June 28, 2016

Diversity in Children's Media

Jacqueline Dougé, MD, MPH, FAAP
Medical Director, Bureau of Child Health
Howard County Health Department
Blog site: DrJacquelineDouge.com

I had an interesting conversation with my older son after watching an interview of Marvel Comic authors and illustrators.  The interviewer asked about the diversity of modern day Avenger characters.  The new Spiderman is African-American and Latino, Ms. Marvel will be Pakistani-American and the new Thor is a woman.  My seventeen year old son was surprised that the characters he grew up watching were going to be of different genders, religions, races and ethnicities.  I asked him what he thought about the increasing diversity of the characters.  His response wasn’t what I expected, “I’m older now and don’t need the characters to be diverse to look up to them.”  Would his response have been different if he had grown up watching diverse superheroes?

But he also made another interesting point; characters shouldn’t be created solely to meet a demand for diversity.  My son’s response surprised me. I expected to hear that he agreed with me that there should be more diverse images and characters for kids.

My son and I have had many conversations about race, especially being African-American.  We’ve had more discussions over the past few years in light of news stories that report on the murder and violence of young black men.  In addition, he’s had to address negative biases based on his race in school.  My suggestion of having more kids of color in media was a possible solution to combat negative stereotypes and normalize the idea that different people live, work and play together.  My son is very aware of the lack of diversity in media, and as a recently graduated senior no longer needs to look up to superheroes.  He realizes that diversity in media is important, but to just have characters of different races and ethnicities isn’t enough and shouldn’t be done solely to meet some demand or current trend.
In 2013 blog post on diversity in children’s media, Dr. Kevin Clark wrote, “Diversity is more than demographics. We need to think about diversity holistically. Yes, it’s about gender and race, but we need to add a component to go with those demographic components of diversity—being aware of what children hear, see, and do.”  In his blog, he discusses his work to help young children create video games. He realized that even thought he was the same race of the children, African-American, he was working with, their experiences were different.  Race isn’t the only factor that connects or resonates with kids.  In creating diverse media for children, one must also consider whether the content and experiences are relatable and realistic.

Children’s media has the opportunity to create positive and enriching experiences for children.  What children see, hear and read influences their self-identity.  In the 2015 AAP News article on racial socialization, which refers to the process how kids learn to deal with racial issues, the authors discussed the role that pediatricians can play to help parents navigate the issue of race with their children.  One strategy mentioned was to discuss with parents the role that positive cultural and diverse images can have on children.  These images provide a counter narrative to images of negative stereotypes and violence.

Most pediatricians aren’t in the business of developing media, but there are opportunities to promote positive culturally diverse media such as the books recommended to our families and books and magazines displayed in waiting rooms.  In addition, there are opportunities to create diverse media content, i.e. write a book, create videos.

The term diversity is broad and complex.  It must not only have individuals or images that check a box, such as gender, race, religion or sexual orientation, but include the multifaceted layers of being a person.  Our kids are surrounded by and use media, why not have it also reflect the diversity of its users?

Resources to learn more about diverse media for children:

    •    Help your kids find books with diverse characters

    •    Apps and Games with Diverse Characters

    •    DiversityinApps

Anderson A, Ellison A. Helping families navigate race issues should be an ongoing conversation. AAP News 2015;36;2. Retrieved May 28, 2016, from http://www.aappublications.org/content/aapnews/36/8/11.full.pdf

Clark, K., Ph.D. (2013, July 09). Diversity in Children's Media Is More Than Just Race or Gender - Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning & Children's Media. Retrieved May 28, 2016, from http://www.fredrogerscenter.org/2013/07/09/diversity-in-childrens-media-is-more-than-just-race-or-gender/