Five; that’s the number of hours the average school-age child spends in front of a screen of some sort per day. Pre-COVID.
But screen time isn’t the issue here. Nor is it the content that children are consuming. The issue is who children do not see on the screen.
Our modern reality is that children as young as eighteen months old are becoming consumers of media as more parents find themselves too busy, too tired, or too consumed in their own screens to fight it.
As more children find education, entertainment, and fun in the content on screens, it quickly becomes the media’s responsibility to ensure that the content children interact with enriches their lives, builds up their character, and provides them with an authentic look at the world around them.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, especially for children in marginalized communities, who use nearly two more hours of on-screen media a day than their peers in higher-income homes.
The children in these low-income communities are almost always minority children, and these children are seeing less and less positive characters that look like them, come from families like theirs, or behave as they do.
There simply are not enough diverse faces, voices, or stories for all children to feel seen, valued, or represented.
What’s the big deal?
Cultivation Theory states that exposure to media helps to shape thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors, and viewers adopt the assumptions and beliefs of media content as reality (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).
Children are particularly vulnerable to media messages and use what they see in the media to create their beliefs about themselves and others.
So, children are developing ideas about who they are based on images they see on screens before they are even two years old, and those perceptions can make a lasting impact on how they view themselves, others, and the world around them.
Not all media is negative, and media can influence children in positive ways.
Still, when coupled with the underrepresentation or negative portrayal of certain identities such as gender, race, disability, and socioeconomic status, media can become a danger to children as they learn to socialize and identify with themselves and others.
Effects in school
It comes as no surprise that children perform best in climates that are supportive and inclusive.
Beyond boosting student engagement and participation — when students are surrounded by examples of their native language and culture, they tend to perform better emotionally as well.
“All of my students wanted to try it out, and it was amazing! I had a couple of students request to watch over and over again. They were excited to see people that looked and sounded like them. One particular student never really wants to participate, but ¡Vamos! GoNoodle got him up moving and singing along.”
“I have students in the room whose L1 is Spanish; seeing and hearing people who look and sound like themselves on screen is empowering!”
Connecting children with media that represents them is beneficial to the students and the educators.
In many cases, diverse students are in classrooms led by teachers that do not share their heritage or culture — making connections feel superficial. Further, blurring the line of what being smart or successful looks like for these diverse students.
One teacher states, “I teach a class with 100% native Spanish speakers, and I do not speak any Spanish. Using ¡Vamos! GoNoodle is a great way for me to celebrate and validate their native language in a fun and exciting way.”
Another teacher confirms, “I feel like I can connect with my students on a deeper level now.”
As cliche as it may sound, children are our future, and the messages we send to them, directly and indirectly, make a difference in the adults they grow to become.
The often-invisible side effects of a lack of representation in media can include low self-esteem, anxiety, and struggling to feel included.
Research shows that a “lack of representation in media can lead to negative psychological outcomes for those with identities that are underrepresented or negatively portrayed.” Possibly, this is because youth are constantly underexposed to characters that accurately represent them or are portrayed positively.
Alternatively, in cases where children find characters that represent them, they are often in situations that are not reflective of their personal lives — leading children to feel helpless as they fail to live up to the unrealistic and unattainable expectations in front of them.
If young people are watching negative depictions — or are not seeing themselves reflected in their favorite shows — they may begin to feel invisible or unimportant. On the other hand, as children see characters representing them, they feel encouraged, motivated, and often aspire to be like those figures.
No matter which political party you side with, we can all agree that it is both groundbreaking and inspiring to have young girls witness Kamala Harris take on the role of Vice President of the United States. Not just as a female but also as the first person of color to hold that title.
Fortunately, more companies are beginning to take notice of how valuable it is for everyone to be able to see themselves in media and marketing.
Two years ago, GoNoodle debuted its first differently-abled Champ, Flash Bolton, as well as a differently-abled dancer, Skylar, who joined the NTV group.
Target launched a Halloween costume line for kids and adults confined to a wheelchair. Youth clothing lines began to opt for models that better represent the wide array of skin tones, hair textures, and family makeup that exist in our modern world.
Don’t wait for the media to serve your needs. Take the initiative to find diverse characters that you and your family can relate to and display those proudly.
Finding opportunities to engrain positive examples of diversity in children’s media can start with you.
There are various diverse producers and content creators that produce series covering topics relevant to today’s diverse child available online, often at no cost. Beyond the screen, voice your desire to see more representation in all spaces that are relevant to your children.
Share lists of diverse books with your school’s principal, librarian, or teacher so that they can purchase new resources. Encourage your child’s teacher to purchase posters that represent all races, ethnicities, and family types for their classroom.
During bake sales, bake and send in treats and snacks that represent your heritage. Decorate them with mini flags from your homeland to inspire and launch conversations on different cultural foods and celebrations from around the world.
At home, motivate your children to explore their curiosity about people similar to and different from them through a variety of activities. Explore different cultures or investigate your own in the books you read before bedtime, the toys your children play with, food that they eat, and the events that they celebrate.
Representation also provides children with the foundation they need to relate to others and feel a sense of pride in themselves. Encouraging our children to reflect on their culture, role, and relationship in society can help them better understand and empathize with others.
“Empathy provides a strong foundation for listening, communications, collaboration and problem-solving — critical skills in a rapidly changing and diverse world.” — according to a study conducted by Harvard University professor of neurology, Alvaro Pascual-Leone.
Representation matters; not for some of us, but for all of us. As our world and its citizens continue to grow and evolve, it’s natural to look to the media we consume and expect the same.
However, more frequently than not, many children and families are left to find examples of themselves in the media that feel inauthentic or forced or are not present at all.
It’s time to change that.
Take control of the media your children are exposed to and use it as an opportunity to teach them something new about themselves and others and give them the skills they need to become the diverse champions that they are.
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