Stupid television. In addition to being an accurate predictor of a child’s chance of obesity, a new study from the US suggests that those hours children spend watching fictional characters have adventures could also be detrimental to their self-esteem.
Detrimental, that is, if those children are anything other than white boys.
It’s not a shock really. Anyone who watches TV will recognize that it’s the white boys who get to be heroes, who get to take risks and make friends, who get to be good at different things and escape being defined by their failings. It is still unusual to see a truly diverse cast, or to see a character who is female or of colour without being a 2-D token.
Of course, there are lots of other factors that play into this dynamic. As Harrison says, “Children who are not doing other things besides watching television cannot help but compare themselves to what they see on the screen.” For me, this demonstrates another way in which TV watching fails as a way for children to spend the majority of their free time – not only is the enjoyment it offers largely vicarious, it often reinforces the gap between the characters frolicking onscreen, and the living child who watches.
Co-author Martins continues to say “if we think just about the sheer amount of time they’re spending, and not the messages, these kids are spending so much time with the media that they’re not given a chance to explore other things they’re good at, that could boost their self-esteem.”
What really gets me about information such as this is that we already know better! I doubt that the parents of the children who participated in this study believe that TV is a worthwhile substitute for play – rather, they are responding to the opportunities and hazards of their environment as they perceive them. They are, like parents everywhere, doing the best they can.
And it sometimes takes so little to turn the tide – children can be amazingly opportunistic about this. I wrote a story a couple years ago about a boy who seized just such an opportunity to experience for himself something he’d only own second-hand. We were having a fire, in the middle of a thunderstorm, and this boy who had never previously displayed enthusiasm suddenly came alive.
“This is brilliant,” he said. I realized suddenly that I had only ever heard him speak enthusiastically about celebrities and television before. ”I feel like Ray Mears*,” he continued, smiling at me through the tiny gap in his cinched-up hood. We stood out there until the rough sides of the matchbox peeled off in wet lumps and the tiny fire drowned. Back inside, he suggested that next time we try making fires on rocks and wondered if he’d have more luck lighting moss with flints, rather than those damp wooden matches. He was, with excitement and imagination, talking about becoming a person he’d admired.