Sara Brown, Undergraduate Student
Arkansas State University
Children’s television has a responsibility to educate and keep its child viewers informed of the ever-evolving times in today’s society (Children’s Television Act of 1990). More households than ever before have access to TV, technology, and programs; consequently, children’s television has expanded its reach around the world (e.g., Friedman, 2006) to educate child viewers on contemporary world issues and events—not just on math and reading. A major societal issue in 2020 has been the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Children’s television programs have been increasing awareness of racial issues, but for those entities to make a difference in the education of their child viewers, episodes, messages, and other content will need to be a staple in programming.
A person’s race is a perceptible salient characteristic. Children can differentiate between faces of different races as early as 3 months of age (e.g., Sangrigoli & de Schonen, 2004), and children as young as 2 form preferences for other children of their own race (e.g., Hirschfield, 2008). Young children are not color-blind; 3-5-year-old children may develop racial biases, even those that may not reflect their parents’ racial attitudes (Peterson & Bigler, 2006). Clark and Clark (1947) conducted a groundbreaking study in which Black and White children were asked to attribute certain traits to dolls of varying skin tones between black and white. They found that children of both races were more likely to attribute positive traits to the dolls with lighter skin and negative traits to those with darker skin. Replications in recent years have yielded similar results (e.g., Gibson et al., 2015). These studies suggest that it is not just parenting that affects the development of children’s racial biases. Even if children aren’t hearing racist comments from their parents, they are still going to be exposed to them through movies, television, the news, and society in general. As a result, prejudices are likely to favor those with white skin. The issue is that many of these children will grow up to be our next leaders and their biases will impact our children, especially Black children. If we do not talk to our children about racism issues that exist in our society, history will repeat itself.
Children’s television networks and programs have addressed issues regarding racism in the past. One example is a scene from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in which Mister Rogers invites officer Clemons, a black police officer, to join him in cooling off his feet in the pool. This episode originally was aired in 1969 after the end of legal segregation but during the time in which Black and White people, among other things, were not typically permitted to swim in the same pool in many areas (Kettler, 2020). More expansively, in 1993, Sesame Street debuted an episode titled Racism on Sesame Street (Episode 3140, n.d.). Sesame Street was originally intended to bring educational programming into the homes of socioeconomically disadvantaged children of all races when it first aired in the late 1960s; it features a multi-ethnic cast whose characters cared for one another regardless of race. More recently, Disney in 2019 began placing disclaimers on some of its older films such as Dumbo and Peter Pan that contained racist stereotypes, that read “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions” (Iati, 2019). Similarly, Warner Brothers, although not specifically a children’s network, placed warnings on some of its older Looney Tunes episodes beginning in 2006 (Marshall, 2015).
In response to the resurgence of the BLM movement, children’s television networks and programs have increased their programming on racial issues. Sesame Street, for example, has shared support for the movement multiple times on their social media accounts and partnered with CNN to host a virtual town hall event where families submitted questions about racism and the BLM movement to be answered by experts and characters from the show (Chaet, 2020). Nickelodeon (2020) broadcast a Nick News special titled Kids, Race, and Unity in which young activists spoke out; Nickelodeon also made anti-racism resources available for children and parents. Nickelodeon and Disney each donated $5 million to various organizations working to end systemic racism and advance social justice (e.g., NAACP, Equal Justice Initiative); they also shared support for the movement on social media and aired messages on their channels denouncing racism. PBS Kids have shared support on their social media, hosted a special event for parents showing ways to talk to children about race and racism, and have shared other helpful resources. In a matter of a few weeks, networks have done more than they have at any other time in the past 50 years.
Although laudable, the current support BLM receives through network programming is not enough. Another problem needs addressing: On June 1, 2020, Nickelodeon aired a black screen with the words “I Can’t Breathe” pulsing to the sound of breathing for 8 minutes and 46 seconds (Adebowale, 2020). Parents criticized the network for scaring their children with the message. Although the intention in airing the message was good, it appears to stop short in addressing the generally acknowledged root of the problem which is systemic racism. A similar argument can be made for messages aired by other networks. Additionally, because the messages/events only aired once, within a few days of each other, it is unlikely they had any long-term impact on the children who viewed them. One message, one special event, or one episode of a program is not enough to have a lasting impact on viewers, especially on issues as layered as systemic racism.
A potential solution is to continue having deep discussions of systemic racism with detailed descriptions and examples of anti-racism practices. The children’s networks need to incorporate positive beliefs and behaviors about all races into their shows regularly to begin to have an impact on viewers. It would also be relevant to hear from readers about their ideas.
There will inevitably be parents who don’t like the anti-racist efforts on the part of children’s networks and don’t want their children exposed to them. This may be a difficult issue because such parents may complain that children’s networks should focus on education; there may not be a simple solution to this, but hopefully, their numbers will be small. Children’s television is a major part of a child’s world. Children’s networks’ mission statements indicate their dedication to “[help] kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder,” (Sesame Workshop, 2020) and to “[encourage] children to interact as respectful citizens in a diverse society,” (PBS Kids, 2020). Therefore, creators, writers, developers, researchers, and networks have a major responsibility to educate on these issues. A lot of this education will be the first of its kind. Repetition in children’s television aids in learning (e.g., Crawley et al., 1999), so the more commonplace anti-racist messages and themes that are embedded in the programs, the more likely it is that a child will pick up on them and internalize them. Sharing messages on social media, airing them during regular programming, or producing scenes or full-length episodes with anti-racism as their core theme as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street did in the 60s and 90s, are imperative to bring about change, but it’s going to take more than just one message or one episode to get that point across. There also needs to be more research on the long-term impact of children’s television on their attitudes to race and racism.
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