A new study by Indiana University shows that watching television decreases the self esteem of white girls and black children of both genders, but increases the self esteem of white boys. And the more TV they watch, the stronger the effect. “Children who are not doing other things besides watching television cannot help but compare themselves to what they see on the screen,” says Kristen Harrison, a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan who co-authored the study.
Co-author Nicole Martins, assistant professor of telecommunications at IU College of Arts and Sciences in Bloomington, added “If we think just about the sheer amount of time they’re spending, and not the messages, these kids are spending so much time with the media that they’re not given a chance to explore other things they’re good at, that could boost their self-esteem.”
The authors noted that for white boys, depictions of white males on television are often positive. “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,” said Martin. Girls and women, however, tend to be portrayed simplistically on television, with their success focused on their appearance.
Black males are most often portrayed as criminals, or unintelligent buffoons. Martins said, “Young black boys are getting the opposite message [from white boys]– 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.”
Martins and Harrison and, studied 400 black and white Midwestern children over the course of a year. The paper can be found in the journal Communication Research.