Psychological Impact on Kids

Are movies engraining racist worldviews in children before they can even talk?

Pyschological Effect of Movies on Youth

Recently, there has been a large amount of public awareness towards violence in children’s movies and video games, claiming that violence in media significantly increases the chances that the child becomes aggressive and violent him or herself. However, what is less known, is that false and limited representations of people and places in media have large effects of children’s brains as well. In fact, both have the same psychology behind their claims: schemas. Schemas are cognitive structures, rather like mental templates or 'frames', that represent one’s knowledge about objects, people or situations, that are derived from prior experience or knowledge. Children’s experiences are inherently more limited than those of adults, and as they develop their cognitive abilities, they assimilate new information into their existing knowledge base, and evaluate the information based on previous experiences. That is where media comes in. If children do not yet have realistic schema about Africa, for example, they will use TV representations of the continent and people to form their base schema. And after a base schema, children are less likely to assimilate new knowledge that is not consistent with their existing schema. Furthermore, what is dangerous about children’s base schemas derived from limited and false representations in media, is that we use schemas to guide our behaviour, predict likely occurrences, and help us make sense of our experiences. In short, we are more susceptible to perpetuating stereotypes.

On top of this, children’s brains are developing more rapidly during the first five years than any other period of their lives. Youth’s brains are making billions of connections through synapses, also known as “wiring,” and their experiences impact the types and amount of connections made.

What makes portrayals in media especially dangerous is the fact that after centuries of film-making, directors know how control the audience. The director is aware of how to make the audience feel scared, happy, sad, and will not abstain from doing so because movies that evoke emotional responses are “good” movies. The director’s choice of lighting, soundtrack, and camera angle are all calculated decisions to manipulate the audience. So how is that dangerous? Let us take The Lion King for example. In the scene “Be Prepared,” starring the antagonist, the color scheme is black and dark green, the camera angle is taken below Scar to make him seem all-powerful and evil, and the music is malicious and eerry. Yet, in the scene “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” starring the protagonist, the color scheme is bright and colorful, and the music is light and cheery. The director’s choices influence the way certain characters and environments are represented, no matter if that is a false or limited representation.

Our Suggestions for Parents

Hollywood often depicts groups of people or cultures in the form of stereotypes — recognizable but inaccurate views of one group of people by another. This website has focused on stereotypes pertaining to African and African culture, including the misconceptions that Africans are uncivilized, unintelligent, and savage. In order to combat similar inaccuracies, we ask you as parents to challenge your child to question what he sees and hears, so he develops an eye for sexism, racism and other prejudices in mainstream media. Ideally, your child will come to realize that images on TV or in movies are not reality. Instead, they are the result of a producer's, a writer's or an actor's point of view.

Be on the lookout for media that uses accents or skin colors to connect negative behavior with a certain cultural group. Are some cultures made out to be dumb? Unimportant? Aggressive? By pointing out negative portrayals based on race, gender or ability, you teach your child not to accept inequity. Your child will begin to appreciate that characters don't have to be portrayed in a narrow way, and that many behaviors and roles have value. If possible, point out when representations of certain cultures or people are missing. Finally, be aware of what your child is watching, and take on the responsibility of screening media to ensure your child is watching appropriate content, as well as being exposed to a variety of viewpoints. Here are some good places to start: