Visual babytalk helps infants make sense of television shows

First research to offer a scientific explanation for why young children prefer cartoons

Scientists at Birkbeck and the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit have shown that the producers of the most popular children’s television shows have intuitively developed techniques so that cartoons can ‘talk’ to children in the same way that a mother talks to her infant.

Research suggests that infants and young children experience the world as an overwhelming, buzzing confusion. In ‘Motherese’ or babytalk, adults modulate their intonation, use a rhythmical pitch and put a bigger emphasis on the words in order to make it easier for babies to pay attention to the important parts of speech. The new study shows that children’s television producers use a ‘visual Motherese’ to talk directly to babies in the same way.

This is the first research to offer a scientific explanation for why young children prefer cartoons: because it is the visual equivalent of babytalk.

Dr Tim Smith from Birkbeck, University of London, who supervised the study, explains: “When we look at different television genres, children’s television clearly stands out. Shows aimed at young children are brighter, slower paced and use camera movement and framing in a very different way to adult shows. However, the difference between adult and children’s TV hasn’t always been so clear, suggesting that these differences have evolved over time. We wanted to see whether the producers of these shows have, through trial and error, developed techniques that effectively help infants to understand and process information.”

Dr Smith, together with Dr Sam Wass, analysed the six most-watched CBeebies shows from one week in May 2012 and compared the attention-directing features in each frame of these shows with those in frames from six BBC adult television shows. Using computer vision techniques to decompose each frame into its visual elements Drs Smith and Wass looked at colour, brightness, details and movement. Through their analysis they were able to see that the design of modern children’s television is simplified and structured in a similar way to babytalk.

Dr Wass, from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, says: “It is important to recognise that the world ‘feels’ very differently from the point of view of a baby. When there is a clean signal such as when there’s just one person talking with nothing distracting in the background, then infants process information almost as well as an adult does. But when there is a noisy signal such as lots of things happening at once then babies get overwhelmed very quickly. Our analysis shows that producers use visual features such as motion to direct the infant’s attention to a particular place on screen, even very young children who can’t yet make sense of what the objects displayed are. By having their attention drawn involuntarily to a point on the screen they may begin to learn the associations that are presented there.”

The researchers found that in children’s television shows, the visual cues directed the infants’ attention to the character who was speaking or singing. Young infants are starting to develop language between six and eighteen months but they aren’t yet able to make sense of the language in a television show and the visual cues are required to draw their attention to this. In contrast, adult television shows often have the centre of movement elsewhere on the screen, relying on the adult viewer’s ability to ignore distracting stimuli.

Dr Smith says: “Producers intuitively know that some features are likely to improve a show’s chances of success, but the new findings could help them to formalise techniques and to test ideas before the final production plan is completed. We can now explain the patterns of behaviour and rules that are governing why some shows work better than others”.

Dr Smith concludes: “Our research shows that children’s shows can be designed to help them make sense of otherwise complex and overwhelming scenes but we also know that infants will get most from television shows if, while watching them, they are also exposed to social interaction from a parent or caregiver. This enables them to relate what they see on the screen to social situations in real life.”

Examples of visual babytalk

Sample frames from Gossip Girl (Warner Bros) and Baby Jake (BBC). The frames on the right show the visibility of different elements within the frame to young infants. In the top image the key elements of the face are not easily identifiable. In the bottom image, the key elements of the scene (the character's eyes, face and hand are clearly visible).

Above: Sample frames from Gossip Girl (Warner Bros) and Baby Jake (BBC). The frames on the right show the visibility of different elements within the frame to young infants. In the top image the key elements of the face are not easily identifiable. In the bottom image, the key elements of the scene (the character's eyes, face and hand) are clearly visible.

Sample frames from Sponge Bob (Nickelodeon) and Casualty (BBC). The frames on the right show the visibility of different elements within the frame to young infants. In the top image the speaking character is clearly visible. In the bottom image it is not. This suggests that cartoons are easier for a young child's brain to process than adult TV.

Above: Sample frames from Sponge Bob (Nickelodeon) and Casualty (BBC). The frames on the right show the visibility of different elements within the frame to young infants. In the top image the speaking character is clearly visible. In the bottom image it is not. This suggests that cartoons are easier for a young child's brain to process than adult TV.