research, the Children’s Digital Media Center’s goal of creating a quality media environment for children moves one step closer to a reality,” Calvert says. I am very grateful to the National Science Foundation for their ongoing support of our research.”