Skip to main content

Big Bird and Your Budding Bigot

Research finds educational television programs aren't succeeding in reducing kids' prejudices.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
A photograph of Big Bird in Sesame Street. (Photo: University of Houston Libraries/Wikimedia Commons)

A photograph of Big Bird in Sesame Street. (Photo: University of Houston Libraries/Wikimedia Commons)

The years between the ages of three and six are particularly precious. That's the period kids begin school, start to establish their independence ... and form their racial and ethnic prejudices.

Attempting to counteract that last, problematic development has been a longtime goal of the creators of educational television series. Sadly, however, a research team led by Marie-Louise Mares of the University of Wisconsin–Madison reports the impact of such shows appears to be extremely limited.

"Despite our vigorous attempts to unearth associations between children's racial attitudes and their exposure to these types of programs, there were no significant direct effects of exposure to intergroup friendship shows such as Sesame Street, and minority hero shows such as Dora the Explorer," the researchers write in the journal American Behavioral Scientist.

Mares and her colleagues describe two studies featuring three- to five-year-olds and three- to seven-year-olds, respectively. For the first, 111 children (81 percent of whom were white) were shown photos of a white, Hispanic, African-American, and Chinese girl in random order. For each, the children were asked: "What if this girl was in your class at school? How would you feel about that?"

"Children with more exposure to hero shows liked minority characters more."

Their parents then reported how often they watched Dora the Explorer, Ni Hao, Kai Lan, and Little Bill—programs featuring, respectively, a Hispanic, Chinese-American, and African-American primary character—as well as Sesame Street, which regularly models interracial and interethnic friendship.

"Overall, there was virtually no evidence of relationships between habitual or experimental media exposure and children's attitudes," the researchers report. "None of the four happiness ratings were significantly predicted by any of the media exposure variables."

The second study looked for indirect effects of such shows, and featured a more diverse group of 145 three- to seven-year-olds, including 83 whites, 20 Asians, and 29 children of multiethnic backgrounds. Again, parents were asked how often their kid watched a series of shows, including several with prominent minority characters.

After expressing their feelings about a potential minority classmate (as in the first study), the children were shown images of characters from the aforementioned TV shows and asked how many they could name. This was used as a marker for their familiarity with the programs.

Then, the children looked at images of some of the shows' animated characters. For each, "the researcher named the character and program, labeled the character's race/ethnicity, and asked the child to indicate if there were any girls of that race/ethnicity" in the photos of the real-life kids they had examined earlier.

Here, a bright spot emerged: The researchers did find some positive results if kids' viewing habits and parental guidance lined up in a very specific way. The researchers found "a small indirect effect of exposure to minority hero shows, but not friendship shows." Specifically, "Children with more exposure to hero shows liked minority characters more." This preference bled into reality, as these hero-loving kids were decidedly less pro-white when assessing hypothetical classmates.

"Importantly, this indirect effect was moderated by children's ability to match each character with a photo of a real child of the same race/ethnicity," the researchers write. "The indirect effect of liking the character on racial/ethnic attitudes was only significant for children who could make this connection at least some of the time."

Needless to say, this requires children to make a conceptual leap from the fantasy/cartoon realm to the real world. Discussion with parents, of course, can help them do so, but a 2010 study found parents were extremely reluctant to "have more than a superficial discussion about race" with their young kids.

The results suggest moms and dads would do well to get over their discomfort and have that talk. Watching Dora go exploring won't change your kids' attitudes toward Hispanics, but linking her in their minds with the Mexican-American family down the street just might.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.