How the Kids’ ‘Edutainment’ Industry Is Thinking about Education
If there is one thing that is certain, it is that digital media is now a fundamental part of life. It’s as unreasonable to expect kids (or parents on behalf of kids) to eschew digital pastimes – TV and web shows, games, videos and platforms – as it is to expect adults to.
Instead, parents are recommended to act as gatekeepers of children’s screen time, guiding them toward educational content. This seems clear, but in a bid to attract gatekeepers, the kids’ digital media industry has blurred into a nebulous, mushrooming gray area of edutainment – entertainment that purports to keep kids laughing and occupied while also teaching them a little something.
“Parents are getting savvier and thinking, ‘OK, but you might as well learn something,’” said Sudeep Lahiri, vice president of content and strategies at One Digital Entertainment during a panel discussion yesterday in Mumbai at the OTTv Kids & Animation Summit, a professional conference for the kids’ digital entertainment industry in India.
But parents don’t feel savvy. They know quality of education matters, in schools as well as shows — but when the lines have been blurred, and education is more of a marketing tool than guiding principle (indeed, one panel, on how to make digital media a safe, learning experience for kids, comprised mostly marketing and merchandising executives), edutainment feels more like a minefield than a saving grace. The conference, a behind-the-animation peak into the industry, was a chance to see what is guiding the development of kids’ digital media and thus, perhaps, to chart a savvier course through it.
Education was interpreted a bit more broadly than parents might expect. Some of the panellists spoke only of an obligation to do no harm.
“As content creators, it can’t cross a line. You can’t pass on something that might backfire in society,” said Uttam Pal Singh, head of content for Discovery Kids Network. “[But] they’re getting education, they’re getting morals from everyone else, from parents, teachers. They’re not looking for that from their favorite characters.”
Others spoke of developmental milestones and basing content on research – but only research into children’s wants, through the use of focus groups and anecdotal observations, was explored; there was no mention of children’s needs, of academic research into early childhood development and learning (which guides shows like Sesame Street — Sesame Workshop in India — the only children’s programming to be recommended as truly educational by the American Academy of Pediatrics in a review last year).
Some content developers at the conference rejected the concept of edutainment outright.
“At the end of the day, we’re providing content that’s entertainment,” said Neel Debdutt Paul, group creative director at Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle. “The kid has school and tuitions. Education is taken care of. We have to push back on providing entertainment. That’s what we’re here to do.”
That’s fair – and refreshingly honest. Entertaining children – drawing them in, getting them to come back for more (other talks touched on how to present content within an aggregator app in a way that would keep kids returning again and again to the same, favorite characters, the same characters whose merchandise will help turn kids’ digital content into a USD 1.6 billion-dollar industry in India by 2022) – is the mandate of kids’ digital media, even edutainment. It’s a business, after all. Claims of education give content providers an edge in a staggeringly populated, free-for-all market, a foot in the door with gatekeepers.
It makes gatekeeping all the more important – and more difficult. But there is good news: There are certain principles by which parents can evaluate kids’ digital activities – TV and web shows, games, videos and platforms – to tell whether the content has educational value and how much, or whether it is mere entertainment. The next article in this series will detail exactly that, giving parents a practical guide to navigating edutainment in a way that actually educates and entertains kids.