How ‘Pandemic TV’ boosts kids’ emotional IQ at a critical moment

New shows help children cope with their feelings—and connect with others—while socially distanced

A few months into Toronto’s pandemic shutdown, Sarah Hammond was on the hunt for something to fulfill her kids’ social needs while they were stuck at home. That’s when the public school teacher and mother of two discovered Lockdown, a YouTube Original series about a group of friends who use Zoom, texts, and webcams to solve a mystery despite being socially distanced. Bingo.

“My kids love it because it teaches that even though we’re separated and we’re in our own individual places, there are still ways for social interaction and connection—which kids so desperately need now,” Hammond says. 

According to Axios, kids’ screen time is up 50 percent from pre-pandemic times. To ward off the dreaded “COVID slide”—and maybe to relieve their own guilt—many parents have sought out educational media designed to keep kids at grade level, or even teacher-created videos televised on local TV stations.

But kids in virtual classrooms are missing out on a lot more than long division; in fact, the lack of social connection brought about by stay-at-home orders is alarming parents and child-development experts alike. That’s why a handful of children’s television creators are developing a new breed of online TV show specifically designed to support kids’ emotional well-being during this stressful time. Key to their mission is releasing the shows when kids need them most (right now) and where kids are (on their phones and other mobile devices).

“It’s back to the future,” says David Kleeman, senior vice president global trends for Dubit Limited, a kids’ research and digital development studio. “TV is an old-fashioned medium, but it’s resurgent, partly because streaming services have learned how to be agile and responsive to what’s going on in kids’ lives today.”

A new kind of educational TV

Though it may seem strange for kids to get their TV fix where they get their TikToks, these shows are not the usual online fare. Whereas videos produced for social media tend to idealize, distort, or otherwise manipulate reality, these new shows filmed and released during the pandemic portray the plain truths—and sometimes harsh realities—of today’s world. And because they’re made by established children’s TV producers behind some of the biggest hits on traditional broadcast networks, age-appropriateness and traditional educational TV skills are baked in—unlike much of what kids can watch on the internet.

In addition to Lockdown, these so-called “pandemic TV shows” include My Stay-at-Home Diary (PBS.org), a multi-part documentary about how kids around the world are coping with the pandemic; NBC Nightly News Kids Edition (NBCnews.com), a kid-friendly round-up of current events hosted by Lester Holt; and Noggin Knows (Noggin app), a preschool show to supplement remote learning.

Experts say that this kind of TV, whether it transmits from a big box in the living room or a tiny screen under the covers, can be effective in meeting kids’ emotional needs. According to Michael Levine, chief of learning and impact at Noggin, “There are hundreds of studies dating back to the early 1970s indicating that children can learn academic, health, and social development skills from media designed for their age and developmental stage.”

Helping kids deal with all the feels

Fostering an emotional connection during this uncertain time was an important goal for J.J. Johnson of Sinking Ship Entertainment, which created Lockdown. Though he’s worked on big-budget productions and has a few Emmys under his belt, he shot Lockdown on webcams and smart phones to comply with pandemic restrictions and create an environment his young audience could relate to.

“We pride ourselves on being able to talk to kids at their level and dealing with topics honestly,” Johnson says. “So knowing that everyone was going through this brewing trauma, it felt right to address it head-on.”

To achieve the same kind of relatability for their documentary series, My Stay-at-Home Diary, sisters Rennata and Georgina Lopez of Lopii Productions in Toronto took a similar approach. They worked with families around the world to help them record video of their daily lives under pandemic restrictions.

“We wanted to create a show about COVID-19 for children that is honest and deals with authentic emotions children across the world are feeling,” Rennata Lopez says.

Their efforts paid off on two fronts. Toronto mom Amanda Driscoll says My Stay-at-Home Diary helped her kids, nine-year-old Logan and six-year-old Clark, feel less alone despite their extended school break. “Even though the kids on the show were from different countries, my boys felt like they were watching their friends on TV,” she says. And the show recently won a 2021 Kidscreen Award for best original web series for kids.

Building resilience through TV

Though parents may worry about letting their kids confront unvarnished reality in programs like Lockdown and My Stay-at-Home Diary, research shows that watching tough stuff play out on the screen can build kids’ emotional resilience.

“The insights kids gain when they understand their own experiences and those of others teaches coping skills kids need now, and that will benefit them when this is all over,” says Ellen Wartella, a professor at Northwestern University’s School of Communication and a leading researcher on the impact of media on children.

Sarah Hammond observed this effect with her daughter, Emma. Watching the teens on Lockdown use technology to solve the mystery demonstrated perseverance in the face of adversity. “It showcased to her that there are still things that we can do if we’re creative and use our imagination,” she says. 

Wartella also believes that these kinds of shows present an ideal opportunity for parents to engage with their kids about the topics being tackled by the shows, partly because they raise issues that wouldn’t normally come up in daily life. 

“It opens up an understanding of the concerns and fears that their young person may not want to talk about otherwise,” she says.

Helping with screen-time concerns

Despite the benefits, pandemic TV shows can still rack up screen-time hours, which fuels concern about children becoming more isolated and disconnected. But steering kids toward the kinds of shows that engage them emotionally and intellectually can counteract some of the negatives of increased screen time.

“Focus on how the experience will enhance or diminish human relationships,” Levine says. “Look at the connections media can facilitate to a larger community—family, friends, and peers—that must nurture the developing child.”

For instance, My Stay-at-Home Diary inspired Amanda Driscoll’s boys to reflect more deeply on their own lives and the importance of their family’s relationships and routines. “Even if it’s just seeing other kids making food or walking their dog, they were like, ‘Oh I do that, too’ or ‘Oh, we can do that when the pandemic ends,’” she says.  

Watching these shows together can help as well. “Parents are able to see exactly what their kids are watching and what they’re responding to,” Kleeman says.

As families face down an unknown amount of time stuck at home, Wartella agrees that using TV as a way to connect with kids is a perfectly fine way to tick off the hours. She says that the bond created when parents know what their kids are watching and discuss the topics leads to a closer relationship—and a lot less guilt.

“When parents understand that shows are revealing some deep issues that are important to kids, they can connect more meaningfully,” she says. “And it may help parents feel less anxious about the time kids are spending watching these shows when they can see the usefulness of them.”

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