Joanne Cantor


Getting to know… Joanne Cantor

Professor EmeritaOutreach Director of the Center for Communication Research
University of Wisconsin-Madison

What are you currently working on?

I had an unconventional career trajectory: Ph.D. at age 29 and tenured at 33; I stayed at Wisconsin my entire career and officially “retired” at age 55. I loved my work, but I retired from teaching, grading papers, and attending meetings because I wanted to have the luxury of focusing my attention on research, writing, and outreach to the press, to parents, and to other organizations that could benefit from the findings of my research. Fortunately, I have been able to continue a role in my department, interacting with grad students and faculty and to continue the activities that I’m most interested in at this time.

I’ve written two books since retiring, Teddy’s TV Troubles (described under Favorite Publications, below) and Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Creativity, and Reduce Stress (Cantor, 2009). This latter book was prompted by my own experience of being overwhelmed by distractions from the Internet as news sites like The Huffington Post were emerging. I reviewed the literature on information overload and multitasking and discovered that there were brain-based reasons why I wasn’t getting anything done and was increasingly stressed out. I ended up developing a speech about these effects, and then, with feedback from my audiences, I wrote a book based on some of my own research, but based mainly on the research of others. The research I cited was mostly conducted on adults, but I think these issues are especially critical for children.

I would encourage interested CAMmers to explore developmental issues related to multitasking and digital overload, and I would be very glad to hear from anyone who’s interested in this topic.

Since retiring, I’ve also gotten involved in some evaluation research exploring how to increase children’s interest in science by including elements of theater to make presentations more interactive and involving. This project, titled “Fusion Science Theater,” has been funded over many years by the US National Science Foundation. Several publications have emerged from this project, including some in The Journal of Chemical Education (e.g., Kerby et al., 2010). One option that is being explored now is to convert these live presentations into digital apps that children can interact with on their own.

What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?

I would have to say that my most memorable project has been the study of children’s fright reactions to mass media. Early in my academic career at Wisconsin, my interests had been diverse, and my research projects followed along various paths that had been blazed by my incredibly creative advisor, Dolf Zillmann. I was having no problem publishing new works, but a very kind senior professor urged me to strike out on my own, in an entirely new area. He did not give me any specific direction, but I started looking back at my own experiences with media as a child, and I remembered being frightened by many programs and movies. The hot issue at the time was media violence and aggression, but I couldn’t relate to that personally. There were very few studies on the topic of media and fear – I found probably one or two studies per decade starting with movies back in the 1940’s, and virtually no experimental research. My first application for an NSF grant was rejected, but one reviewer gave the sage advice of trying to fit the research into a developmental framework. That’s when I started reading Piaget seriously, mainly Flavell’s work (e.g., Flavell, 1968), and I had a sudden flash of insight about how levels of cognitive development could be used to predict both what frightens children at different ages and which coping methods will be most effective. My resubmitted grant was funded, and I was fortunate to be able to hire three outstanding grad students to help me carry out the work: Glenn Sparks, Barbara Wilson, and Cindy Hoffner. We became such a collaborative group: the research assistants turned into partners, turning my skeletal ideas for studies into enriched, fleshed-out designs. We also quickly discovered why hardly any experimental research had been done on this topic before: How do you study harmful effects on young children without harming them? How do you get an IRB to approve your procedures? How do you get school cooperation and parental consent? This took a tremendous amount of ingenuity and stamina. But it also never ceased to be fun and amazing. We learned so much working face-to-face with young children.

What was amazing about the research was how consistently the theoretical predictions were borne out, and how each study also raised new, important questions. The fact that these studies not only confirmed theories but provided helpful advice to parents, teachers, physicians, and policymakers was very rewarding.

Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?

There are two, and I can’t rank them because they are Apples and Oranges:

Apples: The way my fear research and my research on the effects of media ratings (with the National Television Violence Study (see Bushman & Cantor 2003) were found to be helpful to various constituencies; the way the findings and implications were trumpeted through major national newspapers (The New York Times, USA Today, etc.), and popular television programs (Oprah and The PBS NewsHour, etc.); and were used by major public health organizations (American Academy of Pediatrics, National PTA, American Psychological Association, etc.) to provide advice. Interestingly, many of the reporters and practitioners I have interacted with have given me new insights into the interpretation of our results and great ideas for next steps.

Oranges: The success of the graduate students I’ve mentored. I have found it profoundly gratifying to advise graduate students and then watch them mature into highly successful scholars and mentors on their own. It has also been incredibly fun. And now seeing the success of my “grandstudents” and even a few “great-grandstudents” is especially delightful.

What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics cannot provide a good answer to yet?

think they would like to know how we can protect kids and help them thrive in this new digital environment, shielding them from the worst harm while teaching them the independence to make their own wise choices. In this age of personal devices that easily allow a child access to content and interactions that no one in their right mind would consider age-appropriate, the array of influences is potentially limitless. Clearly, parents need help in this area but they are understandably overwhelmed by the possibilities.

What would be your work motto?

It’s hard to narrow them down, but here are two:

Keep it real (as in real life)

Keep it simple!

Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?

I would have to choose two of my general-audience books, Mommy, I’m Scared (Cantor, 1998), and Teddy’s TV Troubles (Cantor, 2004). After 10 years of doing fear research and talking to parent groups about the findings, I felt “pregnant” with a book (MIS) that would help parents understand our research findings and apply them to protecting their children from devastating fright reactions and nightmares. Back in those days (the mid 1990’s), books translating quantitative academic research for a popular market were not common, and it was humbling to slog through the process of finding an agent and then to receive multiple rejections before landing a major publisher. But I found that the process of converting my writing from stilted “academese” to conversational prose was liberating! And the launch of the book gave me access to a much wider audience. The real payoff came from hearing from many parents who found the book helpful. I even met one parent who said she had found the research so interesting that she decided to return to graduate school and study communications! (She is currently a highly successful CAMmer, an associate professor at a prestigious university!)

Teddy’s TV Troubles, a children’s book for combatting fears, grew out of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9-11-2001. At that time, many reporters were asking for advice for parents who were trying to soothe their children’s fears. Some suggested that I write a book, but our research showed that at this critical time, young children didn’t need a book; they needed a parent or caregiver to give them their calm, warm attention. But then it became clear that caregivers needed help because our research also showed that “words don’t work” to soothe a frightened preschooler. So the book became a framework for therapeutic parent-child interactions. Our research guided me in the choice of calming activities, and it certainly made me steer clear of mentioning what it was that scared the little bear in the story. I have also been touched by the parents who have let me know how helpful this book has been to them. And I’m gratified that the book is still selling on Amazon and that I continue to get requests for public readings. (The photo is from a public reading I did in Madison this past summer.)

If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?

It would be great to have a national survey of children’s fright reactions to mass media. It is difficult to interview young children over the phone, so a representative sample survey, with children interviewed face-to-face would be awesome! Media-induced anxieties are a mostly hidden disease. I often meet people who have a buried media experience that influences them to this day. I also think that parents have so many other concerns (and rightly so) about digital influences on their children that these old-fashioned, powerful effects are getting short shrift.

If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?

So many (sorry):

Study something new and different

Always add some open-ended questions to give respondents a chance to tell you something you don’t expect

Use multiple methodologies to explore the same phenomenon

Encourage your advisees to take courses in many fields and let them teach you

Have a life; and use your life to inform your work

Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?

Louise Mares, because her work is so innovative, her methods are so novel, and she interacts so effectively with major non-academic media and public health organizations.

To download a copy of this edition of CAMmer in the spotlight click here.