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You're Not Going to Like What This Report Says About Kids' Shows

Photograph by Twenty20

My oldest daughter’s go-to when negotiating a little extra screen time is usually something like “I won’t watch anything stupid!” She knows how I feel about certain shows and that she’s more likely to get a "yes" if she promises to watch something smart or creative like "Magic School Bus" or "Mouk."

Television is an ever-evolving discussion in our house. We even gave up screen-time altogether for a short while. We banned Princess Sophia, we said absolutely never to "My Little Pony Equestria Girls" and then reneged on that promise during a family wedding weekend that was pure chaos.

We’ve always wavered on our rules concerning the type of shows our kids watch. Of course, we’ve always steered clear of stuff that’s too scary or deals with topics not appropriate for toddlers. But, when it came to the way a show portrayed girls, I was going off of a gut feeling. I didn’t have a lot of information to back up what I felt to be true about shows that had female characters who mostly worried about frivolous things or were obsessed with their appearance, but I knew I didn’t like it.

Recently, Commonsense Media released a report that made some convincing arguments that the shows our young kids watch matter—especially when it comes to how they portray any differences between girls and boys. Their team sifted through 150 journal articles about media and gender stereotypes and consolidated their findings into a detailed report for parents. Here’s what they found:

Kids who are watching a lot of media that pushes gender stereotypes are likely to align their career goals with those stereotypes.

First, and perhaps most important, this report did confirm that the shows most kids and teens are watching contain messages that confirm gender stereotypes. They also found that kids who watch these shows heavily are more likely to conform to these stereotypes. For children of color, consumption of media tends to be higher and much of the media targeted at these kids further promotes objectification of women.

The media has a tendency to place a higher value on character traits perceived to be masculine, while stereotypical feminine traits don’t receive the same caliber of respect. As a result, boys who observe these messages repeatedly are more likely to favor these behaviors, playing with toy weapons, playing aggressively or engaging in risk-taking behaviors.

Additionally, the shows targeted at girls as young as 5 have a tendency to be appearance focused. Because of this, girls between the ages of 5 and 8 are more like to express dissatisfaction with their appearance if they’re watching the shows that send this message.

Kids who are watching a lot of media that pushes gender stereotypes are likely to align their career goals with those stereotypes. Additionally, girls who watch these shows are less likely to aspire to hold careers in STEM.

Lastly, parents of older children should know that adolescents who are consuming media created for their demographic are more likely to be tolerant of sexual assault or hold a belief that women are, in part, responsible for their sexual assaults. This belief can—and does—influence the way teens behave in their romantic relationships.

OK, deep breath.

Parents have a strong impact on what their kids believe about being a man or a woman.

I don’t know about you, but this information has me questioning just about every screen-time practice our family observes. I’ve always felt like I was being uptight when I started restricting the types of shows my kids watch because of the way they present girls and boys. Now, I can’t help but think I need to be even more uptight if I want to raise girls who believe they are capable and boys who understand that there are many ways to be a man—and that aggression is not an admirable masculine trait.

Some good news from the report:

Parents have a strong impact on what their kids believe about being a man or a woman. They recommend that parents prioritize putting media in front of their kids that show girls as strong, unconcerned with their appearance and interested in science, sports and math. Additionally, media that presents boys as people who practice empathy and can handle conflict without aggression has a lasting effect on how boys perceive their masculinity.

Of course, it is just about the media we watch. According to Common Sense Media, the conversations we are having with our kids are also super important. Parents should aim to talk about girls and boys in a way that promotes what they want their children to believe about who they are and who they can become.

For me, this means I’ve got some changes to make. I need to adjust the media my kids consume, and I also need to monitor myself for focusing too much on my daughters’ appearance or expecting my son to be less emotional than my girls.

None of this will be easy. I’ll probably make a lot of mistakes along the way. But I know it’s worth the work to raise a new generation of kids with healthier views of what it means to be men and women.

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