Children’s Television Project allows students to access research early on, looks at discrimination in children’s media

The Eliot-Pearson Children's School is pictured on March 8, 2018. Ben Kim / The Tufts Daily Archives

Today children are consuming more media than ever before. Images in animated television have the ability to influence their young audience, according to Julie Dobrow, senior lecturer in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and senior fellow for Media and Civic Engagement in the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

“It’s really important to understand what sort of images children are seeing in this world of wall-to-wall media and multimedia content,” Dobrow said. 

The Children’s Television (CTV) Project analyzes children’s media in the United States. The idea for CTV came after Dr. Calvin “Chip” Gidney and Dobrow both saw “The Lion King” (1994)

“When I saw it I was shocked that in the 1990s that this was acceptable, that they would take characters and very blatantly, to my ear, stereotype them as to what dialects they spoke,” Gidney, associate professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, said.

Gidney thought it was particularly troublesome that a movie about the circle of life showed a natural hierarchy in the dialects used, Ye EunChristina” Koo, research coordinator for the CTV Project, said. Dobrow noted that all the evil characters in the film had non-American accents

One part of the CTV Project relies on students using a method called content analysis to look at how characters are portrayed in children’s animated media. 

“A content analysis is a systematic way of looking at a set of recorded messages so that we can compare one against another, using some sort of structural basis,” Dobrow said.

Using content analysis, students look at how characters are drawn, as well as what they sound like

“We look for the ways in which characters are depicted in terms of how they’re drawn and also in terms of how they sound,” Dobrow said. “We’re looking at issues of gender, race, ethnicity and age, and then this year we also started including images of disabilities.”

Students use coding sheets when they watch the shows outside of class to look for certain characteristics in each character. According to Dobrow, these categories are constantly being updated to make them less subjective and less ambiguous.

In a special topics course offered by the child studies department, students meet with others who have watched the same episode to talk about their results. It is during this time that students come to a final consensus, Anika Arditi, a student who has taken the course, said. 

“We fill out those forms and then in our class period we meet with other students who watched the same episode, and then we talk about our results to see if we got similar results” Arditi, a sophomore, said.

Each year CTV codes 10 different animated children’s television shows. According to Koo, three random episodes are picked from the most recent season.

CTV now has six years’ worth of data, with 180 episodes of all types of children’s television, Gidney said

CTV uses a stratified sampling method to include a variety of networks and genres of animated children’s television. 

“We want variety in the types of shows,” Gidney said. 

In the past six years, over 200 undergraduates have worked on the CTV Project, Gidney said. 

Gidney went on to say that the research is not reserved only for those interested in child development. 

Students generally work on coding animated children’s shows for CTV, but can also use the data in other projects. One student used CTV data to make graphs and other visual displays for a data visualization class, Dobrow said. 

“We’ve also had students who have taken some of the data and used it as a basis for an independent study or senior honors thesis, so there’s lots of things that you can do, lots of ways that you can get involved,” Dobrow said. 

Arditi got involved while taking Intro to Child Studies and Human Development (CSHD-0001). An interest in the field drew her into the research.

“I’ve just always had an interest in children’s media considering that children spend so many hours a day watching TV and that they receive a lot of messages from the shows about how the world is and how people act and how they should act based on what they look like,” Arditi said. “A lot of those things are very stereotypical and inaccurate.” 

Stemming from her involvement with the project, Arditi wrote a research paper on socioeconomic status in animated children’s media. Arditi used data from CTV to find the patterns she wrote about. 

Writing the research paper allowed Arditi to learn new skills. 

“For me so far it’s just been a learning experience in that I’ve never written a research paper before, like a full one with a literature review and a methods section,” Arditi said. 

Uyen Chu also got introduced to CTV while taking the introductory course after Chip came in to talk to the class. 

Chu, a sophomore, wrote a research paper looking at how female characters of color are portrayed in children’s animated television. 

Chu noted that working on the CTV project allows students to take part in research without a heavy prerequisite. Working on research early on served as a way for Chu to find that it was something she wanted to continue. 

“I think honestly it helped me find that I enjoyed the research process,” Chu said. 

The research skills from CTV have served Chu well in other endeavors, such as working in the Social Identity and Stigma Lab in the Department of Psychology and in applying to internships. 

“A lot of students have used some of the skills they’ve picked up at CTV to help them get internships and jobs after graduation,” Dobrow said.

Students are also able to get academic credit for their work on the CTV Project. 

From the data collected, the CTV Project has found discrimination present in children’s animated television. 

“The main finding that we’ve had is that even today in 2020 the world of children’s animated programming is a very inequitable world,” Dobrow said. 

The cartoon world is very different from the real world. In reality, the male to female sex ratio is about one to one. 

“The cartoon world is 76% and 24% female,” Gidney said.

Racial trends in cartoons don’t reflect the current demographics in the U.S. either, Gidney added. Stereotypes that are present in the real world can be persistent in the world of children’s animated television, Gidney said.

“There’s some very deeply ingrained biases and stereotypes that are of our whole society that are also mirrored in the cartoon world,” Gidney said. “Then there are things that are complete distortions of the real world.”

The CTV Project not only looks at the content being produced but also talks to some producers of children’s animated media to try to figure out why these stereotypes persist

“We’re talking to writers and directors and producers and vocal casting directors and some of the actors who voice characters, and asking them questions about ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Why are you doing it the way you’re doing it?’” Dobrow said. 

One goal of the CTV Project is to make this data accessible. For that reason, the CTV Project publishes its findings in both academic journals and more mainstream sources.

“We think that our results are really important, ultimately, to get into the hands of people who are regularly in contact with children,” Dobrow said. 

Gidney added that it’s also important for this data to be brought to the attention of producers of children’s animated television. With this information in hand, producers have the chance to recognize inequalities and potentially make changes. 

Both students and faculty involved in the CTV Project note that the data has the potential to be valuable in many aspects. 

“You know this is the kind of research that we think is fun to do, but beyond that we think is really important,” Dobrow said. “We think it can make a difference.” 

Additionally, through doing research as part of the CTV Project, students are able to reflect on their own media consumption.

“What’s really interesting about this project is finding those stereotypes that often go unnoticed as a child because you aren’t aware of those types of things,” Arditi said. 


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