In the age of the Internet and constant access to social media, young people are still influenced by television. A study from the Alliance for Children and Television found that Canadian children ages seven to 12 watch approximately 19 hours per week. What’s more, the Alliance also reports that 48 percent of Canadian children between eight and 15 have their own TVs. With viewing so prevalent, an important question must be asked: What are tweens seeing when they watch programs aimed at their age group?
One way to answer this question is by looking at how tween TV shows characterize gender. New research published in the journal Sex Roles found that programming aimed at the tween market promoted some stereotypical depictions of gender, while debunking others. The study analyzes the content of 40 different tween TV shows in two genres – the “teen scene” shows, aimed at girls and often taking place in a home or school setting, and the “actionadventure” shows, aimed at boys and often taking place out in the world, according to Ashton Gerding, the study’s principal author.
The good news first: in both types of shows, Ashton says boys and girls were found to participate in the same activities, like taking off on an adventure or solving a problem, meaning that what the characters were actually doing in the programs were not necessarily organized along stereotypically gendered lines. “We didn’t see the old school gender roles where women couldn’t participate in science, and we did find that boys and girls were equally likely to exhibit bravery, or handiness with technology.”
And now the bad news: in the action-adventure type programs, while the girls were doing the same things as the boys, “females outnumbered by more than three to one, with one token female in a group of three to four male characters,” says Ashton. In the teen scene programming, on the other hand, girls and boys were more equally represented. To boot, in both types of programming, “the male characters could have any kind of appearance – overweight, in shape, good-looking, or not that attractive – while the female characters, more often than not, were thin, attractive, and kept up their appearances by primping.”
Natalie Blais, a Calgary mom of 12- and 14-year-old daughters and an eight-year-old son, finds that television shows aimed at the tween audience often place girls and boys in clichéd relationship dynamics.
“Girls are shown as silly, flighty, super-emotional, and talk about boys all the time. And the boys are usually trying to ‘get’ something from the girl – get her to be his girlfriend, or surrender her choices to him, which is such a bizarre relationship dynamic,” says Natalie. The girls in these shows often “abandon their friends and hobbies.” Natalie’s daughter Ashlyn, 14, thinks that TV doesn’t present an accurate picture of tween life. “On TV there are lots of girls gossiping and having catfights, and guys fighting over girls in the hallways. In my real life I don’t see that. TV exaggerates a lot when it comes to tween/teen life.”
Developing a critical eye
Talking to your kids about what they see on TV is important.
- “We always talk about media literacy – watching the TV shows with your children and talking with them about what they’re seeing,” says Ashton Gerding. “The media research shows that simply talking to your kids – and not just letting the shows play in the background – helps them to process.” Talk about gender roles and give your opinions – and ask their thoughts about how the characters express gender.
- “Parents need to have conversations with their kids and start having them think more critically about what they’re being fed by the media. Have them challenge what they’re seeing about men and women. The earlier we start having those conversations with them, the better able we are to bust through stereotypes,” says Natalie Blais.
- Natalie’s daughter Ashlyn agrees: “Parents should definitely be having conversations with their kids about what they’re watching. I know a lot of girls who haven’t had these conversations and they don’t realize that what they’re seeing on TV is not really how relationships work.”
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Feb/Mar 2015.