For as long as TV has been around, people have fretted about how it might damage The Children. Does it rot their brains and turn them into illiterate mutants? Is all the sex and violence breeding a generation of super slutty murderers? The results on those fronts are mixed, but thanks to a new study, one thing is very clear: Watching TV really does a number on the self-esteem of young girls and black boys. Naturally, white boys get an ego boost from spending time in front of the ol' boob tube—but that is just as it should be, according to every TV show ever created. Girls, on the other hand...
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.
Sounds nice. Maybe that's why Sex and the City was such a big hit with the white ladies, since that's pretty much what it offered up. Anyway, as for what young girls these days are seeing, Martins says it's not much to look at:
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.
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.
And the negative impact is probably compounded by the fact that the study also found the black kids spent an average of 10 extra hours a week watching TV. That's an awful lot of time for negative thoughts to go seeping into their brains.
As if these self-esteem destroying messages weren't bad enough, spending time watching TV, as Martins points out, means they're not spending time doing other things which could potentially make them feel better about themselves. So, it's really a double whammy. Of course, there are many different ways to solve this problem, ranging from throwing the TV out the window (though then they'll just watch it at their friends' houses instead) to reshaping the entire television industry so that it represents everyone. (Yeah, right.) Though none of this will happen overnight. So for the time being, maybe we ought to encourage our tweens to do things other than sit on the couch, scanning the channels. They can go outside and run around, interact with the world, and build up all kinds of self-esteem. Then they'll grow up to take over the world while all the white men are still sitting at home on the couch feeling really terrific about themselves.