Parents Want More Diversity in Movies & Television Programming for Kids

Common Sense Media
(Image credit: Common Sense Media)

SAN FRANCISCO—A new report from Common Sense Media finds that there is a notable gap between the diversity parents would like to see in the movies and TV programs kids watch and the content that the industry delivers. 

A new report released today by Common Sense, "The Inclusion Imperative: Why Media Representation Matters for Kids' Ethnic-Racial Development," found that almost 6 in 10 (57%) parents say that the media their child consumes has prompted conversations about diversity, and an even larger percentage of parents say it is important that their children are exposed to content that helps them learn more about their own culture, religion, or lifestyle. 

In addition, 78% of parents surveyed want their children to be exposed to media that teaches them about cultures, religions, and lifestyles that are different from their own, underscoring the importance of narratives and storylines that represent the diversity of a multicultural America.

The data in the report, however, shows that glaring diversity issues remain in media, as people of color continue to be underrepresented and mischaracterized in movie and television roles across media platforms, networks, and services. For example, characters of color in shows most watched by children aged 2-13 are more likely to be depicted as violent, and women of all ethnic-racial groups in adult programming are more likely to appear in sexualized roles.

"Media has a profound influence on how we see, understand, and treat people, especially those within and different from our own race or ethnicity. And this is no different for kids," said Onnie Rogers, PhD, a researcher from Northwestern University who co-authored the report. "Media representation is important to how kids build their perspectives on their own ethnic-racial group, as well as that of others. This research gives us a deeper understanding of how media, race, and representation are all intertwined with lasting effects."

The report synthesizes existing research from more than 150 journal articles, book chapters, reports, and other academic sources to get the best available understanding of how media could influence children's ethnic-racial development and includes a nationally representative survey of over 1,100 parents of children from 2 to 12 years old.  

"This report makes it clear that parents use and value quality media to help teach their kids understanding, acceptance, and inclusion," said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. "At the same time, the entertainment industry isn't giving them enough choices. Parents want more from their media in terms of inclusivity and representation, and it's time for content creators and the platforms that make that content available to create TV shows, movies, games, and apps that help all kids feel included and celebrated."

To address concerns about diversity, Common Sense Media is adding a new rating for diverse representations that can help parents identify high-quality media that includes and elevates accurate portrayals of characters of color. 

Key findings of the report include: 

  • People of color are underrepresented in movie and television roles across media platforms, networks, and services. Latinos are underrepresented in every form of media and across all leading roles (for example, despite being 18% of the population, Latinos make up only 5% of speaking roles in film). Native Americans are essentially invisible across the media landscape.
  • Media representation is important to how kids build their perspectives on their own ethnic-racial group, as well as that of others. The review of available research reinforced the idea that media can have both positive and negative impacts on kids' ethnic-racial development. On the negative side, stereotypical portrayals of people of color can promote harmful views about and responses to people of color among White audiences, and can also negatively affect children's future professional aspirations and undermine their sense of self. At the same time, high-quality children's media can promote positive ethnic-racial attitudes and interactions.
  • Even when people from Asian, Black, Latino, Middle Eastern, or Native American groups are represented across media platforms, they are commonly stereotyped. Characters of color in shows most watched by children age 2-13 are more likely to be depicted as violent, and women of all ethnic-racial groups in adult programming are more likely to appear in sexualized roles.
  • White people are overrepresented across all media platforms and roles, including in children's TV, in top-grossing films, and in lead roles on network, cable, and streaming television. Recent studies have found that White people occupy 76% of lead roles on streaming and network TV shows, even though they represent only 60% of the population. The overrepresentation of White people may contribute to children developing an inaccurate understanding of the social world.
  • Exposure to negative media depictions of their own ethnic-racial groups can undermine children's sense of self. Studies examining the influence of media use on Black children and adolescents found that exposure to stereotypic media representations was related to lower self-esteem, satisfaction with one's appearance, confidence in one's own ability, feelings about one's ethnic-racial group, and academic performance.
  • Watching favorable depictions of their own ethnic-racial group can positively impact children's self-perceptions and views about their own ethnic-racial group.
  • For example, among Black elementary school girls, exposure to liked Black TV characters is associated with more positive feelings about their own status, appearance, and happiness.
  • Representation is important to parents, and it's about more than just seeing their race/ethnicity in the media. About 6 in 10 parents (57%) say it is important for their children to see people of their own race/ethnicity in the media they consume. This is most important to Black parents, with 75% saying it is important.
  • Parents find it very important that their children be exposed to media content that encourages acceptance of others who don't look like them. Two in three parents believe that the media has a big impact on how their kids treat others (67%) and on the information they get about other races/cultures (63%). As such, over 80% of parents say it is important that the content their children are exposed to teaches them to be accepting of people who don't look like them and their families.
  • There is a lot of room for improvement in terms of how diverse communities are represented in children's media. Most parents feel that White people are often portrayed in a positive light in the media their children are exposed to; one in four believe that portrayals of Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQIA+ people are more likely to be negative. Almost half of parents (47%) believe that Black representation in children's media is often stereotypical; 4 in 10 believe Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and LGBTQIA+ representation is often also stereotypical.
  • Parents want to see more nuanced, sophisticated representations of BIPOC people and communities that provide positive role models and dispel damaging stereotypes about these groups. Unprompted, parents most often said they wanted BIPOC people and communities to be portrayed with more respect, as good people, and as educated and successful.
  • About two in three parents (65%) feel that media has a big impact on their children's professional aspirations, underscoring the importance of providing positive role models for BIPOC children. In addition, 62% feel that media has an impact on how well their child does in school. 63% of parents believe that media has an impact on the information children have about people of other races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures.

A copy of the full report can be downloaded here.

George Winslow

George Winslow is the senior content producer for TV Tech. He has written about the television, media and technology industries for nearly 30 years for such publications as Broadcasting & Cable, Multichannel News and TV Tech. Over the years, he has edited a number of magazines, including Multichannel News International and World Screen, and moderated panels at such major industry events as NAB and MIP TV. He has published two books and dozens of encyclopedia articles on such subjects as the media, New York City history and economics.