Does Excessive TV Viewing Cause Low Self-Esteem (Unless You Are A White Boy)?

A provocative study has shown that excessive TV viewing in 2nd – 4th graders is associated with lower self-esteem for Black girls, White girls, Black boys … but not White boys. So what’s going on here? 

Well, let’s first consider the research design. This study analyzed kids’ reports of their TV viewing habits – specifically how much TV they watched – and their self-reports of self-esteem. Kids of this age are typically able to report on both of these things with good accuracy. There was a “small to moderate” statistical association between the amount of TV watched and lower levels of self-esteem  - except for the boys who were White. This association was primarily contemporaneous – it wasn’t observed across a 1-year period. So keep in mind that, as the authors of the study note in their journal article, these kinds of data cannot be used to assume causation. We don’t know what’s driving what. But that said, there are still some really important points for parents to consider as they observe their kids’ TV viewing habits, and how what they see on TV might be reinforcing stereotypes about race and gender.

To get at these take-home messages, I had an opportunity to speak via phone with Dr. Nicole Martins, a professor at Indiana University and one of the authors of the study. She suggested three big points for parents to consider:

1) In general, TV is not inherently good or bad. Rather, parents have an obligation to set limits on the amount of viewing that kids do and should consider how excessive viewing may affect them. She made the interesting observation that too much TV viewing may inhibit kids from doing other things that may improve their self-esteem. Think about this – if a kid is watching 40 hours of television a week (as some kids in this study reported), that can cut into time that could be spent doing other more productive things, like playing, participating in sports, learning a musical instrument, spending time with friends, and reading. All of these activities can build kids’ confidence and improve the way they think about themselves. So, that may be one reason why this study found a link between amount of TV watched and lower self-esteem.

2) It’s important to acknowledge that the study did not examine the content of what kids watched on TV. But lots of other studies have shown that the majority of shows for kids provide very positive – perhaps even entitled – role models for White boys. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the other kids studied – in general, there is a lack of positive Black role models for kids on most shows, and shows often have unrealistic role models for White girls (think about how a character on a show may be played by a girl who is 5 years older than the character). Dr. Martins suggests that parents become familiar with the shows their kids watch and consider what kinds of messages the shows may be delivering about race and gender.

3) Dr. Martins also encouraged parents to actively discuss the shows with their kids, specifically from the lens of what kind of messages are being delivered about race and gender. What I found informative about her perspective was that she is not suggesting that parents necessarily censor shows (unless they seem especially inappropriate), but rather treat them as a platform for discussion with their kids. This would give you an opportunity to get some more insight into how your kids think about themselves, especially in light of the messages that they receive from media. In addition, it may also be a chance for you to make sure they don’t form stereotypical conceptions about race and gender.

As Dr. Martins suggested to me, young kids sometimes have difficulties distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Some shows may give them a very distorted view of reality and provide them with inappropriate messages about race and gender – which in many cases can reinforce negative self-esteem for girls, and for Black children. The opportunity for parents is to use these shows to have informed talks with their kids about these topics and take on some complicated issues about race, gender and stereotyping – and, most importantly, consider how their kids are forming conceptions of themselves and how they fit into the world.

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  1. by Marcy

    On June 1, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    I suggest you look into the research done by Colonel Grossman a well known author and speaker on the role media (commericals on tv) and tv in general plays in raising our children starting as young as 14 months. You may gain a different perspective.

  2. by Steven

    On June 2, 2012 at 11:16 am

    An excellent article! You may appreciate what we are trying to accomplish at HNK Concepts with the Fearless Five. We are focused on providing positive images for young Black children and universal messages for all young children while at the same time getting kids out from in front of the TV. Check for more.