In a key scene in the movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, the main character, after swinging between the city’s skyscrapers, stands on a building, removes his mask, and reveals … that he’s Black.
Watching, my 14-year-old son—who’s also Black—squealed with joy. It was one of the few times he’d seen a positive Black image modeled back to him from a screen, and clearly, it felt good.
He’s not imagining the absence. While modern children’s television shows are far more diverse than the shows their parents’ watched as kids, streaming apps expose children to older shows that often don’t represent reality when it comes to diversity and inclusiveness. According to 2019’ Hollywood Diversity Report, 80 percent of lead actors in movies are white, as are 78 percent in scripted TV shows; if diverse actors and themes are included, they’re overwhelmingly stereotypical.
That lack of accurate on-screen diversity can create subconscious ideas in all of us—including children—about people of color, according to clinical psychologist Allison Briscoe-Smith.
“Implicit bias is basically the unconscious associations we make when we see repeated messages about who’s on the upside of power and who’s on the downside of power,” she explains. “Our brain works really fast to fill in information for us. And those blanks, sometimes, are biased.”
It’s an issue that’s been amplified during the pandemic, thanks to screen times that have doubled from a year earlier. So when kids watch a group of friends who are all white, a science club that has only one girl, or villains who are consistently people of color, they begin to see that as a normal reality, says Polly Conway, senior TV editor at Common Sense Media.
“You don't really notice it,” she says. “But it's there and it gets into your brain.”
Long-term studies report that kids of color show lower self-esteem as a result of the on-screen images, while white boys show an increase in self-esteem. And these effects last into adulthood. The good news is that when kids watch programming that’s more inclusive, self-esteem in marginalized groups increases without diminishing white children’s self-esteem, says Ramon Stephens, executive director of The Conscious Kid.
The key to changing how your kids’ screen time impacts their implicit biases lies in understanding that it’s happening, recognizing it when you see it, and taking concrete steps to counteract it.
"When parents and caregivers are intentional about naming and disrupting biases [in media], they take an active role in modeling what anti-racism and solidarity looks like,” explains Stephens. “They have an opportunity to build their child’s ability to spot inequity and take action.”
Why representation matters
The idea that racist ideas in children come only from explicitly racist parents is a myth, Stephens says.
“Parents don't have to necessarily do anything for those biases in their kids to start, because kids receive so many messages from the broader social context and internalize them,” he says. “It’s something that we're constantly being surrounded with and just kind of breathing in.”
History has repeatedly proved that. The Clark and Clark “doll tests” from the 1940s was one of the first to demonstrate how implicit bias impacts children. Given a choice of dolls with different skin colors, both Black and white children gravitated toward the white doll and attributed positive characteristics like “pretty” and “nice” to it. Almost 70 years later, in 2010, another version of the test resulted in almost identical results.
Similar experiments in the decades since the Clark and Clark studies have asked children to draw themselves as princesses. Kids of color often skipped the task because they said their “skin was too dark to be a princess,” Stephens says.
But that attitude changes when the notion is disrupted on-screen, Briscoe-Smith says. In fact, research suggests that when depictions of princesses shifted in recent years to become more inclusive and focus on character traits (for instance, Frozen’s Elsa and Anna relying on themselves rather than a Prince Charming) over physical beauty, little girls expanded their thinking as well. Experts believe that similar changes in kids’ media can increase positive perceptions of race as well.
Why empowerment matters more
Choosing shows that have Black, Asian, or other characters of color is a step forward, but if those characters aren’t important to the story, they can be just as damaging as their absence, Stephens says. Tokenism, stereotypes, power imbalances, and implied hierarchies based on wealth can all factor into the biased messages your child is receiving.
It’s why diversity in programming is especially important for kids who live in highly segregated communities (white or communities of color), Stephens says.
“A lot of kids have their first interactions with diverse communities through television,” he says. “If you keep seeing the same roles and the same narratives, that also shapes the ways in which you see other communities.” For instance, if your child watches shows in which white characters are “the smart ones” and the Black characters excel at sports, they might begin to believe that’s normal.
“Much like adults, what children see [on screens] is what they believe the world really is,” Briscoe-Smith says. “As children continually see certain messages about who’s in power, or how people are treated, it becomes part of the information that they use to understand how the world works.”
How to disrupt implicit bias from your kids’ TV
Kids may test out explicit bias early (using derogatory slurs, for example), but that often tempers off around middle school when they learn it’s not appropriate. But implicit bias (making assumptions based on race, gender, or other factors) continues into adulthood—unless it’s intentionally disrupted by parents.
Parents can start by introducing kids to shows that have diverse stories and communities. (Experts recommend shows like Doc McStuffins, Craig of the Creek, Hero Elementary, and Molly of Denali; Common Sense Media also highlights TV shows, movies, and apps that have positive role models and representations.) To normalize multi-racial characters, comment on why what the child is watching is great: “I love seeing that character—he always has something good to say about his friends.”
Briscoe-Smith says co-viewing shows with your children can also help counteract implicitly biased messages they might be receiving. She advises parents to take a long-term approach that engages kids in conversations about what they’re watching. Some of the issues to look out for include:
• Stereotypes: Are kids of color portrayed stereotypically? (Is the Asian child shy or the Black child tough?)
• Power imbalances: Does characters of color have major speaking roles? Are they always being helped by the dominant community? (For instance, is the person of color “there” but never involved in resolving a situation? Or do they need help from the white character to fix problems?)
• Tokenism: Is there only one friend or teacher who’s a person of color?
• Reality checks: How is this show different from real life? How is it the same? (Do the people of color your family knows behave this way?)
• Self-esteem: How did this show make you feel? (Does watching how the characters are represented make you feel uncomfortable? Afraid? Sad? Recognizing and identifying those emotions can help your child self-regulate their media intake now and in the future.)
The goal, Briscoe-Smith says, is to create critical thinkers who recognize racial inequality when they see it—on-screen and off—and develop a habit of questioning what they’re seeing whether you’re in the room or not.
“Ultimately,” she says, “we want them to be able to say, ‘I’m not going to watch that because it doesn't make me feel great when I do.’”
Reinforce family values offscreen as well
The reason that kids don’t grow up believing that Wylie Coyote’s anvil antics are the way to settle disputes is because children’s lived experiences don’t reinforce that idea, Briscoe-Smith says. But implicit racial biases can have lasting power when kids receive messages about racial inferiority through their lived experiences—such as not seeing Black executives in a parent’s office—that support what they’re seeing on TV.
That’s why Stephens says it’s important for your family’s real life to contradict negative images your child might be watching on screens and reflect positive ones. That includes encouraging cross-racial friendships and reviewing your school curriculum to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion.
When you do that, “you're starting to build your child's own wealth of knowledge that they can draw from when they run into stereotypes or problematic experiences,” Stephens says. So when they see a racist idea in a show they’re watching, “they can say, ‘I know folks from those communities. I know that that's not the only story of that community that I've seen.’”
And even when parents do all the right things to prevent implicit bias in their kids, it’s still not unusual for a child to say or believe something racist. Experts say that’s the power of implicit bias—and that parents should continue fighting it.
“No matter your upbringing or the life that you've lived, you will have biases, and they're going to affect what you do,” Conway says. “Putting a little bit of time and effort into thinking about what those are and how to work against them every day is something that we all need to do.”