FORT WORTH — Like many mothers, I begin summer with the best of intentions — nature walks, mornings in the park, afternoons by the pool, and lots and lots of backyard swing time. But this is Texas, and if the heat doesn’t drive you inside by 11am, the bugs most certainly do.
And so, by early July, my kids and I are mostly indoors, which inevitably means the television is on at least every now and again — a reality I concede and sometimes despise.
Still, thanks to sites like commonsensemedia.org, it isn’t too difficult to screen programs and find some that meet your family’s desires and needs. For us that usually means something animated, preferably with animal or fantasy creatures that doesn’t introduce content that’s age inappropriate or concepts that my husband and I would prefer to introduce ourselves.
We’ve mostly had success in identifying shows that we believe are worthwhile, although we never expect TV shows to educate our kids or impart values to them. That’s our job.
But apparently our careful curation of preschool TV programs could never be careful enough, at least not in the “woke” world of children’s television.
According to a new study by children’s app company Hopster, titled “Is TV Making Your Child Prejudiced?,” the lack of socioeconomic, minority and sexual identity diversity in kids’ shows is turning our kids into Donald Trump.
The report took aim at shows like “PAW Patrol” over gender balance and “My Little Pony” for lacking in its portrayal of class distinctions. (Never mind that the latter made headlines recently for its inclusion of a same-sex pony couple.) It also claimed that a third of content studied perpetuated gender stereotypes, showing “boys who fight” and “girls who are image-orientated” — stereotypes that the report authors seem to find entirely unfounded but that most moms I know probably would affirm.
More action is needed to “shape the perceptions” of children, the report recommended, because even the most innocent television content can’t just fill our kids’ heads with wonder, it has to fulfill a certain social agenda.
Hopster’s findings aren’t novel.
This spring, Rutgers University, UCLA and Ryerson University collaborated on a research project called “The Landscape of Children’s Television in the U.S. and Canada,” which similarly determined that children’s TV programs are rife with “systematic gender inequality” and bereft of characters who are disabled, LGBT, poor or minority.
The authors offered all sorts of suggestions to content creators, such as developing shows for the “audience of tomorrow” while conceding that “racially diverse on-screen characters (are) somewhat reflective of the actual population.”
They also recommend that programs feature fewer fantasy characters because “children learn prosocial behaviors better from stories with human characters.”
It is certainly true that what children watch and digest affects their understanding of the world. That’s why so many parents limit and curate what their children are exposed to on TV. And it’s why so many parents, like myself, opt for programs that portray fantasy or even idyllic worlds that avoid violence, death and suffering. Our kids will face the realities of this world, its challenges and adversities soon enough.
But the most galling thing about these reports isn’t their judgment of TV content, it’s that they seem to want TV programs to transplant the role of parents. They shouldn’t.
Surely I’m not the only mom who isn’t relying on television programs to address racial or gender inequities, to introduce my kids to people of differing physical or mental abilities or to present concepts like socioeconomic gaps. That should be (and is) coming from me. And I’m guessing that most parents feel the same.
I hope these reports don’t motivate the creators of the fantasy rainbow kingdom in “True” or the charming Scottish bird family of “Puffin Rock” to change their content. But either way, start braving the heat more and watching less TV.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.