The term "tween" is a marketing colloquialism for a child who is between the ages of 8 and 12 -not quite a little kid but not yet a teenager. A pre-adolescent.

This demographic watches more television than any other age group and is thus considered a lucrative market for advertisers. Tween television programming often consists of the following: "teen scene" and "action-adventure" , which a pair of academics say is shaping stereotypes in tweens rather than reflecting what kids want to watch.

The humanities scholars, Ashton Lee Gerding, a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri, and Nancy Signorielli, professor of communication at the University of Delaware, are publishing in Sex Roles, so they are going to find sex roles. To do so, they analyzed 49 episodes of 40 distinct American tween television programs that aired in 2011 on Disney Channel, Disney XD, Nickleodeon and the Turner Cartoon Network.

They cataloged examined more than 200 characters in terms of their attractiveness, gender-related behavior and personality characteristics such as bravery or ability to handle technology.

Obviously their determination of attractiveness, gender role behavior and personality is subjective - and swayed by the gender of the authors, their roles in academia and their interest in finding gender bias, all which makes results impossible to control for.  So they instead look at gender representation. Gender distribution in the teen scene genre mirrors the overall male-female distribution in the U.S. population but in the action-adventure genre, males outnumbered females by more than 3 to 1.

Ashton Lee Gerding says that tween viewers could potentially develop narrow conceptions about their range of possibilities in the world if they watch Disney shows. Credit: MU News Bureau

Is that sexist network executives shaping young minds and creating stereotypes? Or do girls not want to watch action-adventure programming? Telling Disney they don't know what kids want to watch and are instead going to force feed it to them seems a little odd, when most of the kids watching all that TV have 700 channels to pick from and would change the channel if a network put on something that was not very interesting.

"Tween viewers are undergoing an important developmental stage and actively seek cues about gender," said Gerding. "Television programming can play an important role in that development, so we examined tween television programming. Overall, girls were portrayed as more attractive, more concerned about their appearance, and received more comments about their appearance than male characters. However, female and male characters were equally likely to be handy with technology and exhibit bravery. This sends the message that girls and boys can participate in and do the same things, but that girls should be attractive and work to maintain this attractiveness.

"Tween television programs may help to shape the way kids think about the roles that are available for them. Therefore, we advise parents to watch these programs with their kids and talk with their tweens about their roles in society. We also advocate for media literacy programs that could mitigate some of the potential negative effects of these programs."

What negative effects are those? The authors can't tell us. Whether gender representation in some types of programs is bias or creating a product kids want to watch will remain a topic for sociology to speculate about.

Article: "Gender roles in tween television programming: a content analysis of two genres," Sex Roles.