A new precise and exhaustive yearlong study finds that watching television regularly distorts and ultimately destroys the self-esteem of young black males who often find themselves comparing one another to the characters they view on air, leaving them feeling trapped and as if there are “very few positive life paths they can aspire to.”
Perhaps rendering those findings all the more psychologically crippling, black children overall were also found to watch more television than any other group (by about 10 hours a week), thereby fostering a widespread mindset and climate Indiana University telecommunications professor and head study researcher Nicole Martins likens to an early, preordained course for failure.
“If you think just about the sheer amount of time they’re spending, let alone 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, things that could boost their self-esteem,” said Martin.
Conversely, researchers found when it came to young, white males the portrayals of themselves most presented were living in glamorous homes, being highly educated and working in prestigious occupations.
Overall, the study evaluated the tendencies of a group of 400, 7-to-12-year-old black and white preadolescents residing across the Midwest in lower-middle to upper socioeconomic neighborhoods. It further concentrated on the correlation between the time they spent in front of the tube and the direct impact it seemed to have on their sense of self-worth. Complete results are published in the current June 2012 edition of the Communication Research manual.
To assure uniformity, researchers acutely defined the notion of self-esteem as an “overall feeling of self-worth” and focused on quizzing kids with such reverse-coded questions as “are there a lot of things about yourself you would like to change?”
Through all the research and analysis, Martin maintains one theme consistently reigned supreme: “Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for you,” she said, adding that most of those subjects took their cues and were most influenced by older white males they observed on-air that are regularly cast in those very lights. In short, the more television they watched, the better they walked away feeling about themselves.
“Children who are not doing other things besides watching television cannot help but compare themselves to what they see on the screen,” said Kristen Harrison, professor of communications studies at the University of Michigan and, along with Martin, chief co-researcher.
Perhaps that explains why so many blacks are outraged as they are over the traits and images found to be most prevalent among black TV characters. “Buffoons, hoodlums and even hardened criminals… just a lot of overall negativity,” Harrison said of those portraits.
Added Martin: “Young black boys are certainly getting the opposite message… that there are not lots of good things that you can aspire to. We don’t have to look far to see how they are criminalized, whether they are being shown on the 6 o’clock news or in a scripted series.”
And the outlook presented of young females isn’t much brighter. Researchers found they are almost religiously depicted as “one-dimensional and focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do or what think or how they got there.”
“The roles that they see are pretty simplistic,” said Martin. “If you’re a girl or a woman, what you see is that women on television are not given a variety of roles… the sexualization presumably is what leads to this negative impact.”
Martin concluded all those findings stand in stark contrast to all the recent claims made by producers and other industry bigwigs that programs have become far more progressive in their depictions of heretofore under-represented populations. “We can’t deny the fact that media has great influence,” she said.
Though the impact of video games and their oft times violent nature have been more debated more at length recently based on their impact on youngsters, researchers found that television still rates as the predictable influencer on children and the medium remains the entertainment venue they spend the most time using.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.