Media Images and Their Impact on Children: A Call to Action

The following post was originally published by the Children’s Media Association and appears here with permission.

On June 3, 2020, The New York Times published an article titled, “Please Stop Showing the Video of George Floyd’s Death” by Melanye Price. Ms. Price made the case that repeated showings of this and other videos of African Americans being brutalized by police have not led to change and may be having unintended consequences such as “reinforcing pernicious narratives that black lives do not matter while affirming the actions of people” who commit the terrible acts. Her arguments are important and deserve our attention. I wonder if by repeated showings of such images, however, including the scenes we see daily — of protestors being mishandled by police, windows being smashed, stores being looted — are having another unintended consequence.

This article brought to my mind an experience I had soon after 9/11. At that time, I was an executive at a cable company that hosted an extensive line-up of programs targeted at children ages 3–12 years. A few days after 9/11, our executive team met to discuss what, if anything, we should do in response to the tragedy. My department promulgated the policies and practices the network adhered to for our children’s programming. We acknowledged reports from the child development community about how children, particularly young children, when seeing the images over and over of planes flying into tall buildings, buildings crumbling, and fires breaking out on TVs watched by their parents thought that these events were happening again and again. Researchers began to look differently at how large-scale crises that are covered by wall-to-wall media affect children.

Before 9/11, psychologists typically considered only children who witnessed trauma or experienced a direct loss to be at higher risk for mental health consequences in the ensuing weeks and months, observed Robin Gurwitch, a faculty member in the Duke University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Center for Child and Family Health. The attacks on 9/11 — and the saturation and repetition of those terrifying images — changed that.

“Many children were too young to understand that what they were seeing was the same footage being repeated,” Gurwitch said. “They thought more and more towers were falling.”

At our staff meeting, we discussed these early findings and made the case that it was our collective responsibility to acknowledge that these images were traumatizing to young children. That led us to wonder if similar images might exist in our own programming line-up and whether such images could contribute to the trauma.

We made the decision that we needed to examine current programs for similar images and scrub them from the shows. It took us a while to review the programming. We were quite surprised by the number of images we found in the “animated action-adventure” and “superhero” series. We did indeed find examples of superheroes firing lasers into skyscrapers causing them to burst into flames. There were scenes of animated characters running from falling buildings. We found an instance of lasers fired at an enemy plane causing it to careen to the ground. We edited out all of these scenes.

My experience leads to me ask — is this happening again with the repeated images of not only the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of police but also the violence captured in videos of the protests in the streets? Are young children again thinking that these incidents are happening over and over again?

It also begs the question of whether similar review and editing is required of today’s programming lineups to mitigate the potentially deleterious impact on children. Are there scenes of superheroes or even law enforcement officers “reinforcing pernicious narratives” about minorities? Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, noted this in a recent newsletter:

“Scientific research has demonstrated that biases thought to be absent or extinguished remain as ‘mental residue’ in most of us. Studies show people can be consciously committed to egalitarianism, and deliberately work to behave without prejudice, yet still possess hidden negative prejudices or stereotypes.”

My colleagues in the children’s media community are well-meaning, intelligent, well-informed people, but these are different times and we need to look inward. Are there images in programs targeted to children that include hidden, unconscious biases, subtle discrimination, and stereotypes? Are there images that reinforce attitudes about in-groups or out-groups? Is the omission of some ethnic groups another way of conveying unconscious prejudice?

Let’s look honestly and consciously at the images that we have offered to children, in mainstream media and children’s programming. We can do better. We must do better. This is a call to action.

Donna MitroffDonna Mitroff is the Founder of The Kidvocate Group, LLC. She is an educator and children’s media expert with nearly three decades of experience in both the non-profit and entertainment industry including commercial broadcasting, cable and public television. She consults with production companies, networks and studios in the areas of program development, content design and review, children and families and media use, media policy, and media impact. She is currently the Head of the Advisory Board of the Children’s Media Association Bay Area. Donna started her media career in Pittsburgh where she worked with Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” She holds a PhD in Education and an MA in Special Education.

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