The rise of empathy-inspired kids shows

Content that helps kids develop socio-emotional skills has never been more important - and producers are working diligently to keep the momentum going.
April 10, 2017

Although themes of kindness and caring for others have always permeated children’s television, especially preschool content, the kids biz is seeing a marked increase in empathy-inspired shows and offline initiatives. This is particularly the case in the US, where the socio-economic climate remains fragile under a controversial Trump White House.

As the President’s bullying behavior, immigration plans and proposed border wall for Mexico continue to dominate the news, content creators are working extra diligently to ensure Generation Z is more empathetic, tolerant and happy. The under-12 cohort, in fact, is already on its way to becoming a more inclusive, unselfish and socially aware group, contrary to the common assumption that “generation selfie” is self-absorbed and introverted.

According to Story of Me 2, Nickelodeon’s new US consumer insights report, 93% of kids say they would like to have a friend from a different group, and 81% would like to have a friend with a different religious affiliation. Gen Z also believes in the importance of social causes and doing good for others.

For Nickelodeon SVP of international production and development, Nina Hahn, empathy has always been a cornerstone of the net’s content creation process, no matter the genre or demographic.

“It’s not only in front of the camera, but also with respect to how we work on our research proposals, and how we work with our on-air initiatives,” says Hahn. “Once our research insights are rolled out for the content-makers inside the company, we then take the messaging and bake it into the development process from the start of every project we work on. How we create characters, in this case, that empathize, are relevant and depict a world that is meaningful to a kid at home in such a way that is welcoming to them, are things we put front and center.”

Hahn points to Nick’s newly launched animated preschool series Nella the Princess Knight as a shining example of a series that exemplifies core initiatives of friendship, positivity and courage. Already on air in the US and rolling out globally this spring, the female-led series created by Christine Ricci (curriculum consultant on Blaze and the Monster Machines) follows the adventures of an unconventional eight-year-old heroine, and empowers preschoolers to be brave. “Nella the Princess Knight is about empathizing with the people and situations around you in order to put wrong right,” notes Hahn.

Interestingly, not long after the series’ premiere, new preschool research from Viacom Insights revealed that preschoolers are becoming increasingly self-sufficient, largely due to a slight movement away from helicopter parenting to an ideology wherein parents prepare preschoolers for life in an uncertain world.

Entitled Little Big Kids: Preschoolers Ready For Life, the study surveyed 6,500 families of preschoolers ages two to five across 12 countries, and found that 75% of parents believe children should learn through their own experiences.

The industry’s uptick in empathetic programming is also timely given that some of kids’ biggest worries today, according to Story of Me 2, are school, their parents’ safety, bullying, appearance and cyber popularity. School safety is also a common concern, indicating how much kids are aware of current safety issues in the world. Additionally, the study shows that preschoolers are becoming more independent as a result of an increase in learning through mobile devices and technology. This type of scenario is now helping developers, like New York’s Tinybop, find opportunities in social emotional kids apps.

Tech that teaches

Tinybop's empathy-based Me app lets kids create portraits of themselves, their family and friends

Tinybop’s empathy-based Me app lets kids create portraits of themselves, their family and friends

Looking to create an app that helps kids examine their own lives, those of their families and friends, and the things around them, Tinybop (The Human Body, Homes) launched Me, an iOS app for kids ages six to eight, last November. The US$2.99 app lets kids answer questions about their own likes, dislikes and feelings, and those of their parents and friends, through drawings, photos, text and recordings.

“Where this intersects with empathy, diversity and inclusion, is that we want kids to see themselves in the stories they tell,” says Tinybop CEO Raul Gutierrez. “Right now, we live in a very fraught moment regarding immigration, and there are a lot of external things that inevitably come into a classroom,” he adds. “Our apps are most successful when a kid goes to a parent, friend or teacher after playing one for awhile and wants to talk about a subject. Learning begins when you start conversations.”

Still early in its life cycle, Me has proven popular in schools in terms of engagement and feedback, according to Gutierrez. “It’s not the rocket success of some of our apps (12 others have nearly 10 million downloads combined), but there are still kids very actively engaged over time, which is a very good sign for the longevity of an app,” he says.

While Me targets the six-to-eight set, Gutierrez says it’s used by kids as old as 12, too. And for tweens and teens, the industry is also producing more television content, particularly in live action, focused on themes of inclusion and empathy.

Nickelodeon US, for one, just premiered its new 20-episode series Hunter Street, which is the English version of Nickelodeon Netherlands’ series, De Ludwigs. Produced by Dutch studio Blooming Media and co-developed with Nickelodeon Netherlands, Hunter Street follows the story of five foster kids who come together under one roof to solve the mystery of their parents’ disappearance. “The idea of foster kids comes from a place where empathy has to be at its highest,” adds Hahn.

Funny and emotional

The fact that the titular character in Steven Universe is being raised by three strong women, reflects a different family structure and promotes inclusiveness

The fact that the titular character in Steven Universe is being raised by three strong women, reflects a different family structure and promotes inclusiveness

Over at Cartoon Network, EVP and CMO Michael Ouweleen highlights a pair of its newer series, Steven Universe and We Bare Bears, as strong examples of programs that reflect empathy, kindness and inclusion.

“While primarily funny, our shows also have real emotion to them. Steven Universe is all about inclusion and acceptance. The fact that Steven is essentially being raised by three strong female characters reflects different family makeups and allows a variety of models for how family members can care for and support each other,” says Ouweleen. “In We Bare Bears, meanwhile, we see three brother bears, each from a different background, bound together as they try to find their way through the world.”

In terms of pro-social initiatives, Cartoon Network’s long-running Stop Bullying campaign now operates year-round, says Ouweleen. For 2017, it will continue messaging around the concrete steps that kids can take to build a more inclusive environment, so that bullying is less likely to take hold.

“We will continue that message this year, but also, given an uptick in bullying incidents in schools, we are going to make sure to also cover the basics of what kids should do when they witness an instance of bullying,” he says.

As for ensuring a long-lasting message, Ouweleen says the biggest challenge is being specific enough so that it is actionable and useful, and makes a kid try new behavior.

“It’s not an overwhelming challenge, it’s actually fun. But getting it right is the difference between spewing platitudes that only make adults feel better, and giving kids tools to build the relationships and environment they want to build. As with everything, we think our audience has more to teach us on this than vice versa,” he says.

Exercising kindness

Sprout's multicultural, multigenerational series Nina's World will be back for a second season

Sprout’s multicultural, multigenerational series Nina’s World will be back for a second season

Another broadcaster firmly connected to its audience, and immersed in empathetic programming and campaigns, is NBCUniversal’s preschool net Sprout (Dot., Kody Kapow).

With former Corus Kids boss Deirdre Brennan now on board as the network’s new GM, Sprout is ramping up its latest Kindness Counts pro-social initiatives that encourage kids to carry out thoughtful acts, and serve as tools for parents to reinforce kindness and compassion with their children.

Included in the 2017 campaign is music video “Kindness is a Muscle,” featuring 10-year-old dance phenom and YouTube star Aidan Prince (a.k.a. BAHBOY). The video launched on Sprout’s YouTube channel and on Random Acts of Kindness Day in February.

“Repetition is something that is so important in children’s ability to develop habits and routines. We’re excited to help amplify the importance of exercising kindness every day as kids develop into good people,” says Sprout SVP of marketing and digital Jennifer Giddens.

As for Sprout’s recent programming moves, it has ordered a second season of original multicultural series Nina’s World and greenlit Remy and Boo, a new CGI-animated friendship-based series from Canadian prodcos Industrial Brothers and Boat Rocker Studios.

The continuation of Nina’s World is particularly satisfying for Sprout, says Giddens. “We really felt the importance of Nina’s World from the very beginning,” she contends. “Being able to tell the story of a young Hispanic female and her multicultural community and multigenerational family was a reflection of the importance of the diversity and strong community that exist in the world. We love that Nina’s World can spark extraordinary everyday adventures in all kids’ real worlds.”

Other broadcasters joining Nick, Cartoon Network and Sprout in launching new empathy-based initiatives include BBC Children’s and Sky Kids, which formed a joint content campaign entitled Project Hope in February. The initiative is searching for global kidcasters and media companies to co-produce and finance 12 short films promoting kindness, empathy and tolerance with the goal of launching the content on International Children’s Day (November 20).

About The Author
Jeremy is the Features Editor of Kidscreen specializing in the content production, broadcasting and distribution aspects of the global children's entertainment industry. Contact Jeremy at


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