Last week, the New York Times published a roundup of the latest evidence on the detrimental effects of television on IQs and civic engagement, among other things. The article noted:
the latest evidence also suggests there can be negative consequences to our abundant watching, particularly when the shows are mostly entertainment. The harm seems to come not so much from the content itself but from the fact that it replaces more enlightening ways of spending time.
Whether these effects are the result of the actual television content, or just the fact that television replaces other, more intellectually and socially stimulating activities is hard to disentangle. But in some sense, it doesn’t matter. After all, when push comes to shove, children rarely choose educational television over less substantive content. And parents rarely enforce such rules for long.
When we consider the “replacement” theory, the harmful effects of television, video games, and other screens are felt much more significantly by poor and minority populations because they tend to use screens more than wealthier, more educated, and whiter populations.
According to a 2017 survey by Common Sense Media, children from lower-income families spend an average of three-and-a-half hours each day on screen media. That is 40% longer than middle-income children, and almost double the screen time spent by affluent children. The survey also found that the more education the parents had, the less time their kids spent on a screen. And the racial divide is clear, too. Black kids spend an average of 2 hours and 51 minutes per day on screens compared to 2 hours 36 minutes for Hispanic kids and 2 hours 11 minutes for white kids. To put that in perspective, over the course of a year, black kids will spend an extra 243 hours a year on screens compared to their white peers.
That means not just less time spent reading, exercising, and interacting with people face to face; it also means many more hours of harmful messages from popular culture.
A 2011 longitudinal study in the journal Communication Research found that “television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for ‘Black girls and Black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among White boys.’” The authors speculate that one reason for this racial difference is that “black male characters are disproportionately shown as buffoons or as menacing and unruly youths, and Black female characters are typically shown as exotic and sexually available.”
Another study commissioned by the Girl Scouts a few years ago similarly found that “girls who view reality TV regularly are more focused on the value of physical appearance.” Indeed, more than a third (38%) think that a girl’s value is based on how she looks (compared to 28% of non-viewers). Again, the more you watch these shows, the more these messages are driven home.
A 2017 study out of Georgetown University found what the authors call the “adultification” of black girls. Surveying 325 adults from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, and geographical areas, the authors found that “participants viewed black girls collectively as more adult than white girls.” Responses revealed, in particular, that participants perceived Black girls as needing less protection and nurturing than white girls, and that black girls were perceived to know more about adult topics and are more knowledgeable about sex than their white peers.”
Given that exposure to popular culture (including pornography) is one of the most common ways that kids learn about adult topics, perhaps the effects of this on black girls aren’t surprising. The fact that adults (both black and white) see African-American children as too much like adults should be a wakeup call that we need to do more to protect black children from a culture that is hurting them.
Exposure to social media can be worse. A small 2018 study found that two-thirds of teenage girls say that they have been asked to send nude photos of themselves to boys. The study does not say it, but common sense would suggest, that the more time boys and girls spend on social media, interacting with their friends and strangers, the more such requests will seem normal. By contrast, very few people walk up to teenage girls in person and ask them to take off their clothes. Indeed, when women who grew up before the age of social media find out about this culture of sending “noodz,” they can’t understand why girls don’t simply laugh at these boys or tell them where they can stick their cell phones. The more time you spend on screens, the more that real life starts to seem distorted.
Parents of all political and religious stripes have long complained about unhealthy body images, the over-sexualization of children, and racial stereotypes their kids see in popular culture. While there seems to be no end to the (generally fruitless) campaigns to get media companies to change these portrayals, there has been too little focus on getting parents to limit their children’s screen exposure. It’s certainly true that we can’t completely avoid some of these messages, which are also found in billboards and magazines, for example, and even a limited amount of time online will expose kids to some negative content. But if we genuinely think that family, friends, teachers, and religious leaders provide the best role models for our children, then it is time to encourage kids to turn off their devices and pay attention to the positive, real-life influences around them.