Parents' good intentions for online search still tend to be sexist

"Is my son gifted?" "Is my daughter overweight?" are among the questions parents are typing into Google. And despite their good intentions to learn more about their kids, parents' searches are showing clear gender biases.

By , Guest Blogger

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    In this file photo, a man raises his hand during a meeting at Google offices on October 17, 2012.
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According to a recent New York Times op-ed titled “Google, Tell Me, Is My Son a Genius?”, parents’ Google search trends teach us a lot about parents’ biases toward their sons and daughters. Specifically, parents tend to search the Internet for information affirming their sons’ brilliance, but when it comes to their daughters, they focus on physical appearances – revealing our deeply held cultural beliefs that boys should be smart and girls should be pretty.

Internalized sexism is alive and well in America today, embedded in the subconscious of well-intended parents.

Now, because I’m a professor with an interest in girls’ media culture, I read a lot of scholarly studies about girls’ socialization. So when I read this op-ed, I immediately thought of studies that show how parents’ unspoken biases can harm their daughters. Specifically, researchers have found that when mothers feel critical about their daughters’ bodies, their daughters are significantly more likely to have poor body esteem – even if the mothers have kept those critical feelings to themselves. Our kids are savvy and attuned to us; they can pick up on our unstated feelings.

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Therefore, if Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s op-ed is right – if parents across the US are asking Google if their daughters are thin and pretty – daughters across the nation must be feeling pretty badly about their bodies, even if they never catch wind of their parents’ search strings.

How heartbreaking.

When I posted to my Facebook page about this, my colleague and friend Melissa Atkins Wardy responded: “I’m not sure why, but this article shocked me a bit. I have never in eight years of raising a daughter searched anything about her appearance. I’ve searched health and development stuff on both kids, but the difference shown in this article feels like a canyon in my heart right now. 

She added, "And how are we supposed to teach parents to do better when it comes to the media when they are such a huge part of the problem themselves?”

It’s a good question. If we parents are trying to do right by our kids, and trying to teach our kids to resist the stereotypes found in our culture – but, paradoxically, we’re part of the same culture we want our kids to resist – what can we do?

First, we can take stock of what we already know about media stereotypes in kids lives. For example, we know that media portrayals of boys and girls mirror cultural attitudes.

For example, studies show that kids feel it’s really important for boy characters in the media to be smart and for girl characters to be pretty – mirroring their parents’ search strings. Girls identify with female characters they consider attractive, whereas boys identify with male characters they consider intelligent. This is probably because of the biases they they pick up on at home, at school, and from other media.

When television shows and toys show girls in stereotypical roles, with stereotypical traits (boys who are valued for being smart and girls who are valued for being pretty), they’re reflecting widespread cultural ideas about girlhood and boyhood. But those stereotypical representations also reinforce those attitudes – making it cyclical. This means we need to break the cycle.

Therefore, my take is this. Effecting change requires three things:

  1. Consciousness-raising (helping us all to see our own biases, so that we can overcome them);
  2. Media literacy work (to help parents and kids break down and resist the biases they see on screen); and
  3. Activism, to hold media producers accountable when they perpetuate these biases.

There’s so much work to be done, it’s overwhelming. But it’s important, and it’s time.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Rebecca Hains blogs at rebeccahains.wordpress.com.

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