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Children's Fictional Engagements

With funding from the Sir John Templeton Foundation, Jess Taggart, Sierra Eisen, MJ Heise, our undergraduate RAs and thesis students, and I have been examining whether kind or not-so-kind fiction (in book or video form) influences children's empathy, compassion, and prosocial behavior. We have also been studying what chidlren know about fictional worlds, their preferences for fictions, what they learn from "unreal" worlds and think about technological devices, and what they think about just thinking!

In prior research in this line (now resting), our study in Pediatrics (Lillard & Peterson, 2011) and its follow-up (Lillard et al., Developmental Psychology, 2015) generated much interest.  The initial study found that 4-year-olds who had just watched 9 minutes of a fast-paced, fantastical television show were significantly impaired in what psychologists call "executive functions"--processes that guide goal-directed behaviors, including attention, the ability to inhibit immediate desires in favor of better long-term outcomes, the ability to follow directions and solve problems, etc--were significantly impaired compared to those of 4-year-olds who had watched slower-paced educational show or drawn with crayons and markers for 9 minutes. The follow up replicated this result with 160 4- and 6-year-olds, using two different fast-paced and fantastical television shows and 11-minute episodes. Another experiment in the follow-up suggested fantasy, rather than pacing, was what led to the difficulty with executive function tasks.