Preschoolers watching children's television programs are viewing negative stereotypes of older people that could bias youth attitudes toward the elderly, according to a Brigham Young University study in the new issue of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media.
"With just under 40 percent of older cartoon characters having negative portrayals, stereotyping is still an ongoing problem," said Tom Robinson, associate professor of communications and lead author on the article.
In the study, characters that appeared to be older than 55 were portrayed negatively 38 percent of the time. Some characters were depicted as angry, senile and crazy; others were shown to be wrinkled, ugly and overweight. Although most older characters had minor roles in the programs' story lines, some roles emphasized these stereotypes. In one program an older teacher turned into a piñata, and children beat and broke her open. Other older characters in other programs played the roles of villain, the grim reaper and zombies.
Robinson monitored animated programs from ABC, FOX, WB, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. Episodes were recorded from Saturday morning children's programming, after-school weekday programming and children's broadcasts. His research team conducted a content analysis, scanning for older characters and classifying their personality traits, physical appearance and general portrayal as positive or negative. Robinson and his team analyzed nine hours of videotape from each network for a total of 45 hours. They evaluated 1,356 total characters, of which 107 were older characters.
Robinson and co-author Caitlin Anderson, who was a BYU graduate student at the time of the research, also recognized that some cultures – the Japanese and some American Indian cultures, for example – respect and revere the older generation for their experience and wisdom. Robinson said this is not the prevailing attitude in the United States, and the media portrayal of older people is due in part to these negative sentiments. Citing the lead character on Disney Channel's "Kim Possible," Robinson noted Kim's attitude about her grandmother: "She's just so old, like she's from another planet."
"These stereotypes, when learned at a young age, have a lasting impact," Robinson said. "We don't want to raise a generation fearful of growing old, or have these children rise to positions of influence and power only to dismiss the older age group because of these stereotypes."
Related at BYU: English professor Jay Fox examined how mental disorders are characterized in movies, ranging from older films such as "The Three Faces of Eve" to more recent releases such as "As Good As It Gets." In a different study led by Susan Hill, an assistant professor of health education, researchers found that many of the claims made in health-related infomercials are untrue. Another research project conducted by Laura Padilla Walker, assistant professor of marriage, family and human development, shows that parents feel a greater threat to their adolescent child's values from the media than from peers.
Writer: Noelle Nicolai