What’s wrong with TV for kids?

13 shows worth watching

Expert picks

Sierra Filucci, editorial manager for Common Sense Media, offered her favorite role models for kids.

“Doc McStuffins” (Disney Junior)

This cartoon for preschoolers includes a young girl who serves as a doctor to her stuffed animals. She’s also African-American and her mom is a doctor. “She’s a great role model who still plays with her toys,” said Filucci.

“Legend of Korra” (Nickelodeon)

This show for tweens and older kids offers an action, science fiction setting with a strong, powerful female character. (It’s a follow-up to “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”) “She’s super powerful; she’s got a strong internal compass, a sense of duty. She’s not perfect. She makes mistakes and learns from them.”

“Parks and Recreation” (NBC)

This workplace comedy for teens and adults is set inside the parks department in a small Indiana town and stars Amy Poehler as dedicated bureaucrat Leslie Knope. Filucci is a big Knope fan: “She’s absolutely fabulous and completely nonsexualized, which is really hard to find.” She likes that the show focuses on Knope’s being “really competent and goofy and silly and accomplished.”

“Star Trek: The Next Generation” (in syndication)

One of Filucci’s all-time favorite role models is Captain Picard from this Star Trek reboot, good for ages 8 and older. “He’s sort of the epitome (of a role model): kind, patient, strong leader who is very thoughtful about the kind of work he does. He’s an adventurer who cares a lot about how people feel.”

“Daniel Tiger” (PBS Kids)

This animated tiger stars in a spinoff from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “He’s a really sweet male character who deals with a lot of realistic feelings and emotions that young kids, both boys and girls, deal with.”

Local parents’ favorite shows

Plus quotes from parents:

“Peg + Cat” (PBS Kids)

“‘Peg + Cat’ is my favorite. Peg is a great role model. We use the calming-down and problem-solving techniques and approaches from that show.”

“Curious George” (PBS Kids)

“Is funny and makes you think outside the box constantly.”

The Muppets (movies and syndication)

“They have moved from generation to generation and have always addressed topics with class, education and some humor.”

“Jake and the Never Land Pirates” (Disney Junior)

“It teaches kids that even if someone is mean to you, take the higher road and help them when they’re in need.”

“Dora the Explorer” (Nick Jr.)

“She’s an independent female who explores.”

“Ni Hau Kai Lan” (Nick Jr.)

“They teach friendship lessons, and we’ve actually used some episode storylines.”

“Adventure Time” (Cartoon Network)

“For teens. Finn and Jake are always trying to help people or fix their own mistakes (that they accept responsibility for).”

“The Backyardigans” (Nick Jr.)

“Songs are catchy and the show teaches kids to use their imagination to have fun.”

Other picks

“Peppa the Pig,” “Sofia the First,” “Wallykazam,” “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” “Wild Kratts,” “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” “The Chica Show,” “Matilda”

Females in TV and movies

28% of characters with speaking roles in family films from 2006-11 were female.

31% of characters in children’s TV shows in 2012 were female.

11% of family films had gender-balanced casts.

19% of children’s TV shows had gender-balanced casts.

Source: Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

It’s no secret kids spend a lot of time in front of various screens — about seven hours a day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. While some of that time is spent in front of computers and video games, a majority is spent watching television and movies.

What kind of messages are kids getting from these shows and movies? What kind of role models are kids finding through these avenues?

The good news is there are lots of good TV shows out there for kids. The bad news? You have to look hard for the good stuff, weeding out shows with bad stereotypes and poor role models. And finding shows for younger children is far easier than finding shows for elementary school-age kids and teens.

“There are so many places you can find shows and movies these days,' said Sierra Filucci, editorial manager for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that offers unbiased media reviews for parents. But Filucci says parents can’t trust any one provider to offer good content. “It’s out there. It’s just not as easy as turning on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon.'

Filucci says those channels offer some quality shows, but parents can’t trust them entirely and need to make their own decisions.

Girls vs. boys

One of the biggest drawbacks to television programming aimed at children is the lack of parity between girls and boys. According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, less than 31 percent of characters on children’s TV shows are female.

Family-friendly movies are even more imbalanced, with just 28 percent of speaking parts going to female characters. Furthermore, parents will be hard-pressed to find movies and TV shows with an even balance between male and female characters — according to the institute, just 19 percent of kid’s TV shows and 11 percent of family movies have a balance of genders.

Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute, said, “We are showing a media landscape that is bereft of female characters.' And if female characters are present, Di Nonno says, they frequently “don’t have any real attributes' or are used as eye candy.

Filucci says there’s a common misperception that persists among those who make movies and television that girls will watch shows and movies featuring boys, but boys will not watch shows that feature girls. Filucci says this is incorrect, and a recent article in Slate pointed to ratings for female-centric “Sofia the First,' “Doc McStuffins' and “Legend of Korra' that bore this out (the latter actually drawing more boys than girls).

Filucci says TV can also show a lot of stereotypical behavior for boys as well, such as resolving conflict through violence. “We want boys to see a variety of male characters who run the range of personality types and deal with conflict in a variety of age appropriate ways. And we want boys to see girls on TV who are smart, capable, worthy of attention and who aren’t sexualized,' Filucci saidt.

Di Nonno agrees that stereotypes work both ways. She believes it’s important for boys to be shown embracing child care, for instance, and to learn “that their definition of masculinity isn’t relegated around dominance and violence … and that boys see women in leadership roles.'

Filucci encourages parents to keep the idea of gender balance in mind. For instance, she loves the show “Phinneas and Ferb' for grade school-age kids, calling the characters “smart, creative and really fun to watch.' But, the main female character is “whiny, obsessed with her boyfriend' and used as a comedic tool. Filucci isn’t saying not to watch this show; she’s saying watching shows with this kind of gender disparity over and over “sends lessons to kids about what the roles are for boys and the roles for girls.' If you watch this show, just keep in mind to balance it with other shows so children can see “girls in nonstereotypical roles.'

Ashton Gerding was the lead researcher on a paper that examined how male and female characters were depicted in shows aimed at tweens (“teen scene' shows aimed more at girls and “action/adventure' shows aimed more at boys). The analysis, which appeared in the journal Sex Roles, included 40 different shows that were examined for each character’s behavior, attractiveness, personality and more. Gerding was surprised to find that girls and boys were portrayed as being able to do similar things, such as do something brave or use technology, “but only attractive girls are allowed into the story.' In the action/adventure genre, the researchers found “no unattractive females' compared with 10 percent of the male characters being labeled as unattractive. The takeaway for Gerding is “if you’re male, it doesn’t really matter what your body or facial attractiveness is, you can be a part of the story … (and) only attractive females are in the story.'

Further, the researchers noted that in both genres, the female characters were seen primping, talking about looks and receiving comments about their looks. Gerding believes this sends the message to tween girls that “people can make comments about my appearance if I’m a girl and boys learn it’s appropriate to make comments about girls’ bodies.'

Tweens vs. preschool

Everything changes once children hit about age 6. Television programs for preschoolers are actually quite good and tend to focus on educational and positive social messages, according to Filucci. “But once a kid turns 6, it’s almost like the gloves are off,' Filucci said.

The programming switches from educational and positive to all about comedy and what will make kids laugh. This can often mean stereotypes, or simplistic, easy targets like a “fat person falling,' said Filucci. Parents of older children have to deal with another hurdle, too: their kids’ opinions.

Instead of parents dictating the choices, kids at this age are more likely to have their own ideas and to come home wanting to watch the same shows as their friends.

“You lose a little bit of control,' said Filucci.

She acknowledges that making good choices at this age group can be hard. For instance, Filucci has highlighted the show “Jessie' twice — once it was on a “good role models' list to point out that the main character has a lot of positive characteristics and is a caring, thoughtful character. Another time, the show ended up on a “worst role models' list because it features “a lot of secondary characters who are just pure stereotype — ethnic stereotype, gender stereotypes; it’s really hard to watch.'

And shows that run back-to-back on the same network can offer completely different viewpoints, with one show featuring well-rounded characters and another “really hammering the guy’s a jock and the girl’s a ditz,' said Filucci.

The only way parents can make good choices is to watch a show along with their kids and try to see where the show is coming from.

“The tween demographic is super tricky for parents,' said Filucci.

Di Nonno also acknowledges that the gender disparity is much more pronounced in shows for older children. “Clearly preschool does a much better job. When you hit programs for age 6 and above, it’s a much different scenario.'

Movies vs. television

“TV does a better job than family films, for sure,' according to Di Nonno, regarding depictions of women and girls.

Finding quality family-friendly movies can be a challenge, especially for older children. “There’s just a lot that’s out there that’s not very good,' said Filucci.

She supports the “powerful female warrior' trend happening now, with the films “The Hunger Games' and “Divergent.' But, she said, the “goof ball guy movies' that come around each year (like “Grownups') are “chock full of stereotypes about men and women,' featuring guys who are clueless and women “are either really controlling and bossy, or sex objects.' Meanwhile, Filucci says, the action superhero movies can be very fun to watch as a family but can often contain intense violence.

“They are raining death down on people; there’s a lot of sort of iffy ethical issues that I think are portrayed over and over again in some of these,' Filucci said.

Advice for parents

• Watch alongside your kid. Parents can learn whether a show portrays their personal values. Parents can also mitigate some questionable messages and help children think critically about issues.

• Remember your influence. Talking about what’s important to you and sharing your values does get through — “They do care about what their parents think,' said Filucci.

• Research before watching. Check out Common Sense Media (www.commonsense media.org or download the group’s smartphone app) for objective reviews of TV shows, movies, books, games, apps and more. The reviews offer information about what material is in the show (violence, questionable language, consumerism, sex and more), without judgment about what’s right or wrong. Some parents may not like that a character says “fart,' while others will care more that a character dies or that characters kiss.

• Think about gender. Are there strong male and female characters? What do the characters talk about and what roles do they play?

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, ajohnson@bendbulletin.com