The researchers offer no easy explanation for the higher levels of media consumption by minority kids. “Children may turn to media if they feel their neighborhoods lack safe places to play or if their parents have especially demanding jobs that prevent engagement,” offered Frederick Zimmerman, chair of health services at the UCLA School of Public Health. With 70 percent of black children born to unmarried parents, casual observers might jump to the conclusion that higher levels of TV viewing might relate to the stressed and unstructured environments often associated with fatherless households. The Kaiser report declares, however, “that differences by race/ethnicity remain—even after controlling for other factors such as age, parents’ education, and single vs. two parent homes.”
Moreover, the racial disparity in media consumption has exploded in the past five years: the gap between white and black TV-watching was two hours and 12 minutes a day in 2004, but doubled to four hours and 23 minutes today. African-American and Hispanic children are also substantially more likely to have a TV in their bedrooms, to eat meals in front of the tube, and to live in households where they report “the TV is left on most of the time even when no one is watching.”
There’s both bad news and good news associated with this research.
The most depressing aspect of the new study involves the appalling waste of life and opportunities currently afflicting some of society’s most vulnerable young people: with black and Hispanic kids spending 30 hours less every week than white kids in homework, exercise, reading, developing social skills and family interaction.
The good news concerns the chance to make a major difference without a huge governmental initiative or some other top-down effort at reform. If parents, churches and communal organizations concentrated on relatively minor changes in black and Hispanic homes—removing TV from children’s bedrooms, turning off the tube during meal-time, placing firm limits on hours devoted to electronic diversions—the results could change lives.
Michelle Obama has drawn worldwide attention (and considerable praise) for her energetic campaign to curb childhood obesity, which particularly harms minority kids. Some right-wing commentators have mocked her efforts but they’re wrong to do so. The high-profile attempt to combat poor eating habits and lack of exercise represents precisely the sort of do-it-yourself reform that conservatives ought to applaud, relying on altering mindsets and behaviors rather than building costly new bureaucratic empires.
The same basic approach, drawing support from across the political spectrum, should take square aim at the media consumption gap. The figures show that children of every ethnicity squander so much time on empty electronic amusements that they qualify as media addicts, but in minority communities the level of addiction looks especially damaging.
Racism receives (appropriate) blame for countless ills in our society, but no one can argue that ongoing discrimination against children of color somehow causes their over-use of entertainment media. Making a change in viewing habits in minority homes shouldn’t require overcoming centuries of bigotry, or reaching into the hearts of the white-Anglo majority; it only requires reaching for the off-switch on the remote control.
Reducing wasted hours on TV, gaming, and other distractions provides a powerful opportunity for self-help and empowerment. Kids can’t control the skills or dedication of their teachers and parents can’t determine the quality of curricula, but the generations can certainly work together to impact the way time is invested—or squandered—when kids come home from school.
This column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST on June 13, 2011.