A study of how children are portrayed on television, released today by Children Now, an advocacy group in California, finds a world of children, mostly white, with no apparent family ties and little interest in school, a world in which religion, financial concerns and social issues such as homelessness are almost entirely absent.
“Television shows children’s lives that are tremendously easier than most kids’ real lives, much more exciting and more affluent,” said Katharine E. HeintzKnowles, author of the study and an assistant professor of communications at the University of Washington. “Even though it’s entertainment, television influences children’s expectations and tells them what society values. If you watch a number of the teen shows, the lack of awareness of a larger world is striking.”
The study, based on analyzing 80 broadcast and cable programs such as “Rugrats,” “Roseanne,” “Sesame Street” and “Superhuman Samurai Squad,” examines the goals, motivations and behaviors of children on the shows. News programs are not included, nor are non-human characters such as Muppet Babies and the Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The children on television, the study finds, are mostly motivated by friendship, sports, romance and selfimprovement. Family relationships, performance in school, useful community roles or earning money are less often the reasons for children’s actions.
“School is shown on television, but mostly as a backdrop,” Heintz-Knowles said. “Children are rarely shown doing homework, at least willingly, or enjoying the learning process. Instead there’s a sense that school is the place you go to see your friends and get dates.”
For 70 percent of the children on television, the study says, it was impossible to determine their family structure. But of those whose families were evident, 11 percent were orphans, 26 percent lived with a single parent and 60 percent lived with both biological parents.
Representatives of network television said they would not comment until they had reviewed the study.
Although children’s television has often been criticized for featuring far more boys than girls, the new study does not find a wide gap. Of the children shown, 53 percent were boys and 46 percent girls. Boys were seen more often in action or adventure shows, and girls dominated game shows.
But there were important differences in how boys and girls were portrayed. Girls were twice as likely as boys to show affection. Boys were 60 percent more likely to use physical aggression, often effectively.
On commercial television, the study found little diversity, with 80 percent of the children being white and 2 percent from Hispanic origins.
On public television 35 percent were white and 20 percent from Hispanic origins. Public broadcasting also features black and AsianAmerican children much more often than commercial broadcasts.
Although 10 percent of the children on public television engage in antisocial activities like lying, verbal abuse, hitting or neglecting responsibilities, most young people on commercial television do engage in such behavior.
Along with the study of child characters on television, Children Now released a companion telephone poll of 750 children from 10 to 18. Not quite half the girls said they believed that television did a good job of providing positive role models for them. Older girls were somewhat less likely to be satisfied with that they saw. xxxx