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Friday, June 18, 2004

Ethnic Diversity Doesn't Blend In Kids' Lives

June 18, 2004; Page B1

Despite sharing a pop culture infused with a variety of ethnic influences, the most ethnically diverse generation of American kids ever is growing up in predominantly segregated environments.

That's the main conclusion of a new comparative study to be released by Viacom Inc.'s Nickelodeon, which taps into the lifestyle, attitudes and mind-sets of African-American, Asian, Hispanic and white children between the ages of six and 14. The study, by Viacom's Network and Cultural Access Group, a Los Angeles-based research firm, found that children growing up in the U.S. lead similar lives independent of their ethnicity: They are consumers of the Internet, radio and television. They value their family most -- their hero tends to be a parent, not a celebrity. Individually, they like the way they look.

But the study also reveals that the vast majority of kids in the U.S. are growing up in homogeneous enclaves where they don't have contact with peers of other ethnicities, despite the fact that the U.S. is more diverse than ever. According to census data, about 40% of U.S. children are nonwhite compared with 30% a decade earlier. But most children might see that diversity only on their television screens and when they drive through downtown.

And the study did find intriguing differences in the attitudes and practices of children and parents in different ethnic groups. For instance, African-American children, according to the study, had the most positive sense of self, being more likely than any other ethnic group to see themselves as influential. White girls tend to be the least satisfied with their appearance. Hispanic families, more than any other group, speak more than one language at home.

The study found that ethnic background -- rather than socio-economic status -- influences how much money parents give their children. Overall, 55% of children in the U.S. receive a weekly allowance. White children get the smallest -- an average of $9.20. Asian children receive the highest allowance, $13.70, and are expected to perform the fewest chores in exchange.

Asian families do have high academic expectations, however. Some teenage Asian children reported in discussion groups that their parents wanted them to study instead of working during the summer. More Asian kids -- 70% -- said they worry about doing well in school.

But Asian parents aren't the most restrictive in another sense. Their African-American counterparts set a higher threshold for their children's independence than any other group, particularly boys. More African-American parents believe that it's appropriate for their sons to go to the movies without adult supervision only when they are 18 years old, or to stay out with friends until midnight when they're 22.

"African-American mothers know their sons are at risk," notes Donald Coleman, chief executive of GlobalHue, a Detroit-based advertising agency that specializes in the multicultural market. "We populate the penal system more than other groups."

Black tweens, ages nine to 14, were significantly more likely than others the same age to believe that they make people laugh, that peers pay attention when they talk, and that others try to be like them. White girls are less happy with their looks. Significantly, more white girls -- 44% compared with 16% of Asians and 28% of African-Americans -- reported they have tried to lose weight.

Roughly two-thirds of Hispanic families, more than any other group, speak more than one language at home. That is a source of pride, not shame. The study found that Hispanic children are most likely to celebrate their culture, a likely reflection of their recognition that the Latino community is growing in numbers and influence. "What do I love most about being Latina? The food! Everybody loves our food," declared one 10-year-old girl.

"There is a cultural comfort level when you're surrounded by people just like you," says Wanla Cheng, president of Asian Link Consulting Group in New York. Indeed, black children who live in mainly black communities reported feeling more secure than African-American children who live in ethnically mixed environments.

It is possible to deduce from the study that the U.S. remains generations away from abandoning old prejudices and fully embracing diversity. But virtually none of the children used skin color, hair type or accent when told to describe differences between themselves and kids of other ethnicities.

Latino children often said that the difference between them and others is that "Whites and African-Americans eat American food. We eat rice and beans," recalls Patricia Lopez, a project director at Cultural Access Group. Asked what distinguished her from Hispanics, a white girl in Miami with one Cuban friend responded: "They have to go to sleep earlier."

In Chinatown, middle-school boys lumped together all non-Asian kids as "English-speaking," regardless of ethnicity. African-American girls in a predominantly black area of Atlanta couldn't answer when asked what differentiated whites, possibly because they interact so rarely with them.

The study involved one-on-one interviews, group discussions and surveys among 1,500 children and their parents in 16 major cities. White parents expressed the most concern about giving their children exposure to different cultures. However, only 19% of all white children interact with kids of other ethnic groups in their daily lives, the study found. Among African-American children, the second most segregated group, 62% report they live in neighborhoods and attend schools that are predominantly black.

Nickelodeon plans to syndicate the study and sell it to companies interested in the youth market. The research is part of an ongoing effort "to figure out what is going on in kids' lives," says Herb Scannell, president of Nickelodeon Networks. "We use this to check what we are doing and to develop new characters and stories."

Write to Miriam Jordan at miriam.jordan@wsj.com


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