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Why Representation Matters in Kids' Media

Our new report highlights the instrumental role media can play in kids’ understanding of race and ethnicity.

The media we consume has a profound influence on how we see, understand, and treat people, both those within and different from our own race or ethnicity. Decades of research into how ethnic-racial representation in media affects adults has shown that very influential messages are communicated about who a culture views as "normal" and "good" or "different" and "bad." And those representations have real-world implications as we continue to engage with media over time. For kids, media representations may be even more meaningful as they look for cues in their social environment to develop and shape their understanding of ethnic-racial groups.

Our latest report at Common Sense, "The Inclusion Imperative: Why Media Representation Matters for Kids' Ethnic-Racial Development," looks at current research into the impact of media on how kids build their understanding of race and ethnicity, as well as perspectives from parents and caregivers on how they use media as a tool to teach acceptance and inclusion. Our review integrated over 150 different journal articles, book chapters, reports, and other academic sources to get the best available understanding of how media can influence children's ethnic-racial development. Here is what we learned:

Screen media continues to fall short on its portrayal of diverse races and ethnicities.

Our report reinforces that people of color are underrepresented in movie and TV roles across platforms, and when they are represented, they're often stereotyped. For example, despite being 18% of the population, Latinos only make up 5% of speaking film roles. Characters of color in shows most watched by children age 2 to 13 are more likely to be depicted as violent, and women of all ethnic-racial groups in adult programming are more likely to appear in sexualized roles.

Parents and caregivers agree that the media their kids are watching still largely contains stereotypes of people of color. Most feel that White people are often portrayed in a positive light in the media their children are exposed to; one in four believe that portrayals of Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQIA+ people are more likely to be negative. And among families of color, feelings about current stereotypes in kids' media are even stronger.

You can't understand the effects of media on children's understanding of race and ethnicity without understanding their development.

Importantly, our report shows the importance of considering media as part of children's development, and specifically their ethnic-racial development. From the time they're babies, children are taking in information about ethnicity and race from the people, images, and interactions around them. These experiences inform how children feel about, evaluate, and understand ethnicity-race for themselves and others. Understanding what children know about ethnicity-race at different ages can illuminate the kinds of media that may meaningfully affect them.

Media representation is important to how kids build their perspectives on their own ethnic-racial group, as well as that of others.

Our review of available research reinforced the idea that media can have both positive and negative impacts on kids' ethnic-racial development. On the negative side, stereotypical portrayals of people of color can promote harmful views about and responses to people of color among White audiences. For example, heavy exposure to the stereotypic portrayals of Latinos on entertainment television is associated with increased belief that these representations are accurate reflections of Latinos in society. Exposure to negative representations can also negatively affect children's future professional aspirations and undermine their sense of self.

But while exposure to negative media depictions of their own ethnic-racial groups can undermine children's sense of self, high-quality children's media can promote positive ethnic-racial attitudes and interactions. For example, among Black elementary school girls, exposure to liked Black TV characters is associated with more positive feelings about their own status, appearance, and happiness. And studies going back decades have shown that programs like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood can have positive effects on children's feelings about their own ethnic-racial group and on interracial relationships.

Adults want more from the media their kids watch.

In a nationally representative survey of over 1,100 parents and caregivers of children from 2 to 12 years old, they repeatedly told us that they believe media is a valuable tool to help their kids understand race and ethnicity. They're looking to media creators to deliver content that better reflects the diversity of the world their kids are growing up in.

  • They want realistic, non stereotypical representations of their own culture. About six in ten parents (57%) say it is important for their children to see people of their own ethnicity/race in the media they consume. But it's most important to Black parents, 75% of whom say representation is important. Also, 70% of parents want media that exposes children to more about their family's culture, religion, or lifestyle.

  • They want stories that are inspirational and aspirational. About two in three parents (65%) feel that media has a big impact on their children's professional aspirations, which underscores the importance of providing positive role models for Black, indigenous, and children of color.

  • They want diversity because it teaches acceptance and inclusion. Almost 6 in 10 (57%) parents say that the media their child consumes has prompted conversations about diversity, and 63% of parents believe that media has an impact on the information children have about people of other races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures

What comes next?

Parents and caregivers are looking for realistic, three-dimensional representations of diverse races and ethnicities that aren't rife with stereotypes or cookie-cutter portrayals. The new rating for diverse representations from Common Sense Media will help families identify quality media that elevates quality portrayals and inclusion. Content creators have a responsibility to improve diversity and elevate inclusion in the media they're creating for young audiences -- even for the youngest viewers. They also have an incredible opportunity to use their power to tell the types of stories that will help us all shape the world we want to live in.

Dana Mastro, Ph.D., professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a co-author of this blog and the report.

Michael B. Robb, Ph.D., senior director of research at Common Sense, and Alanna Peebles, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication, media, and technology at San Diego State University are also co-authors of this report.

Onnie Rogers
Onnie Rogers, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University and the co-author of The Inclusion Imperative: Why Media Representation Matters for Kids' Ethnic-Racial Development. Her research examines, among other topics, how children and adolescents make sense of their racial, ethnic, and gender identities.