Kids, TV, and Self-Esteem

Written by P. Humbargar

Edited by A. Noelle

A recent study published in the journal, Communication Research, entitled, “Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem,” found that television exposure was significantly related to children’s self-esteem. Specifically, TV exposure decreased self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys and increased self-esteem among white boys.

Image: imagerymajestic

The study, conducted by Professors Nicole Martins and Kristen Harrison, surveyed 396 black and white preadolescents in the Midwest over a one year period and focused on the correlation between the total amount of time spent watching TV – rather than the type of programming – and the effects on self-esteem. On average, all of the children spent about seven hours per day with media, but black children watched 10 hours more TV per week than white children.

What the researchers found was that white boys are encouraged by the glamorous lifestyles of white male characters on TV, but girls and black boys are uninspired by the characters they look like. Martins says that if you’re a white male, things in life look pretty good, regardless of what show you’re watching: “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.” Females, on the other hand, are generally one-dimensional, sexualized characters, whose success is based on what they look like. And black males are often portrayed as hoodlums or unintelligent buffoons.

Harrison says that children cannot help but compare themselves to the characters they see on TV, especially when they spend so many hours each day in front of a screen.

This study counters claims by TV producers that programs have been progressive in their depictions of under-represented populations, says Martins.

Anyone who has watched any TV lately cannot help but agree with the study’s findings. Though progressive when compared to what was on TV in the past, many shows today still perpetuate hurtful stereotypes, and “kids’ sitcoms,” programs  aimed at tweens and young teens, are especially guilty in this regard.

From what I’ve personally seen, kids’ sitcoms, which usually focus on the day-to-day life of tween and teen characters, almost without exception, portray the lead female characters as beautiful, thin, and popular. Their complexions are flawless, and they wear the latest fashions. They are extremely concerned about boyfriends but not too concerned about academic work, and often have a stereotypical “dumb blond” personality. Except for the class “nerd,” white boys in these shows are usually handsome, popular, and often wealthy. And most of these shows (at least the ones I’ve watched) do not have any black child actors in lead roles.

When children spend so much time in front of the TV being bombarded by shows like these, it is no wonder their self-esteem is affected. So, short of throwing out the TVs, what can parents and other caregivers do to combat the negative effects TV can have on children?

An obvious answer is to limit children’s TV time. Martins says that too much time in front of a screen displaces children’s real-life experiences. Instead, help children develop an interest in activities that can build their self-esteem like playing sports or learning to play a musical instrument.

Additionally, we can help combat the harmful effects of TV on our children by simply watching TV with them whenever possible and commenting upon and discussing the situations presented in the programs. By encouraging kids to talk about what’s going on in a show, we can thus help them learn to distinguish between the fantasy world of television, and reality. And finally, not all TV programming is bad, so we can always search for and encourage kids to watch programs that promote diversity and support positive values.

To read the report in Communication Research, click here.

How much time does your child spend in front of the screen? Let Chelsea know in the comments section.


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