As social beings, children and adolescents look to cues in the world around them to develop understandings of themselves and others. These understandings are marked in part by social group categorization, with groups defined by race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other aspects of human difference. The stories told in the media are a key source of such cues, and our review of the literature shows they have important implications for young people’s developing sense of self and of others. The emphasis for women on beauty and on having a particular body size and shape in the media, for example, contributes to body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and other threats to health and well-being at increasingly younger ages. For youth of color, our review finds that having a video game avatar of the same race promotes identification whereas encountering stereotypical content associated with a same-race media character can induce stereotype threat, in which youth underperform on measures that correspond to the stereotypes. For primarily white audiences, our review shows that racial and ethnic media stereotypes can contribute to prejudice and racial bias and shape relevant political judgments. In our review, however, we argue that it is important to remember that positive effects can attend more diverse, inclusive, and fluid depictions of social groups in the media. Stories that demonstrate cross-group positive interaction have been shown to lead to diminished prejudice among children, for instance. We conclude our review with recommendations for clinicians, policy makers, and educators that include taking media effects on stereotypes and identity formation seriously, encouraging media literacy efforts, and opening up dialogue with young people about media.
How do media, especially those targeting children, portray various social groups?
Media portrayals across a range of genres, including news and entertainment, tend to focus on stories about dominant group members. If at all present, marginalized groups (such as racial/ethnic/religious minorities, women, LGTBQ+ individuals, individuals with disabilities) are largely limited to stereotypical misrepresentations and peripheral roles. Such stories often focus narrowly on a single dimension of identity (for instance, a person’s disabilities) without recognizing that multiple aspects of identities co-exist simultaneously in complex ways.
What do we know about any negative consequences that media stories about social groups might have on children’s development?
We know that the content and frequency of media stories that they consume impact children’s development. These stories shape young people’s shared norms, expectations, and attitudes about themselves and other groups around them. For instance, sexualization and objectification of girls and young women in the media have been associated with a range of negative outcomes, such as body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, appearance anxiety, depression, lower self-esteem, and reduced sexual well-being. The lack of representation of racial and ethnic minorities and the stereotypical portrayals, when they do appear, can lead to lower self-esteem among minority youth as well as alienation from them by majority groups.
Can media stories of social groups also lead to positive impacts on children?
Recent research shows that counter-stereotypes and positive media portrayals can lead to better intergroup attitudes, healthy relationships with others, and greater empathy toward minority groups. Children from underrepresented groups have better self-concepts and increased self-esteem when they see complex and positive portrayals of their groups in media. Regular exposure to diverse and nontraditional stories help young people develop strong intercultural competencies and appreciation for difference, which are especially helpful skills while growing up in pluralistic multicultural societies.
- Research demonstrates that the stories about race, gender and other social categories we watch on our screens do matter, for better and for worse. When the screen is on, children are learning.
- The stories on our screens are mostly about the dominant group, which is middle class, straight, white males. Stories about members of marginalized groups such as racial and religious minorities, females, people with disabilities, and people with diverse sexual orientations rely too much on stereotypes and tend to focus on single aspects of the person.
- Children are attached to their screens more than ever. At the same time, the divide in this country is based largely on misunderstandings and disagreements about the various social groups. We have an obligation and an opportunity to use our screens to make a difference in how we understand and treat each other.
Guidelines for Parents
Remember that media stories make a difference in the lives of children as well as adults as they play a significant role in shaping the way we understand ourselves and others. Maintain open dialogue with children and teens about the media content they are consuming and its role in their self-image and aspirations for the future. Listen and learn from children’s own perspectives and engage in age-appropriate discussions of media use that is in line with your family’s values and with your children’s well-being. More specifically:
- Analyze racial and gender stereotypes in content consumed by the child/teen, as well as stereotypes of people with disabilities, varied sexual identities, the elderly, religious groups, etc.
- What is stereotypical about their appearance, behavior, characteristics, occupations, family structure, and the like? Openly and critically analyze misrepresentations, biased language use, and stereotypical assumptions in the media that you encounter.
- Point out examples of counter stereotypes in the real world — among acquaintances and friends, public and historical figures. Introduce children/teens to media content that provides positive examples of diversity representations.
- Talk to your children about their self-presentation on social media and what image it portrays to others, potential higher education institutions and future employers. Call their attention to their own internalization of stereotypes about themselves and their identities.
Dill-Shackleford, K.E., Ramasubramanian, S., Behm-Morawitz, E., Scharrer, E., Burgess, M.C.R., & Lemish, D. (2017). Social Group Stories in the Media and Child Development. Pediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758W
The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations contained in each paper are solely a product of the individual workgroup and are not the policy or opinions of, nor do they represent an endorsement by, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.