Five-year-old Claire's family is home to Hobbes, a new "designer" cat that looks like a miniature tiger. As the kindergartner explained, "Mommy named him Hobbes, you know, like the cartoon Calvin and Hobbes. If you want to see pictures of what he looks like, just Google ‘Toygers.' He can't have babies 'cause he's been neutralized." Claire's comment touches upon three major types of popular media: the newspaper, the Internet, and television (she was familiar with a television commercial in which a spray "neutralizes odors" and substituted that word for the less familiar "neutered"). As Claire's experience illustrates, children are inundated with messages from the popular media, and may interpret them differently than adults.
Given the proliferation of media messages in today's world, it stands to reason that these messages may have the potential to shape what children know, think, and do. Research on the human brain suggests that powerful visual images grab our attention and stay in our memories, and these images are the mainstay of the media. Unfortunately, media portrayals of diversity, acceptance, and inclusion often are severely limited, and the potential for this to impact the world view of children is troubling. As educators, we have a unique opportunity to help young children navigate the media messages that surround them and help them to accept and celebrate differences - a perspective that isn't often found in the popular media. To do this, we must realize that:
Children are exposed to stereotypical portrayals of race, gender, ethnicity, and social relationships in the media. When a four-year-old child was asked what her mother would do now that she had earned her doctorate, the boy replied, "I don't know - I don't think she can be a doctor. I think she has to be a nurse." The child's answer had been shaped by his babysitter's daily habit of watching soap operas in which the men were the doctors and the women, the nurses. In addition, studies have shown that more often than not, the villains in children's programming are of indeterminate (but not Caucasian) race, are older women, speak English with an accent, or do not have families. Viewing these messages for many hours can exert a strong influence over what children expect and accept as "normal."
There often is a discrepancy between children's direct experience and what they see in the media. For example, statistically speaking, a classroom would include children from various minority groups, children from low-income families, and children with disabilities. Yet media depictions of classrooms typically concentrate on white, upper middle class children and a few highly stereotyped minorities. Teachers can point out and discuss the discrepancies between the child's own classroom and the relatively homogenous classrooms depicted in the media. Another type of misleading information is evident in advertising directed at children. Most young children have seen captivating toys in a television commercial and later been disappointed to discover that these items require complicated assembly, quickly drain batteries, or that each item pictured is "sold separately." The identification of these misleading or false messages is a way to begin teaching young children to become more media literate.
Certain media messages directly contradict the messages of kindness and compassion we want children to embrace. Although we may be well aware of the "isms," there are other types of stereotyping and prejudice that are everywhere in the media. Overweight individuals, for example, are portrayed as eating constantly or consuming huge portions of food. Most comedies include at least one sight gag to reinforce the message that those who are overweight deserve to be ridiculed. It is not surprising, then, that overweight children are a primary target for teasing and bullying, and, in studies of children's responses to different body types, the ones who were overweight had cruel labels heaped upon them, such as "ugly," "stupid," and "lazy." We can't assume that all children's programs are equally acceptable. If time allows, watch some popular children's programs and look at them thoughtfully for the subtle and the sometimes not-so-subtle lessons that are conveyed.
Children often imitate what they see in the media, with media messages coming through in their play. A preschool teacher was surprised to overhear three girls begging one of their classmates to "play Emeril Live again!" The boy would stand at the wooden stove, manipulate the various plastic food replicas around, and then add imaginary spices with a flourish and call out, "BAM!" At other times, children may imitate what they see with less acceptable results. Matthew, for example, had watched several Pirates of the Caribbean videos and decided to act just like Jack Sparrow. In the process, he knocked over a block structure that three children had worked on throughout the free play period. His teacher wisely decided that it was not enough to say "sorry" and move on; rather, Matthew had to cease swashbuckling long enough to help rebuild the block structure in addition to making his apologies.
Without a doubt, the popular media affect children's perceptions, not only of others, but of themselves. A first step is to accept the fact that the media are not "neutral"; rather, they may have a potent and pervasive influence on children. Therefore, the best approach is to work with families to monitor - and when possible, take steps to counteract - the messages allowed into children's homes and schools, hearts and minds.