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.”