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Study confirms that TV makes all kids, except little white boys, feel bad

By June 14, 2012 3 Comments

Color me surprised at yet another study evidencing TV consumption, specifically for young girls and black boys, as self-esteem squashing. The exception? Little white boys. Yes, this is yet another indication of the lack of diversity represented on television, but I think this is only a small slice of a much larger problem.

It's not enough just to change the portrayal of characters -- we have to educate our youth on what they are consuming as well.

Released last week by Communications Research, a study by two researchers at Indiana University and University of Michigan (one of them, Kristen Harrison, was the thesis advisor for Jennifer Berger, About-Face’s Executive Director, back in 1997-98!), surveyed approximately 400 Midwestern girls and boys ages 7-12, and tracked the amount of television they watched over a year, topping it off with a questionnaire purporting to measure self-worth. Findings evidenced that TV consumption caused self-esteem to plummet for everyone except white boys, for whom it increased.

Does anyone need to pick their jaw up off the floor? How could these results even be surprising given the lack of diversity and airtime females and minorities currently occupy in modern-day TV? Is our nation so media illiterate that they need a study every few years to remind them of this lack of positive, relatable role models in shows?

Do we even need to account for why the pre-adolescent males were emboldened rather than oppressed? The authors noted that for white boys, depictions of white males on television are often positive, regardless of genre. They reaffirmed what we already knew: white males are often in positions of power, leadership, prestige, occupations linked to glamour, success, etc. without much backstory of a struggle.

The study also found that, on average, black children watched 10 hours more TV per week than their white counterparts. The authors surmised their lower self-esteem was due to black males being criminalized and placed in uninspiring roles. That’s it? They forgot to add that many of these roles, in addition to other ethnicities (which the study did not include stats on), are often serving as “token characters.” This sad attempt at diversity ends up coming off as naïve and offensively condescending, thus reinforcing stereotypes.

Modern Family is an ensemble show that is said to reflect diversity, but does it also reinforce stereotypes?

Girls and women, the authors said, inhabited roles that were “almost always one-dimensional and focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do or what they think or how they got there. This sexualization of women presumably leads to this negative impact on girls.” But we already knew this. A Women’s Media Center study revealed that the 2010-2011 seasons of all fictional television had only 41% female characters who were typically younger than their male counterparts, white, and more likely to have an undefined employment status.

But hold up — every piece I read on this study made a point to mention that the researchers focused on the correlation between TV time and self-esteem, rather than the impact of particular shows or genres. So what were these kids watching? Were they viewing adult-themed sitcoms or tween-focused Disney shows? What percentage of this viewing was actual programming versus commercials? Does it matter since it’s typically the same messaging so inextricably layered into media and character composition?

I am having a hard time finding this thesis as novel in any way. Aren’t they minimizing the nuances and unmentioned marginalized groups by highlighting well-worn stereotypes? Isn’t giving this study so much media attention contributing to the problem?

Lobbying for less stereotyping of women and minorities and increased representation of these groups on TV is crucial, but more effective is arming our youth with knowledge about what they are watching. The researchers encouraged less TV time and an increase in other, mentally and physically engaging activities. Yes, this is a good strategy, but not inclusive as kids may not have access to the same resources.

These results should be a call to action for more media literacy. Our school systems are in desperate need of curriculums that include programs that arm kids with knowledge about mainstream media messages and why they may feel bad or be underrepresented. In educating them, we empower them for life.

Heather