Parents Seek More Diversity in Movies & Television for Kids, But the Entertainment Industry Continues to Fall Short
Despite efforts by the entertainment industry to improve diversity and representation in front of and behind the camera, screen media continues to fall short on its portrayal of diverse races and ethnicities, even while parents are indicating they want more representation in the media that their kids consume. And unfortunately, the slow pace of change in Hollywood comes at the detriment of children’s ethnic and racial development.
A new report released today by Common Sense, “The Inclusion Imperative: Why Media Representation Matters for Kids’ Ethnic-Racial Development,” reveals that media plays a critical role in kids’ sense of identity and helps parents start important conversations about race. Almost 6 in 10 (57%) parents say that the media their child consumes has prompted conversations about diversity, and an even larger percentage of parents say it is important that their children are exposed to content that helps them learn more about their own culture, religion, or lifestyle. Additionally, 78% of parents want their children to be exposed to media that teaches them about cultures, religions, and lifestyles that are different from their own, underscoring the importance of narratives and storylines that represent the diversity of a multicultural America.
But the report shows that glaring diversity issues remain in media, as people of color continue to be underrepresented and mischaracterized in movie and television roles across media platforms, networks, and services. For example, characters of color in shows most watched by children age 2-13 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.
“Media has a profound influence on how we see, understand, and treat people, especially those within and different from our own race or ethnicity. And this is no different for kids,” says Onnie Rogers, PhD, a researcher from Northwestern University who co-authored the report. “Media representation is important to how kids build their perspectives on their own ethnic-racial group, as well as that of others. This research gives us a deeper understanding of how media, race, and representation are all intertwined with lasting effects.”
The report, which is co-authored by Rogers; Dana Mastro, PhD, professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Michael B. Robb, PhD, senior director of research at Common Sense; and Alanna Peebles, PhD, assistant professor of communication, media, and technology at San Diego State University, synthesizes existing research from more than 150 journal articles, book chapters, reports, and other academic sources to get the best available understanding of how media could influence children’s ethnic-racial development. A nationally representative survey of over 1,100 parents of children from 2 to 12 years old was also conducted to help shed light on what parents expect from media geared toward kids and how it can be a valuable tool to help kids gain a better understanding of race and ethnicity. Parents responded with a clear message: It’s about more than just seeing their race/ethnicity in the media—it’s about being culturally and linguistically inclusive.
“This report makes it clear that parents use and value quality media to help teach their kids understanding, acceptance, and inclusion,” said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. “At the same time, the entertainment industry isn’t giving them enough choices. Parents want more from their media in terms of inclusivity and representation, and it’s time for content creators and the platforms that make that content available to create TV shows, movies, games, and apps that help all kids feel included and celebrated.”
The lack of representation in media has parents coming up short when searching for realistic, three-dimensional representations of diverse races and ethnicities that aren’t rife with stereotypes. (Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer are the examples parents gave the most often for shows that have positive and nuanced representation of different groups.) To address this concern, Common Sense Media is adding a new rating for diverse representations that can help parents identify high-quality media that includes and elevates accurate portrayals of characters of color. Common Sense Media has provided research-backed ratings for nearly two decades, and this latest research brings deeper nuance to how media is rated and reviewed for diverse representations.
‘Inclusion Imperative’ Report Key Findings
- People of color are underrepresented in movie and television roles across media platforms, networks, and services. Latinos are underrepresented in every form of media and across all leading roles (for example, despite being 18% of the population, Latinos make up only 5% of speaking roles in film). Native Americans are essentially invisible across the media landscape.
- 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, and can also negatively affect children’s future professional aspirations and undermine their sense of self. At the same time, high-quality children’s media can promote positive ethnic-racial attitudes and interactions.
- Even when people from Asian, Black, Latino, Middle Eastern, or Native American groups are represented across media platforms, they are commonly stereotyped. Characters of color in shows most watched by children age 2-13 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.
- White people are overrepresented across all media platforms and roles, including in children’s TV, in top-grossing films, and in lead roles on network, cable, and streaming television. Recent studies have found that White people occupy 76% of lead roles on streaming and network TV shows, even though they represent only 60% of the population. The overrepresentation of White people may contribute to children developing an inaccurate understanding of the social world.
- Exposure to negative media depictions of their own ethnic-racial groups can undermine children’s sense of self. Studies examining the influence of media use on Black children and adolescents found that exposure to stereotypic media representations was related to lower self-esteem, satisfaction with one’s appearance, confidence in one’s own ability, feelings about one’s ethnic-racial group, and academic performance.
- Watching favorable depictions of their own ethnic-racial group can positively impact children’s self-perceptions and views about their own ethnic-racial group. 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.
Parents’ Survey Key Findings
- Representation is important to parents, and it’s about more than just seeing their race/ethnicity in the media. About 6 in 10 parents (57%) say it is important for their children to see people of their own race/ethnicity in the media they consume. This is most important to Black parents, with 75% saying it is important.
- Parents find it very important that their children be exposed to media content that encourages acceptance of others who don’t look like them. Two in three parents believe that the media has a big impact on how their kids treat others (67%) and on the information they get about other races/cultures (63%). As such, over 80% of parents say it is important that the content their children are exposed to teaches them to be accepting of people who don’t look like them and their families.
- There is a lot of room for improvement in terms of how diverse communities are represented in children’s media. Most parents 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. Almost half of parents (47%) believe that Black representation in children’s media is often stereotypical; 4 in 10 believe Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and LGBTQIA+ representation is often also stereotypical.
- Parents want to see more nuanced, sophisticated representations of BIPOC people and communities that provide positive role models and dispel damaging stereotypes about these groups. Unprompted, parents most often said they wanted BIPOC people and communities to be portrayed with more respect, as good people, and as educated and successful.
- About two in three parents (65%) feel that media has a big impact on their children’s professional aspirations, underscoring the importance of providing positive role models for BIPOC children. In addition, 62% feel that media has an impact on how well their child does in school. 63% of parents believe that media has an impact on the information children have about people of other races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures.
For the literature review, authors reviewed existing research from more than 150 journal articles, book chapters, reports, and other academic sources on child development, ethnic-racial development, and media.
For the parent survey, Common Sense’s goal was to assess parents’ and caregivers’ views on the quantity and quality of racial and cultural representations in children’s media content. The survey was conducted in June 2021 with 1,143 participants in a nationally representative sample of parents and caregivers (age 18+) of children between the ages of 2 to 12 years old. Demographic quotas were set within each ethnic-racial group to ensure proper representation. The data was ultimately weighted by actual ethnic-racial representation in the U.S. to make the total aggregated data representative. The survey was offered both in English and Spanish.
A copy of the full report can be downloaded here.