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Are children's television programs too cool for school?

New research to be presented at the 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition looks at how school life is depicted on children's TV shows and what influence it may have on how children perceive school

American Academy of Pediatrics

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IMAGE: Characteristics of currently airing children's TV programming (CTP). view more 

Credit: Prithwijit Das

ORLANDO, Fla. - Television has a large impact on children's lives; studies have shown that for every 3 hours children spend in school, 5 hours are spent watching TV. While other studies have looked at how television impacts aspects of childhood, such as diet and exercise, little research has been done on how television shapes children's perceptions of school.

The study abstract, "Too Cool for School: Examining Portrayals of Academics in Children's Television Programming," will be presented Saturday, Nov. 3, at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2018 National Conference and Exhibition in Orlando, Fla., documented how academically-focused activities and traits are shown by characters in popular children's television programs.

Program ratings were used to identify the 30 most popular children's TV shows, and two 30-minute episodes of each program were then picked at random. Researchers examined how the shows portrayed school life and classes, how teachers were portrayed (friendly, mean, willing to help students), how the characters approached school, and stereotypical student depictions (popular, nerdy, rebellious).

Overall attitudes toward school were 46 percent positive and 33 percent negative. Teachers were portrayed in a negative light 33 percent of the time, while 59 percent of students were characterized as either "nerdy-uncool" or "socially-awkward." Shows targeted to younger viewers tended to show enthusiastic learners with a positive approach to school. But as the recommended viewing age got older, the overall portrayal of school became more negative.

"Television content can have a profound impact on the psychosocial well-being and development of students. We do not want our kids to approach school with fear or be less enthusiastic about their future academic experiences," said Prithwijit Das, lead researcher at Cohen Children's Medical in Lake Success, N.Y., "Our hope is that parents, educators, and clinicians can get the conversation going about media awareness and support high-quality television programs that get children excited about learning."

Since television is pervasive, these types of negative portrayals may have a long-term impact on the way children view their academic experiences and may impact their idea of academics and school for the future, according to the abstract authors. This study highlights the need to advocate for more positive depictions of academics and school in children's programming, especially as children get older, they said.

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Mr. Das will present the abstract, available below, from 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Nov. 3, in room Bayhill 19 of the Orange County Convention Center.

Please note: only the abstract is being presented at the meeting. In some cases, the researcher may have more data available to share with media or may be preparing a longer article for submission to a journal.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 67,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. For more information, visit http://www.aap.org.

Abstract Title: Too Cool for School: Examining Portrayals of Academics in Children's Television Programming
Author: Prithwijit Das
Lake Success, NY

Background: Studies examining the influence of commercials on children's food preferences have demonstrated how media shapes youth perceptions and behaviors. Consequently, it's important to consider how other aspects of children's lives, such as academics, may be influenced. For every 3 hours that children spend in school, 5 hours are spent watching TV. Thus, it is possible that academic depictions (AD) in TV content may affect children's attitudes towards school and learning. To date, little research has been done to evaluate AD in children's TV programming (CTP). Objective: This study aims to investigate the portrayal of academics in popular CTP through the documentation of academically-focused activities and traits exhibited by characters in the shows. Design/Methods: Ratings of currently airing CTP were used to identify the 30 most popular U.S. shows. Two 30-minute episodes of each show were randomly selected for viewing. Inter-rater reliability was tested prior to data collection. CTP were examined for # of AD, overall attitude towards academics (positive, neutral, negative), teacher portrayals (outgoing/friendly, willing to help, neutral, assigns large workload, mean), character attitude towards academics (diligent- enthusiastic, diligent-unenthusiastic, neutral, inattentive-indifferent, inattentive-rebellious), and stereotypical student depictions (popular-pretty, socially-awkward, nerdy-uncool, athletic-cool). A linear regression was done to assess the overall portrayal of academics based on the recommended age of viewers as provided by the parent network. Results: Overall, 40% of episodes contained AD. Overall AD episode attitudes are shown in Figure 1A. Teacher portrayals are shown in Figure 1B. CTP character attitudes towards academics are shown in Figure 1C. Stereotypical depictions of students are presented in Figure 1D. As the recommended age of viewers increased, the overall portrayal of academics became more negative (β= - 0.256, p<.001). Conclusions: Many CTP episodes examined in this study negatively depicted academics in shows geared towards older children. In contrast, shows aimed at a younger demographic depicted a much higher proportion of enthusiastic learners and a positive attitude towards academics. As TV content can be profoundly impactful on youth, these depictions may cause children to reflect negatively on future academic experiences and possibly diminish enthusiasm for learning. Pediatricians and educators should encourage more positive portrayals of academics in CTP.

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