Drew Cingel

Drew Cingel walks into his lab, turns on the television, and settles into the couch. It’s time to watch cartoons. “Just another day at the office,” he says.
Drew Cingel

Drew Cingel

Cingel, an assistant professor (Ph.D., Northwestern University), studies how human development influences child and adolescent media choice, as well as the effects of such use. A key part of that research involves finding cartoon stimuli appropriate for use with preschool participants. And that means a lot of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Arthur, and Clifford the Big Red Dog, among others. But it also means getting to interact with a population less studied in the literature on media effects: children and adolescents. “It’s one thing for me to think about how and why children and adolescents use different types of media: it’s another to directly hear about that from the child’s own voice, to have them explain to me why they like a certain show, and how they perceive the characters and the narrative in that show.”

Fascinated by human development

Cingel’s interest in understanding human development and media effects stems from a simple text message received during college. “My niece sent me a text message that read something like ‘r u cmng 2 dnr 2nite?’ My first thought was ‘what does this even mean?’ and my second thought was ‘what is this doing to her sense of English grammar?’” That question spurred a research program that has now spanned a decade and resulted in more than thirty journal articles, book chapters, and reports. Integral to this work is understanding how facets of cognitive and social-emotional development moderate the extent to which children are affected by media use. “I think it is absolutely amazing how a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old can view the exact same content but be affected in totally different ways as a function of their level of development,” he says.

Children’s judgments about right and wrong

Cingel’s most current line of research aims to understand how development and media messages interact to influence children’s considerations about right and wrong. Using primarily experimental designs, he uses children’s prosocial television shows to explore how exposure influences the salience of different moral considerations, and how those considerations influence children’s judgments about moral and immoral behaviors, as well as the developmental level of the reasoning that they use to explain their judgments. Recent findings include:

  • Exposure to an episode of Arthur that promoted considerations of fairness and care toward others positively influenced preschool-aged children’s perspective-taking abilities. This increase in perspective-taking helped children to consider fairness when making moral judgments, and positively increased the developmental level of their moral reasoning.
  • Conversely, exposure to an episode of Clifford the Big Red Dog aimed at promoting inclusion actually increased preschoolers’ stigmatizing beliefs toward others, but only if they watched with their best friend, a member of their in-group. Viewing alone had no effect.

Together, these findings indicate that the effect of children’s television on moral development can have both positive and negative consequences as a function of how moral messages are presented to children, individual differences within children, and the social context surrounding the viewing experience. Future work will continue to probe how to promote positive effects of prosocial television, while mitigating any negative effects.

Adolescent social media use and well-being

A second line of research investigates how individual differences influence adolescents’ social media choices and the effects of social media use. “There are so many different social media platforms. I want to know why an adolescent chooses one over another, why they choose to post a picture rather than a message, or vice versa, and how this differential use influences their well-being,” says Cingel. Recent findings include:

  • Relative to higher and lower levels of self-esteem, moderate levels of self-esteem among adolescents correspond to the highest levels of Facebook use.
  • Results suggest that this finding is related to adolescents’ attempts to grow their moderate levels of self-esteem, as moderate self-esteem was related to higher rates of text- and visual-based social contributions, and not passive engagement with the platform. 

 For more, see his personal site.