Study: TV Hurts the Self-Esteem of Girls and Children of Color, But Bolsters Boys

The usual caveats apply, but I was interested to read through this study out of Indiana University which tracked children’s television viewing habits over a year and found that both white and African-American girls and African-American boys’ saw their self esteem take a television-related hit, while white boys felt better about themselves.

The study’s based on a couple of central ideas, all of which I found to be useful clarifications of ideas I use to explain the impact of media on people of all ages. First, there’s a homogenizing effect of television, which establishes common expectations for which jobs, bodies, and standards of living: “common features of the television landscape pervade all forms of program- ming. Cultivation theory offers an explanation for how white collar jobs, the thin ideal, power, and wealth may come to be perceived as commonplace and easily achievable.” In other words, the fact that television characters have what seem like the same three or four occupations creates a kind of closure. There’s a tricky balance to be achieved here: “research demonstrates that upward comparisons can actually be beneficial to people when they are led to believe that attainment of the depicted achievements is possible.” But if it’s actually harder than portrayed to achieve any of the conditions portrayed on television in real life, that could produce poor self-esteem if someone thinks the failure is theirs, not the media’s. And boys, more than girls, are the beneficiaries of positive messages about what to aspire to. Finally, “Milkie (1999) argues that viewers struggle to avoid self-evaluations with media messages because the mass media alter societal ideas about what is normative. If children believe that others (e.g., peers, family) use such mes- sages to evaluate them, White girls and Black children cannot simply ignore mass media messages as a comparative referent.”

I think what struck me most forcibly, mostly as a restating of what I’ve already tended to believe, is the idea of homogenization. The study’s authors point out that if kids are watching television, they’re not only taking in a set of homogenized experiences passively, they’re not out having another, more heterogenous set of experiences. I sort of can’t get my head around the idea that parents let their kid consume 7 hours of television a day anyway (do kids have that much waking free time?) in part because I didn’t grow up with a TV. But this sort of thing is a reminder about why diversity beyond simple racial, ethnic, gender, ability, class, and sexual orientation is important in pop culture—we need diversity of stories, occupations, and activities, too.

And the authors acknowledge that their study only takes into account the amount of television their subjects were watching, not what they were watching. If, for example, their subjects were watching music videos “Music videos often rely on shortcuts and cultural stereotypes because they are a story- telling format with little time to devote to deep characterizations; thus, it is no surprise that Ward found that music videos were a predictor of low self-esteem.” I agree with them that this would be fruitful territory for further study. I love My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic for its strong girl heroines, but it bothers me that male ponies on the show are generally presented as goofy, worshipful, or somewhat detached, and I’d be curious to know what gendered lessons children take from gendered animal characters. Similarly, the diversity of the Avatar cartoons are wonderful, as is its mix of strength and sensitivity in both male and female characters: do white and non-white children react to the show the same way? It would be nice to have more pop culture that can produce positive images of more than one kind of person at a time.