Shows For Tweens Are Bad For Self-Esteem

Woman watching tv1

Woman watching tv1With pimples, armpit hair, and chubby cheeks, I looked like a pretty typical tween. That is to say, I looked very little like any of the tweens I saw on TV.

Think about it: When was the last time you saw a pimply, pubescent tween girl on TV? A new study says never.

Researchers at the University of Missouri and the University of Delaware analyzed episodes of 40 different shows that air on popular tween networks such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and the Disney Channel. They found that there are no unattractive girls on shows aimed at eight to twelve year olds. Absolutely none! 11.5 percent of boy characters and 0 percent of girl characters have “not very attractive” facial features on tween TV. As if that didn’t serve to sufficiently panic impressionable tweenage girls, almost all tween girls on TV worry about their looks and often receive comments about their appearance. The message: No matter what girls do, we’d better look good doing it.

For both boys and girls, seeing only tween girls who meet traditional standards of beauty on TV creates an unhealthy expectation.

“The tween period is one in which children learn what is cool, who is cool, and how to be cool,” says Ramel Smith, a clinical psychologist from the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. “They are creating identities separate from that of their parents, and are looking for a guide from the culture and their peers. It’s also a time of physical changes and awkwardness that can make kids self-conscious about their bodies.”

While adults have the cognitive stability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, young adults often do not. Older actors frequently play tweens on TV — and while this may make for a more pleasant filming experience, it makes for a self-conscious viewing experience. Older actors don’t have braces, pimples, or developing breasts. Add that to the fact that tweens watch more TV than any other age group, about 4 to 5 hours per day, and it’s no wonder that tweens have the reputations for hyper-sensitive, body-consciousness that they do.

So what can you do to boost your tween’s self-esteem? We all know that banning TV shows doesn’t work—your tween will just watch censured content on their laptop or at a friend’s house. I like to encourage my tweenage cousins to think more critically by watching TV with them and commenting during the commercial breaks. Skipping on the make-up every once and while doesn’t hurt either.

Recropped headshot by Jason DailMikaela is a nonprofit professional, social activist, and theatre artist from Raleigh, NC. She graduated in 2012 from the College of William and Mary. 




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  1. Jane Brown

    A very vulnerable age, for sure! And, we know that we can make even elementary school children into little media critics by asking them questions such as, “what’s missing? ” and “do any of your friends look or act like that?” The hard part is watching these shows with your tween, since now everyone has their own screen. Have to make time for “co-viewing” so the questions get asked.


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