Older Characters in Children's Animated Television Programs: A Content Analysis of Their Portrayal

By Robinson, Tom; Anderson, Caitlin | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Older Characters in Children's Animated Television Programs: A Content Analysis of Their Portrayal


Robinson, Tom, Anderson, Caitlin, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Because young children have a difficult time telling the difference between fantasy and reality, they are highly susceptible to the socializing effects of television, especially those shows on children's television channels and animated programs (K. E. Miller, 2003). Traditionally, parents, teachers, friends, and clergy have had the responsibility for the socialization of children; however, in today's world, the mass media play an ever-increasing role in this socialization process (Signorielli, 2001). Witt (1997) stated that in addition to the models of behavior provided by parents and peers, "a further reinforcement of acceptable and appropriate behavior is shown to children through the media, in particular, television" (p. 254). Because television has a limited amount of time to tell a story, it relies on stereotypical portrayals to get points across quickly with the intent of appealing to the emotions of the viewers rather than their intellect (Signorielli, 2001). Social or observational learning theory (Bandura & Waiters, 1963) asserts that viewers, especially children, imitate the behaviors of television characters just as they do parents, siblings, and friends. For children, television provides a simplistic set of rules and behaviors for how they should act and respond in certain situations and to certain groups of people.

Another theory that helps explain television's socializing effect on children is cultivation theory. This theory contends that repeated exposure to television's stereotypical images cultivates beliefs, assumptions, and common conceptions of societal facts, norms, and values in viewers and that such exposure influences viewers' conceptions of reality, standards, or judgment, attitudes, thoughts, and behavior (Gerbner & Gross, 1976; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994). Therefore, it can be assumed that children who are exposed to stereotypical portrayals of older individuals on television could have a distorted view of how older individuals really are in society. This is especially true if their real-life experiences are not different from what they see on television. If children do this, as many studies have suggested, then it is important to examine the content of the programs they watch (i.e., animated programs) to determine what, if any, stereotypical images exist.

Bishop and Krause (1984) conducted a seminal study on the portrayal of older characters in animated programs. This study looked at the three major networks at the time (NBC, ABC, and CBS) to determine the frequency of older characters, the quality of life of those characters, the themes relating to aging, and any references to old age during Saturday morning television. Their results indicated that aging was not a dominant feature of Saturday morning cartoons and that older people were of "little importance or concern" (p. 93). The authors summarized their finding by stating that the images of older people in television cartoons are just like those in children's literature, namely that the aged are portrayed as only "partial people; they are not developed; they are not necessary to the real action that transpires around them" (p. 94).

The purpose of this study is to update and add to the research on aging stereotypes in children's animated television programs from the Bishop and Krause (1984) study. The changes in broadcasting, including the development of cable and satellite television, the creation of children's television networks (Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon), the increase in the number of hours of children's programming shown on television, and the increase in the number of older people in the United States today requires that the portrayal of the older characters be reexamined and updated. This study will determine how older characters are portrayed today and if any changes and improvements have been made over the past 20 years. The effects on the audience members will not be determined by this data, but a description will be provided of how older people are represented, portrayed, and displayed for an audience of children.

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