Donna Mumme

Donna L. Mumme
© Mark Morelli

TV does influence infants' behavior

Children as young as a year old are influenced by what they see and hear on television, according to a study by a Tufts University psychologist.

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, said Donna L. Mumme, assistant professor of psychology. Increasingly, infants are also engaged in observing the actions and reactions of real and animated characters on television. Mumme, one of a handful of researchers specializing in children's nonverbal communication, is interested in how infants use emotion to gather information and make decisions.

"Children as young as 12 months are making decisions based on the emotional reactions of adults around them," she said. "It turns out they can also use emotional information they pick up from television. 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's study, "The Infant as Onlooker: Learning from Emotional Reactions Observed in a Television Scenario," appears in the January/February issue of Child Development, the journal of the Society for Research in Child Development. Co-investigator is Anne Fernald of Stanford University.

Mumme and Fernald 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.

They 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 tone of voice 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 bumpy blue ball and a yellow garden hose attachment.

The infants got to play with duplicate objects, and after watching the actress respond positively or with little emotion, 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 said. "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."

In the case of 10-month-old infants, Mumme and Fernald concluded that the younger babies were no more likely 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 researching whether live presentations, rather than videotaped presentations, will have an effect on 10-month-olds' emotional processing skills.