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TV, children, and self-esteem

TV, children, and self-esteem

Since the beginnings of television, there have been concerns as to the its affect on children. Does TV lead children to violence? Sexual promiscuity? Brain rot?

The results remain mixed, according to research and an article by Cassie Murdoch for Jezebel. But a study shows that TV does indeed have an affect on self-esteem:

The study, which appears in Communication Research, was conducted by Nicole Martins, an assistant professor of telecommunications in the Indiana University, and Kristen Harrison, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan. They surveyed about 400 black and white preadolescent students—aka tweens—in the Midwest over the course of a year. Instead of looking at specific shows, they focused on how much time the kids were spending watching TV, period, and how it impacted their self-esteem. What they found after they’d controlled for age, body image, and baseline self-esteem was that television exposure was responsible for a decrease in self-esteem in both white and black girls and black boys, but it led to an increase in self-esteem in white boys. Harumph.

Of course, this isn’t some theoretical issue, because when they’re not in school most kids are spending a lot of time watching shows. Harrison explains the impact this has:

Children who are not doing other things besides watching television cannot help but compare themselves to what they see on the screen.

It’s no secret that TV land is certainly not the most diverse place in the world; so that means most kids are comparing themselves to people very different from them. Except, of course, for the white males among us, who have plenty to identify with.

Martins explains, “Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for you. 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.”

Martins says: “The roles that (girls see of women) 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.”

This problem has certainly been discussed a million different ways, but it’s nevertheless upsetting to see confirmation of the negative effect. Not only is this lack of diversity and depth in female roles failing to provide positive role models for young girls, it’s also actively making them feel bad about themselves. There’s a similar one-dimensionality problem for black boys, only they usually see negative portrayals of themselves—drug dealers, criminals, and other ne’er do-wells.

According to Martins, “Young black boys are getting the opposite message: that there is not lots of good things that you can aspire to. If we think about those kinds of messages, that’s what’s responsible for the impact.”

Of course, there ARE exceptional shows out there that not only shows women and minorities succeeding but also intentionally challenges stereotypes. But so long as the sheer volume of TV clings to its conventional formulas, and the reality remains that children are plunked down in front of the TV (often without parental perspective), the challenge to overcome the TV myths will remain difficult.


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Bill Dilworth

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