During the tween years, friendships are the most significant relationships for children outside the family. Geographical access to friends, shared interests, social norms, and emotional support provide the basis for these friendships (Corsoro 2006; Gifford-Smith and Brownell 2003; Iqbal et al. 2017; MacDonald 2014; Rysst 2015). Around the age of eight, tweens start to gain independence from the family unit as they actively seek relationships with peers, and, while outside forces such as family and school influence these relationships, the simultaneous shift to informal hanging out supports the friendships through which children negotiate public social worlds (Adler 1998; Gifford-Smith and Brownell; Iqbal et al. 2017; Lease et al. 2002; Mitchell and Reid-Walsh 2005). This shift has been noted but not examined in depth. In the US, children spend more than seven hours a day with their peers in and outside school. Tween friendships in school are often studied, but non-structured locations, such as the home, are crucial sites for tweens to negotiate, support, and sometimes invalidate or alter the parameters of their friendships (Corsaro 2006; Duits 2010; MacDonald 2014). In recognition of this, over the course of a year I studied how tween girls enacted friendship in the private space of a friend’s home during post-television viewing hangouts.
Tweens embed children’s television networks, such as Nickelodeon and Disney, in their social cultures because these networks directly address the tween demographic. Tweens have pocket money and weigh in on purchases, thus securing advertisement income for the network (Banet-Weiser 2007). Networks create tween friendly shows that focus on, and offer solutions to, common problems in this age group. Press releases for recent television sensations like iCarly (2007–2012), Victorious (2010–2013), Good Luck Charlie (2010–2014), and Jessie (2011–2015), each of which were watched by my research participants throughout my research period, all include language explicitly referencing the tween. For example, iCarly’s press release describes iCarly as “[a] show within a show [that] follows Carly Shay and her two best friends, Sam and Freddie, as they create a webcast for and about kids their age while grappling with everyday tween problems and adventures”1 Networks actively cultivate a tween audience through content, interactive platforms, and products, as Beth Hentges and Kim Case (2013) and Marie-Louise Mares and Michael Braun (2013) remind us. Whereas programming designed just for tweens has inherent appeal, content analysis cannot reveal the intricacies of how tweens use media as cultural tools in social life.
Rationale and Methodology
Studies of television viewing too often provide demographics and effects rather than in-depth understandings of how viewers incorporate viewing and/or show content into their social culture (Griffiths and Machin 2003). This is particularly true for children. Despite the ubiquity of digital mobile devices in their lives, television remains the favored technological medium for children between eight and eleven years of age (Common Sense Media and Rideout 2011; Rideout et al. 2010). Although much scholarship on children’s television focuses on the single child, a child with siblings, or the child in the family setting, my method records girls co-viewing with peers because children’s understanding of television is dependent on the social context for viewing (Buckingham 1993; Fisherkeller 2011; Harrison 2015; Morely 2003; Palmer 1986). Group viewing expands friendship and contributes to its cohesion. In watching television episodes together, the girls share laughter, establish their own likes and dislikes about each episode, and either appreciate or criticize their friends’ likes and dislikes, as John Fiske (2002) has argued. Furthermore, the girls collaboratively recalled shows and episodes, encouraging the give and take of opinions, perspectives and, ultimately, relationships. My research can be considered a record of text-in-action, akin to the work of Beverley Skeggs and Helen Wood (2012) on reality television; their interviews and focus groups revealed that adult female working-class viewers embed shows far more that do middle-class viewers in their social lives. With tweens, however, such text-in-action research depends on methods of observation and transcription.
According to John Fiske (2002), the act of watching television can shift, create, and reinforce culture, and, by extension, relationships. The ways in which the girls in my study made sense of television and used television in their interactions shaped their micro-culture of friendship. Television shows provided them with a shared lexicon of characters, narratives, and scenarios—reference points through which they could trade opinions and expertise. Such trades shifted their social structure and standing. The girls drew insights and meanings from the televisual material, such as how a character typically acts or solves problems, primarily to embed them in their peer culture and social system. In other words, the meanings they extracted from the shows were important only insofar as they facilitated social interaction and messages in the peer group. Fiona MacDonald argues that “tween girls actively seek guidance from familiar and trusted social sources as they look to move beyond the world that has been created for them in their family structures” (2014: 46), and discussions about television offer girls one way of reinforcing their social security. Similar to what children do in their use of Harry Potter, traced by Ranjana Das, tweens “[draw] parallels between relationships in their own lives and those they read about or view” (2013: 458), but they do so in social settings that actually shift parallels.
The girls had become friends in kindergarten and considered their friendship solidified by third and fourth grade in 2013 when my research took place. For four years prior to this I had babysat Ashley,2 my primary informant, and had established relationships with all the girls in my study. I videotaped sessions of the four girls, all eight to nine years of age, as they watched television shows together and used discussions of the shows to nuance, solidify, and test the boundaries of their friendships and social standing in the peer group. I documented the various games they played, the comparisons they made between characters in the shows and one another, and the complicated ways in which they performed bonds, alienated or risked friendships, expressed anxiety or rudeness, criticized and then make up with one another, and in general used show content to explore and negotiate the boundaries of their social group. Examinations like mine reveal that tweens’ entry into social negotiations with friends and friendship boundaries occurs through shared viewing experiences of media in the home; more importantly, these shared viewing experiences are primarily occasions for girls to practice intimate discourse strategies and shift their own social standing in the group. They draw analogies between their friends and the characters, they articulate meanings that may or may not affirm friends’ meanings, and they choose to distance or strengthen particular group members through affirming or critiquing friends’ perspectives on the shows and interpretations.
Amy Kyratzis (2004) argues that children socialize one another, construct norms, and create value within groups through language and the employment of particular linguistic tactics, while Allison Pugh (2009) shows that children negotiate their status and belonging in groups. Using televisual material helped the girls in my study to expand their understanding of each other and of how others perceive them, while solidifying their own standing within the group.
Fieldwork for this project took place in 2013 over the course of a year, as mentioned above, and consisted of videotaped hangout sessions, once to twice weekly, with Ashley, Brittany, Sylvia, and Tiffany, who was absent during the incidents presented here, were all eight and nine years of age. Hangout sessions occurred at the house of one of the girls, often Ashley’s, and included viewing two episodes of a television show aimed at tweens. I chose one episode ahead of the session, ensuring a range of content, and the girls chose the second episode on the day of the session, enabling social negotiation in the selection of content. After viewing, the girls participated in discussions about the show in conversations that were often driven by their own inquiries, and they played a range of different games, including, “Television is Just Like…” about which I will say more presently, in which they engaged in hypothetical and possible outcomes, extending their knowledge about television to each other and adding to their own televisual lexicon. Brian Sutton-Smith (1997) and Gregory Bateson (1972) discuss the idea of the as if as one way of imagining hypothetical outcomes and Greta Fein (1981) argues that engaging in as if play allows children to create a safe space in which to experience a fantasy of emotional events. While it is important to recognize how this game provided opportunity for these players to examine themselves, each other, and their peers in relation to television, the conversation was primarily used in the service of friendship work.
To understand how girls talk about television and use televisual material in their relationships, I created a friendship work framework to enable me to explore the relationships between and among friends so as to examine interactions on a micro level and in relation to media culture. For tween girls, interactions between group members shape particular interests in shows and conversation surrounding television shows, narratives, and characters. When they were viewing television together, the girls used the shows to converse about yet disguise their own needs from each other and what they wanted (unconsciously) to gain from the discussions. Viewing shows together was a source of pleasure and enjoyment for these tween viewers and also provided them with opportunities to explore and maintain their friendship. This is participation in friendship work, the framework though which I examine how tween girls use televisual material to support, challenge, and maintain their relationships, not only in conversation but also in play activities, such as asking one another which character they resemble and why. My study shows how friends validated and emotionally supported each other during research sessions while also participating in disagreements, rejections, and criticisms. In this article, I focus on three of the research respondents, to highlight the deeply woven context of social life for media usage. My examples of how friendship work delineates media usage suggest that viewing media is an interactive process through which children establish and nuance social worlds. My study locates friendship in context, conversation, and physical movements to examine the use of media culture in interactions that support, strengthen, maintain, or threaten friendships. Translating conversations into a framework to understand how and in what settings children employ their media cultural lexicon to their own advantage, I clarify below how children’s culture is both grafted onto and supersedes the power of media to directly shape children’s lives.
Locating and understanding the role of media in friendship can be a tricky endeavor. Erving Goffman’s theory of facework provides a starting point to examine how friendship is negotiated in informal settings for children. Goffman’s theory of facework investigates the structure of, and approaches to, short public interactions that occur between strangers or acquaintances; facework is the process in which individuals ensure consistency in the “face,” the “positive social value a person effectively claims for [her]self by the line others assume [she] has taken during a particular contact” (1967: 5) that she presents to others. Individuals’ perception of the situation, “the line,” can be promoted and maintained or challenged by others in the conversation. Individuals have to contend with offenses, insults, and challenges which may result in having lost face, be in wrong face, or out face, which may disempower an individual in the situation.
In extending the concept of facework Pugh argues, “Children are less concerned about satisfying expectations they already sense … than about gaining the standing to take part in their social world” (2009: 53), something this study reflects. Using Goffman’s theory of facework, Pugh examined how children establish themselves within the economy of dignity—the system of social meanings and the desire to belong socially—while focusing on how individuals save face to maintain their sense of citizenship within a group. Active and passive uses of consumer culture can enable children to save face and achieve social standing with peers. My research shows how tween girls’ use of shared media to do friendship work, which is, ultimately, to both belong to the group as well as to align with or separate from an individual in the group. Alignment occurs through support and defense of another, creating a sense of solidarity in the friendship. Separation occurs when an individual feels her or his perspective (opinion or choice) is more important than another’s, creating (momentary) tension and thus weakening the relationship. Another way to separate oneself is through insults and negatively perceived behavior, such as rudeness. Using media allows shifts to occur with less risk than using other kinds of discursive material such as gossip or more direct personal comments.
Findings: Challenging and Supportive Interactions
Two dominant interaction types arose during my analysis of the year’s data—challenging and supportive interactions. In the challenging interactions individuals chose pathways that might include insults, rude behavior, and threats to perspective, opinion, and choice, distancing themselves from another or from the group. Challenges functioned to create (often temporary) fractures and divisions between friends. Direct questioning, discouragement, and interruptions are three common pathways that lead to challenging interactions that result in weakened and diminished friendships. Challenges may involve all present or just two friends. Conversely, in supportive interactions an individual actively works to align herself with another or the group as a whole through routes of support, encouragement, and defending another’s perspective or line. Supportive interactions require an individual to recognize and respond positively to another’s emotional state. If a girl is feeling anxious about something, a friend needs to recognize the anxiety and respond with some form of understanding. In challenges, an individual can blatantly ignore another’s emotive state, or use it to promote her own agenda. For example, if a girl is constantly interrupted and annoyed, the interrupter could intentionally interrupt to get a rise out of the girl who is speaking. Like other emotive work (see Hochschild 1979; Pugh 2009; Thorne 2008), the outcome of challenging and supportive interactions is that they have an impact on friendships momentarily and change them quickly. Friendship work is concerned with the outcome of the emotive effort and its social impact as media becomes capital in this emotional and social exchange.
In my study, the girls engaged in facework to negotiate friendships but, similar to Pugh’s findings, the girls’ interactions were more reflective of facework that occurs within their relationships, not just within the bounds of conversations. Facework offers explanations for interactions on the conversational level, particularly those that occur between strangers and acquaintances in public, while friendship work examines the interaction and the result of the interaction on an established relationship in private settings. The girls approached social interactions and used techniques in an exchange to fulfill their needs and the needs of others, thus allowing them to be flexible in their positions within the interactions. Friendship work provides a structure to interpret how the girls worked to establish and understand themselves within their friendships. It should be noted that the girls felt free to engage in conflict and that conflict and criticism, along with support, were all aspects of their overall friendship work.
Negotiation of Media and Friendship
For the purpose of this article I have chosen two incidents from my study that occurred on the same day. I chose these examples because they contrast with each other, and are representative of the many interactions that occurred throughout the year. Further, their occurrence on the same day shows the ever-changing dynamics of the girls’ friendships and highlights how quickly the girls could support or disagree with each other. Whereas my overall findings were that tween girls use media as a lexicon to discuss their lives and as filler in general conversation in their process of becoming social beings, these examples enable a deep close-reading of the intertwined nature of media and friendship negotiation.
The following incidents occurred at Ashley’s house after the girls had watched two episodes of Jessie (2011–2015), a show focused on 4 children and their 20-something nanny with many of the storylines reflecting sibling collaboration and rivalry. The girls played “Television Is Just Like…” that required them to compare television characters to themselves and each other. This game was meant to give the girls opportunities to be experts about the shows, themselves, and each other. However, character identification can be problematic and may reflect personal or perceived shortcomings. In making claims about who one is most similar to or how one views a friend, the girls opened themselves up to the vulnerability of being challenged, short-changed, or misunderstood. In the first example, “The Bane of Zuri,” Brittany attempted to maintain her friendship with Ashley, but was quickly challenged by both Ashely and Sylvia. In the second example, “Highlight the Best,” Ashley worked to strengthen her friendships with Brittany and Sylvia through praise and positive identification. Both examples show how short conversations affect established friendships.
In this example, Brittany tried to win favor from Ashley based on ideals Ashley had held months prior to this. Here, Brittany used the character Zuri Ross in Jessie as an analogy for Ashley, which both Ashley and Sylvia rejected. In the show Zuri, at age seven, is the youngest sibling. Originally from Africa, she has been adopted into the Ross clan. She is often branded as being sassy and mature for her age. The analogy is complicated and leads to a misunderstanding, after which Brittany tries to save face:
Brittany seems to have attempted to strengthen her friendship with Ashley by using Zuri in a positive manner. Brittany identified Zuri’s sense of humor as being similar to Ashley’s. However, Brittany’s attempt to forge, strengthen, and maintain her friendship with Ashley becomes a challenge that both Ashley and Sylvia take up against Brittany. About two months prior to this, Ashley herself identified Zuri as a character to whom she is similar because Zuri is “funny and cool.” On the day of the game, Brittany took issue with this similarity because Ashley, who is Caucasian, did not look like Zuri, who is African. Identification with characters on screen is easy when they possess similar enough attributes to the viewer (Chory 2013; Cohen 2001; Hoffner and Buchanan 2005; Tian and Hoffner 2010). Here, Brittany relied on a prior self-identification that Ashley made, perhaps hoping to re-align herself with Ashley.
Of the girls, Brittany most often challenged Ashley’s statements, and expressed her own confidence in her ideas and opinions, often in opposition to Ashley’s, which created tension in the girls’ friendship. In recalling that Ashley had previously self-identified with Zuri, Brittany’s suggestion of Zuri’s similarity could have been an easy, acceptable, if not complimentary evaluation. However, Ashley rejected the assessment, no longer perceiving herself as being similar to Zuri, and, instead, took offense. A momentary fracture occurred in the girls’ friendship, which widened as Brittany continued to insist that Ashley was like Zuri. Brittany sees value in Ashley’s being fun and in her sense of humor and overlooked Zuri’s “meanness,” unintentionally insisting that Ashley is kind.
Brittany’s misstep provided an opportunity for Sylvia to strengthen her friendship with Ashley, and separate herself from Brittany. At first, Sylvia focused on a different suggestion Brittany made the week before. Although Sylvia was not trying to re-align herself with Brittany, evidenced by the continued conversation, she did try to diffuse the situation between Brittany and Ashley. By this point in the research season, Brittany and Ashley had continual differences of opinion, which, at times, caused tension among all the girls. Sylvia, a natural mediator, would use quips or alternative suggestions to re-direct conversations. However, as the conversation continued, Sylvia actively aligned herself with Ashley by defending Ashley’s character. She maintained that Ashley was not like Zuri, and cited Zuri’s “kiddishness” and “meanness” as being dissimilar to Ashley’s character. This suggests that Brittany’s charge was underhanded, after which Brittany had to respond to save face. In friendship work, one common way to realign oneself with another is through defense of a person’s position or character, a speech act that performs and shifts relationships to the speaker’s advantage.
Although the role of media in the girls’ relationships imports conversational risk, it also can be used to make positive, well-received identifications between friends and television characters. In the following example, Ashley focused on the expression of idolization through conversation both in and away from the research setting, assessing analogies that she is certain will be well-received by the group. Through compliments and praise of both girls, Ashley actively used the shows to strengthen and reinforce friendships:
During the previous sessions, it was unequivocally accepted that Sylvia was like Jessie (from Jessie) but no one took the initiative to define the parameters of their similarities. Sylvia was content with the assessment and never asked for clarification, finding Jessie a likable character. However, during this session, Ashley insisted that everyone explain their choices, and coincidentally, was at a loss for explaining the similarities between Jessie and Sylvia, and thus retracted her statement. Ashley’s misstep went unnoticed; neither Sylvia nor Brittany challenged Ashley’s failure to explain. Instead, they focused on the next assessments Ashley made. Throughout this research, Ashley became the de facto leader of the girls since many sessions took place at her house, and she was my entre into the friendship group. Having leadership status, Ashley was challenged less by her friends, though it is unclear if this status extended into the school space.
Ashley, perhaps recalling the previous weeks’ conversations, began to focus on her friends’ self-perceived, positive attributes. She shifted her focus to flatter the girls through explanations that would be well-received. Interestingly, Ashley’s first choice of character for Sylvia was Nicole from Zoey 101 (2005–2008), an unknown entity to Sylvia, who was not allowed to watch the show. This risky choice paid off for Ashley when she focused on the traits for which Sylvia is best known—being excited, outgoing, and physically active. In many sessions Sylvia’s behavior could be categorized as crazy and wild, and she enjoys the positive attention she receives from this, something Ashley has emphasized and used to her advantage. Nicole, a character from a television show, thus becomes a source of strength for Ashley and Sylvia’s friendship; Ashley sees value in Sylvia’s craziness and confidence, articulating that value for her friend. Brittany, who is familiar with Zoey 101, did not dispute Ashley’s claim, nor does she validate it. Instead, Brittany, like Sylvia, appeared to be a spectator in the conversation, waiting to hear to whom Ashley thought she was most similar.
Maintaining and strengthening friendships requires individuals to recognize and support self-perceived positive attributes in friends. By focusing on Sylvia’s more active side, Ashley validated something in Sylvia that is an acknowledged asset. Here, Ashley maintained her friendship with Sylvia. Interestingly, Brittany’s lack of assessment does nothing for her friendships with Ashley and Sylvia, putting her in a place of neutrality. It is unclear if the neutrality is intentional or if she is simply biding her time. Refusing to speak is as important as speaking in these social negotiations.
Throughout the time I spent with Brittany, she was a self-identified fashionista, creating her own clothes and fashion style. Brittany consistently favored fashion-focused characters, like Emma (from Jessie) and True (from True Jackson, VP, 2008–2011). Furthermore, Brittany would often share her love of clothing and creations with her friends, showing them what she had recently made or a new outfit she had put together. For Brittany, fashion was a priority and an underlying means of identifying with characters. As Kyratzis (2004) reminds us, one important aspect of friendship is for friends to take an interest in and pay attention to each other’s likes and dislikes. In this example, Ashley did just that. By choosing Emma, who has her own fashion blog in Jessie, she has taken note of Brittany’s interests, and qualifies her choice by articulating that Brittany is similar to Emma because of their love of fashion, Ashley was able to express a valued perception of Brittany back to her. Ashley’s ability to reinforce this characteristic creates a stronger bond of friendship.
Since shows are continually used as currency in a social exchange, only in-depth observational and interview work with social groups can capture the ever-shifting subtleties of children’s culture as media is integrated into conversation and performance.
Conclusion: Friendship Work in Action
Tween television is almost exclusively aimed at girls between the ages of seven and eleven who want to be viewed as separate from young children and is “aspirational, focusing on characters a bit older than viewers” (Werts 2006, cited in Jennings 2014: 9). Tween viewers can latch onto the characters and narratives of shows to find similarities in their lives, using shows as a whole to situate and incorporate their own experiences into their viewing. According to Jennings, tween television shows offer stories that resonated with their audience. The sitcoms were “real” fiction for them—not cartoons, but stories with actors portraying experiences similar to the viewers. [Girls] could identify with the characters and their stories, and since the lead characters were strong females, that made them even more appealing. (2014: 9) Existing examinations of these shows have predominantly used content analysis, ignoring the human experience and integration of televisual material into life.3 Neither isolation of the shows nor psychological metrics can provide an accurate window of tween cultural integration, suggesting that more in-depth sociological studies need to be done.
In social settings, it is important to be savvy about how and when to defend an opinion or use previous knowledge to support a friend. The girls used their shared televisual lexicon to diminish, maintain, and strengthen their friendships and understanding of each other. Sigurd Berentzen (1984) argues that girls use praise to create alliance and criticism to exclude. In the above examples, Ashley relied on praise to create alliances with her friends, and in so doing, created a sense of group unity. The timing of her praise was smart; since it occurred at the end of a session, the girls were able to end the day feeling comfortable in their relationships. Ashley’s leadership of social groups may very well depend on her expert manipulation of the social setting as well as media to compliment and bond.
Unlike prior research (see Fisherkeller 2011) which found that adolescent participants identified most with powerful characters that helped them to understand their own powerlessness, the pre-adolescent girls in this study used television characters to identify similarities and differences between themselves and each other, while the discussion about the characters helped them navigate their relationships. The on-screen characters helped them understand themselves and each other better.
Identification with television helped the girls understand social behavior and highlighted their social structure, particularly social rules. The girls were able to make judgments about how television is both similar to and different from their own lives; they applied these assessments to their own social structure and used these applications for their own social purposes. These assessments support existing studies of tweens and television which assert that viewers connect multiple parts of their life to understand and make sense of social experiences (Hodge and Tripp 1986; MacDonald 2014). The girls use their lived experiences to contextualize television characters and create a sense of solidarity with each other. Through discussions of television, the girls made sense of and built peer culture.
Peer groups and friendships rely on subtleties and shifts. Tweens, like adults, filter televisual content through experience and in so doing, become cautious about sharing opinions or making comments about televisual material. Sharing opposing views, favoring a disliked character, or identifying with negative content or characters may create dissonance in friendships. By monitoring what is said and how it is said in the presence of friends, tweens can maintain their relationships by either defusing challenges or deciding to meet them. Likewise, they can easily destabilize bonds, chastise individuals, and choose one individual over another with a subtle comparison or denial of an asserted interpretation. The girls also used music and movies in a similar fashion, indicating that children can use any media material in friendship work. Eager for material on which to graft their complex entry into the social world, network television programs for tweens are ready-made social texts but they hardly define how texts are used. Tween television is an excellent device for tweens to use in social culture, but the complexities of friendship work far exceed what television networks and scholars studying them can anticipate. The girls in this study participated in friendship by constantly performing, evaluating, and shifting shared and dismissed comparisons to the shows. They devoted themselves at all times to the activity of watching the shows rather than the shows themselves; and this activity is not really watching shows but actively scripting and revising their complex social worlds.
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