There’s no doubt about it: children today grow up in a world of wall-to-wall media. This is true across racial and ethnic groups, true for kids growing up in cities and suburbs and rural areas, true across income levels. We also know that even though children today have many different types of media from which to choose, television remains an important media platform, especially for younger children.
Even though children may be spending less time watching television on a television set when it is broadcast, the number of different platforms now available for viewing televisual content mean that kids are actually still putting in a lot of time watching TV.
A few recent statistics are particularly concerning:
Because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), kids actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours.
There are substantial differences in children’s media use between members of various ethnic and racial groups. Black and Hispanic children consume nearly 4½ hours more media daily (13:00 of total media exposure for Hispanics, 12:59 for Blacks, and 8:36 for Whites). Some of the largest differences are in TV viewing: Black children spend nearly 6 hours and Hispanics just under 5½ hours, compared to roughly 3½ hours a day for White youth.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that while “in 1970, children began to regularly watch TV at 4 years of age, whereas today, children begin interacting with digital media at 4 months of age.”
So no doubt about it: children are exposed to a lot of media.
But what is it that they are seeing?
For many years, researchers have found disparities between racial, ethnic and gender makeup in the world of children’s television compared to the racial, ethnic and gender makeup of real life. And consistently, content analysis work has found not only vast underrepresentation of characters of color and female characters, but also significant differences in the roles they play and in their portrayal.
Our own work at the CTV project has tracked representations of race, ethnicity, gender and age in some of the most popular children’s television shows over a number of years. In addition to coding characters for the ways in which they are drawn, we’ve added a sociolinguistic analysis to assess how the characters sound. Bottom line: we’ve found that the numbers of characters of color and women have improved, somewhat, but mostly on PBS and only in some genres of animated programming. And we’ve found that there are significant differences in the ways that heroes and villains talk: to a very great extent, the “bad guys” have non-American accents.
As we continue to track trends in character representation on children’s television, we’ve started to assess why it is that stereotyping persists by interviewing many of those involved in its creation. And we’re beginning to investigate what the effects of exposure to this programming are on young children.