The idea that television shows dramatically affect children isn’t just a theory. We often talk about how violent images make kids more aggressive or catty women turn teens and adolescents into mean girls, but a new study has shown that the depictions kids are witnessing on the television screen also dramatically affect their self-esteem—unless you’re a white boy.
“Children who are not doing other things besides watching television cannot help but compare themselves to what they see on the screen,” said Kristen Harrison, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan who conducted the study with Nicole Martins, an assistant professor of telecommunications in the IU College of Arts and Sciences.
In the paper published in Communication Research, Martins and Harrison surveyed a group of about 400 black and white pre-adolescent students in communities in the Midwest for a year, specifically focusing on the correlation between time spent in front of the television and the impact on their self-esteem. The more television white girls and black boys and girls watched, the worse they felt about themselves. But the more white boys watched television, the better they actually felt about themselves.
“Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for you,” Martins said. “You tend to be in positions of power, you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife, with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there.
“If you are a girl or a woman, what you see is that women on television are not given a variety of roles,” she added. “The roles that they see are pretty simplistic; they’re 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.”
For black boys, we don’t have to look far to see how they are criminalized, whether they are being shown on the 6 o’clock news or a scripted series.
“Young black boys are getting the opposite message: that there is not lots of good things that you can aspire to,” Martins said. “If we think about those kinds of messages, that’s what’s responsible for the impact.
“If we think just about the sheer amount of time they’re spending, and not the messages, these kids are spending so much time with the media that they’re not given a chance to explore other things they’re good at, that could boost their self-esteem.”
Though video games have been increasingly singled out for encouraging young kids to be violent, the researchers say television is still the entertainment medium kids are spending the most time with; and therefore the area that needs to be curbed most. This is yet another case for not letting the TV raise your child.
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.
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