By Arturo R. García
You know how it goes: It’s just a television show, we’re told. Why can’t you just enjoy it?
Now a new study in Communication Research is giving more weight to critical analysis of the medium. In surveying a group of 400 black and white pre-teens in Midwestern communities, two researchers say black children end up feeling worse about themselves after prolonged exposure to electronic media, as did white girls.
White boys, on the other hand, came out feeling pretty good about themselves, according to one of the study’s authors, Indiana University’s Nicole Martins.
“Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for you,” said Martins, who works at the school’s College of Arts and Sciences. “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.”
Meanwhile, Martins said, both white and black girls surveyed tend to see roles that are “simplistic” and focused on their looks instead of their abilities.
Martins collaborated on the study with Kristen Harrison, a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan.
The study also found that even with hand-held devices and video games becoming more widespread, the young people surveyed still spent more time engaging with their televisions; the black children who took part watched an average of 10 more hours a week compared to white subjects.
And what black boys particularly saw wasn’t encouraging. Martins said–and again, stop us if you’ve heard this–they tended to see themselves portrayed as “hoodlums and buffoons,” without many examples otherwise.
“Young black boys are getting the opposite message: that there is not lots of good things that you can aspire to,” Martins said. “If we think about those kinds of messages, that’s what’s responsible for the impact. 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.”
If there’s anything approaching a bright side, it might be this: according to a 2010 study (PDF) by Martins and Harrison, video games were “the worst offenders when it comes to representation of ethnicity and gender.”