07/18/2014 09:45 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2014

Kids in the Middle: Media's Unique Roles for Children of Immigrants

Months ago, PlayCollective and the Children's Media Association produced an exchange between industry executives and academics on "bridging the gap" between these fields, toward incorporating research insights into media content for kids. Ever since, I've wanted to interview Rutgers School of Communication and Information Assistant Professor Vikki Katz, given her spot-on snapshot of process-based research and outcomes-based industry: As a researcher, I develop detailed explanations for why variation exists across a group of people and why they not homogeneous -- and I need that to be understood. The outcomes are not predetermined; they emerge. Industry, on the other hand, wants best practices -- what is the best, simplest way to reach this population? Well, it depends. You want one sentence? I can write you a book. What's the salable solution? You want me to sell something to these people; I want you to understand their lives!

Now is the perfect time for the interview, as Katz has a newly published book: Kids in the Middle: How Children of Immigrants Negotiate Community Interactions for Their Families.


DK: You spotlight children's "media brokering" in immigrant families, helping parents navigate essentials like bills, health care and education. Is there also brokering around mainstream media -- connecting with their new culture, or simply entertainment?

VK: Definitely. Media content is a really important way for immigrant parents and their children to become acclimated to popular culture and their new community. The book includes many examples of children and parents working together to develop shared understandings of local news, online content, and movies.

Parents and children talked about Sesame Street, in particular, as a pathway for children's English language learning, but parents also learned English. When parents and children watched movies together in English, children often developed and honed their narrative skills by summarizing the plot to help their parents follow the action.

DK: Columbia University just issued a report on the "Latino Media Gap" -- finding that Latin characters in TV and movies are substantially under-represented and stereotyped or shown in narrow ways. Why have the media been slow to expand and update their view, given this population's growth?

VK: I think there are a number of reasons -- fear of taking risks instead of doing what's worked in the past, as well as misunderstandings about Latino families. "Latino" interests and tastes are often aggregated, even though the term covers immigrants from a wide range of countries, and both U.S.- and foreign-born people. Latino families' purchasing power is also often misunderstood; low-income Latinos in particular might be seen as a limited market, but the demographic power of this audience already tops $1 trillion per year.

Also, though mainstream U.S. productions for Latino children have lagged, families also have the option of Spanish-language programming and platforms.

DK: You talk about having to ascertain what media technologies and devices families have access to, before considering content. Are there unique patterns or trends broadly in Latino households, or more narrowly in certain parts of the country or types of community?

VK: Choices about how low-income families spend limited funds provide insight into their priorities and goals. When I started conducting research for the book, every family had at least one television (and usually at least two); almost all had a computer, but only half had Internet access. That has changed considerably in the intervening five years; my current research with low-income, Mexican-origin families (which has involved interviews with parents and children in 111 families to date) reveals that many families have chosen to sacrifice their cable subscriptions so they can afford broadband connections.

The Pew Hispanic Center authored an excellent report on technology adoption in these households, showing high rates of mobile adoption and broad, early adoption of tablets.

DK: In a paper you wrote for the Aprendiendo Juntos Council (led by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the National Center for Families Learning), one sentence jumped out at me: Since "culture" is implicitly invisible in middle class, white families, other families are, in effect, held against a standard of "normal" that inevitably casts their practices as non-normative. How can content creators more objectively or productively consider non-white, non-middle class audiences?

VK: When differences in media practices, tastes, or ownership rates are noted for low-income families of color, these families are either implicitly or explicitly different from something - and that's white and middle class families. Reports often note, for example, that African-American or Latino families are "heavy" television consumers by comparison to that invisible standard, but seldom focus on the reasons for those differences.

By the same token, many still take for granted the existence of a "digital divide" between "haves" and "have-nots" when it comes to Internet and digital technology access. This binary continues to shape whether low-income families are viewed as viable markets or audiences, but the data don't support the divide's continued existence (and researchers debate whether framing digital inequality as a "divide" ever accurately described the phenomenon).

In terms of how content creators can more productively address the needs and tastes of non-white, non-middle class audiences, I would make two suggestions based on my research:

  • Framing audiences as "minority," "niche" or "Latino" is counterproductive, when more non-white babies are born in the U.S. each year than are white babies. All U.S. children are part of a spectrum of tastes and needs, with similarities as well as differences. A spectrum perspective, rather than a segmented one, can enable creators to more fully account for increased (and increasing!) diversity.
  • Spend time with these children and parents to better understand their needs, firsthand. There's no substitute for meeting families on their own turf and their own terms -- especially families that differ from creators' own language, socioeconomic status, and so on. Going into communities provides more insights than depending on the few families who are willing and able to come in for testing, who may have more flexible schedules and be more fully assimilated to American life.

Academic researchers who do in-depth work with these families can also be great resources for content creators.

DK: Are there elements from your book that might help content commissioners better understand Latino audiences' needs, interests and preferences?

VK: At the outset, I would stress that there is no single "Latino" culture -- children of Mexican immigrants have different cultural practices, symbols, and lexicons from children of immigrants from Cuba, Puerto Rico and elsewhere in Latin America. Likewise, cultural symbols and signals have different meaning or significance to children of immigrants ("second generation") compared with third or fourth generation children.

Meaningfully incorporating symbols, practices, or language from one or more of these traditions is tricky business. Meeting with families on their own terms, as I suggested above, would enhance understanding and foster innovative ways of incorporating U.S. diversity more fully into media content.

The book's most important lesson for content creators is that children's brokering activities are fundamental to how they find and experience media content. In many families, I observed elder siblings who brokered media content for preschool-aged siblings, to support their linguistic and cognitive development.

National studies, notably by the Longitudinal Immigrant Student Adaptation Project (started at Harvard, now at UCLA), support my findings that children of immigrants are more likely - even as teens - to consume media alongside family members, and less likely to do so alone or with peers, than children of U.S.-born parents. Joint media engagement provides all family members with learning opportunities; that can be a real boost for content creators.

Because children are very often the intermediaries between their families and digital platforms, researchers are also studying how tech design and search behaviors can be responsive to these specific needs. I'm excited about new work that my colleague Jason Yip and I are doing on child brokers' search behaviors; we hope it will inform web design toward making important resources more available to brokers and their families.

Latino (and African-American) families are also more likely to be mobile only homes (i.e., no landlines) and to use mobile phones for a broad array of activities, so that's an exciting, fruitful area for content development. Mobile devices -- offering access to information, online dictionaries, and translation support on the go -- are so useful for children's brokering. Parents also use mobile to multitask, calling their child broker for help as they run errands. I don't know of apps that specifically support children's brokering, but it would be great to develop one!


This post first appeared in Kidscreen on July 17, 2014.