Body Messages on Tween TV
The tween years (ages 8 to 14) are often plagued with acne, social anxiety, and desperate cries for independence. Although this life stage is disregarded in many psychological contexts, it’s actually vital in the development of identity and reasoning capabilities. The exposure to social messages and expectations during the ‘tween-age’ years can set the mold for the rest of a person’s life. And considering tweens spend a lot of their time in front of screens—research shows that tweens spend 4.5 hours a day watching TV (and that’s to say nothing of the time spent online)—it’s important to examine the messages that kids in this impressionable age group are consuming.
In many TV shows and ads, messages (both implicitly and explicitly) boil down to: “Look at this attractive, thin woman! Look at this man’s superhuman muscles! Laugh at this overweight person!” So does this disturbing messaging also appear in content made specifically for tweens? A recent research study examined messages in TV shows marketed to tweens. The study involved an in-depth analysis of five of the highest rated shows on a popular tween network. Three episodes were randomly selected from each show and researchers evaluated each episode for incidents and comments relating to the following categories:
- Appearance – Appearance-related incidents included mentions of cosmetic attractiveness, such as clothing, hair, or beauty. These incidents were further classified depending on if they were said in a positive, negative, sarcastic, or neutral tone. Appearance-related incidents occurred in all of the selected episodes, and the mean number of incidents per episode was 13.07. While just under half of these incidents were classified as either positive or neutral, 34.2% and 16.8% were said in a negative or sarcastic tone, respectively. Men and women were equally targeted with appearance-related comments, but women initiated these kinds of incidents significantly more than men. (60.7% of the recorded appearance-related incidents were initiated by women, and 39.3% were initiated by men.) Audiences of these shows laughed at 73.0% of the recorded appearance incidents.
- Weight – Weight-related incidents were classified as those that contained mentions of losing or gaining weight; stigmatization or praise of thin, overweight, or muscular bodies; or reaffirming messages that all bodies were acceptable. Weight-related incidents were identified in 40% of the episodes, and the mean number per episode was .93. Of these incidents, most supported a fit ideal. Comments that stigmatized overweightness and praised muscular strength were solely directed at men, while comments that praised thinness were exclusively directed at women. Audiences laughed at 64.3% of these incidents.
- Exercise – Exercise-related incidents included content relating to exercise anxiety, exercise resistance, exercise endorsements, or other exercise-related content. These kinds of incidents occurred in 53.3% of episodes, and the average number of exercise-related incidents per episode was 1.67. Most of these comments pertained to exercise resistance or positive descriptions of exercise. 84.6% of the exercise-related incidents were targeted at men, while women were targets of only 15.4%. Despite the small percentage of female targets in this category, comments that endorsed exercise as a preferred continuous routine were exclusively directed at women. Audiences laughed at 52.0% of these incidents.
- Food – Incidents were considered food-related if they depicted binging, dieting, or if they presented food as a reward outside of health/body outcomes. Food-related incidents occurred in every episode, but a low percentage of these food statements reflected food pathology. However, of the food-related incidents, 21.1% of targets responded negatively, 10.5% responded positively or with humor, and 68.4% had no response. Audiences laughed at 51.6% of these incidents.
This study suggests that even TV shows marketed to tweens frequently depict unhealthy messages about appearance, weight, exercise, and food. Audience reactions that reinforce the lighthearted nature of these incidents perpetuate the idea for young viewers that these kinds of comments are acceptable. The tween years are monumental in a child’s understanding of social norms as they relate to body and appearance, so consuming messages that reinforce stereotypes about beauty “ideals” (like thinness in women and big muscles in men) could have a cascading effect, contributing to future body dissatisfaction and eating pathology.