Why Diversity in Children’s Media is So Important

In 2019, young people spent an average of 2 hours per day watching television shows (Rideout, 2019). This viewing emerges so early in life that the American Academy of Pediatrics decided to release guidelines about screen time for children as young as 18-months-old (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016). This demonstrates how important it is to explore the effects of such early and constant media exposure. Cultivation Theory states that exposure to media helps to shape thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors, and viewers adopt the assumptions and beliefs of media content as reality (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). Children are particularly vulnerable to media messages and use what they see in media to create their beliefs about themselves and others. Thus, the media industry holds great power over the socialization and self-concept of young people. Media can influence viewers in positive ways, but often become problematic when considering the underrepresentation or negative portrayal of certain identities such as gender, race, disability, and socioeconomic status.

One report (Lemish & Johnson, 2019) examined North American children’s (up to age 12) television content, including 476 programs with 1,654 main characters, on channels such as Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, Disney Jr., Nick Jr., Nickelodeon, Sprout–Universal Kids, and PBS Kids. What they found in United States media was staggering:

  • Sixty-five percent of characters were white and female characters were more likely to be non-white or racially ambiguous than male characters. This is almost representative of the racial make-up of the U.S., as about 60% of the population is White, Non-hispanic and Non-latinx (U.S. Census Bureau).

  • Only 38% of characters were women or girls, while almost 51% of the US population is female (U.S. Census Bureau).

  • Female characters were twice as likely to solve problems using magic while males were more likely to solve problems using science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) or their physicality.

  • Fifty percent of female characters were shown to be wearing revealing clothing and had other physical traits that symbolize “sexiness.” This is twice the number of males that were sexualized.  

  • The majority of characters were thin, and more females than males were portrayed this way. Research shows that women are vulnerable to images of thinness in media and that exposure can be harmful (Posavac, Posavac, & Posavac, 1998).

  • One percent of characters had any sign of physical disability or chronic disease, while 20% of the population lives with a disability (Okoro, Hollis, Cyrus, & Griffin-Blake, 2018).

  • Two percent of characters were portrayed as having lower socioeconomic status, when about 20% of children in the U.S. live below the poverty line (NCCP).

 Why is this a problem? Research shows that a lack of representation in media can lead to negative psychological outcomes for those with identities that are underrepresented or negatively portrayed (Tukachinsky, Mastro, & Yarchi, 2017). For example, a study on the effects of television exposure on the self-esteem of elementary-aged children showed that TV exposure related to lower self-esteem for Black girls and boys and White girls, but was actually related to higher self-esteem for White boys (Martins & Harrison, 2012). One explanation for such findings is that non-white and non-male youth are seeing little representation, or negative portrayals, of their gender or racial identities on screen. In addition, they might feel like they fail to live up to the unrealistic and unattainable expectations that are put forth in these media. If young people are watching negative depictions, or are not seeing themselves reflected at all, in their favorite shows, they may begin to feel invisible or unimportant. They lose the opportunity to see people with their identities and features being portrayed in a positive way.

Fortunately, identification with representative characters can lead to positive outcomes. Research shows that identifying with popular characters with the same identities in mainstream media leads to higher self-esteem on several dimensions (Ward, 2004). Such results underscore the importance of realistic, diverse, and inclusive representation in children’s media.

Research shows that individuals engage with media in order to fulfill social identity needs; avoiding media that do not meet those needs and seeking out media that do (Abram and Giles, 2007). With the ever-changing nature of the media landscape, there are options other than traditional television and movies. In particular, the time that young people spend watching online videos has doubled in the last 4 years, while the time they spend watching traditional television shows has decreased (Rideout, 2019). A possible explanation for this drastic change could be that young people are beginning to flock to user-generated platforms, like YouTube, to seek out content that they identify with, perhaps because they are not exposed to such content through traditional television.  

How do we fix this?

Sesame Street sets a fantastic example of diversity in children’s media by including characters with a range of experiences and identities in their content that airs around the world. Their programming has continuously evolved with social topics over time, introducing Muppets and human characters dealing with diverse and real-life experiences such as autism, incarcerated parents, homelessness, substance use, and HIV. Other organizations like the Center for Scholars and Storytellers and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media are collaborating with the media industry to actively advocate for and work towards equitable and appropriate representation of all identities both in front of and behind the camera.

A call to content creators: include kids of all races, genders, shapes and sizes, abilities, and socioeconomic status in your media content. When considering the broader impact, a shift towards more diverse and realistic representation would allow children to feel more comfortable with themselves and others and set the stage for a more peaceful and positive world.



Abrams, J. R., & Giles, H. (2007). Ethnic Identity Gratifications Selection and Avoidance by African Americans: A Group Vitality and Social Identity Gratifications Perspective. Media Psychology, 9(1), 115–134. https://doi.org/10.1080/15213260709336805

American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use. (2016). Retrieved February 28, 2020, from https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx

Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living With Television: The Violence Profile.

Ward, M. L. (2004). Wading Through the Stereotypes: Positive and Negative Associations between Media Use and Black Adolescents’ Conceptions of Self. Developmental Psychology, 40(2), 284–294. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.40.2.284

Lemish, D., & Johnson, C. R. (2019). The Landscape of Children’s Television in the US & Canada.

Martins, N., & Harrison, K. (2012). Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem. Communication Research, 39(3), 338–357. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650211401376

NCCP | Child Poverty. (2019). Retrieved February 28, 2020, from http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html

Okoro, C. A., Hollis, N. D., Cyrus, A. C., & Griffin-Blake, S. (2018). Prevalence of Disabilities and Health Care Access by Disability Status and Type Among Adults — United States, 2016. MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 67(32), 882–887. https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6732a3

Posavac, H. D., Posavac, S. S., & Posavac, E. J. (1998). Exposure to media images of female attractiveness and concern with body weight among young women. Sex Roles, 38(3–4), 187–201. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1018729015490

Rideout, V., & Robb, M. B. (2019). The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teen.

Sesame Street: Julia Latest Muppet to Promote Diversity | Time. (2017). Retrieved February 28, 2020, from https://time.com/4706631/sesame-street-julia-autism-diversity/

Tukachinsky, R., Mastro, D., & Yarchi, M. (2017). The Effect of Prime Time Television Ethnic/Racial Stereotypes on Latino and Black Americans: A Longitudinal National Level Study. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 61(3), 538–556. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2017.1344669

U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: United States. (n.d.). Retrieved February 28, 2020, from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045218

Ward, M. L. (2004). Wading Through the Stereotypes: Positive and Negative Associations between Media Use and Black Adolescents’ Conceptions of Self. Developmental Psychology, 40(2), 284–294. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.40.2.284