Professor of Psychology
B.S., Abilene Christian University
Ph.D., Texas Woman's University
As a professor and a mom, Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker is alarmed with the effect sexualized messages in the media are having on modern adolescents. This concern and a passion for knowledge has prompted her to dig deeper into the "whys and hows" of these pervasive messages.
"When my oldest daughter was about 10, I started to notice these messages that she was getting about what made a girl important: her looks and ability to be in romantic relationships with boys," Shewmaker says. "Seriously, I was seeing this in children's products and marketing."
A dangerous message
Shewmaker believes the messages children receive from TV shows, advertisements and other forms of media are dangerous. For Shewmaker, the media is a powerful tool growing more powerful with each generation.
"Media is more pervasive and accessible than it has ever been in the lives of children, and it's imperative that we understand how the persistent depiction of rigid gender stereotypes and the sexualized objectification of females affect how children learn to see themselves and their place in the world," Shewmaker says.
Shewmaker began her research process about five years ago by diving into literature about the sexualized messages children are receiving. She had noticed a startling trend in marketing and shows designed specifically for children. From there, she began to study the link between media exposure and self esteem. She also considered factors like parental involvement and religiosity.
Research on adolescent perceptions
Her initial research indeed found a link between exposure to media and perceptions of one's self. She has now taken her research a step further examining adolescents' self-objectification, overall contentment with their lives and the role of gender stereotypes.
"I have a vision for my daughters, which is so much bigger than looking pretty and having boyfriends. I have a vision for the young women who I teach that is about so much more than being sexy. And yet, that is the primary message that girls and women get from sexualized media," she says. "I want them to have a bigger vision for themselves. I want that for all young girls. I look at all of the girls and women who I know and see how bright they are, how creative and brave and kind they are."
She is now working with a team of undergraduate and graduate researchers compiling the data she has collected. She next plans to conduct interviews with adolescents and get their perspectives on media. She has also organized a team to analyze the content of a popular children's program and search for recurring themes.
"My goal in conducting and sharing my research, and that of others, is to take the findings and make them accessible to other parents. I want to help parents and children learn to become more critical media consumers, and in the long run, media makers," she says. "I believe that media has the power to provide positive messages to children as well, and we need more media makers out there with that vision."