Combating the negative impacts of reality TV on girls' sense of self

Published: Saturday, May 26 2012 12:00 p.m. MDT

Last year the Parents Television Council set out to answer a question: "What messages are being communicated to young viewers through the lens and language of reality television?"

Knowing that MTV has the four most popular reality TV shows for ages 12-17 — "Jersey Shore," "Real World," "Teen Mom 2" and "16 and Pregnant" — Parents Television Council commissioned an independent content analysis of the language on the four MTV reality shows. The results of that analysis provided the framework for its study "Reality on MTV: Gender Portrayals on MTV Reality Programming," published in December.

The study particularly distilled some eye-opening results about the portrayal of women in the MTV reality shows. For example, the major findings included the following: "Only 24 percent of what females said about themselves was positive" and "Overall, women were more disparaging than men when speaking of themselves or someone of their own gender."

Although Melissa Henson, Parents Television Council's director of communications and public education, played an integral role in mapping out which issues the study would cover, some of the findings surprised even her.

"I think we were all surprised to see so much of all the negative, belittling language directed at women coming from other women," Henson said. "It communicates the idea to girls that you can have no true girlfriends because your only goal in life is to find a man, and therefore every other woman is a potential love rival and therefore you can have no true female friendships."

The Parents Television Council study validated and buttressed the results of the Girl Scouts Research Institute's survey from earlier in 2011, "Real to Me: Girls and Reality TV," based on 1,141 interviews of girls age 11-17.

The Girl Scout survey assigned respondents to one of three categories — regular reality TV viewers (47 percent), those who watch reality TV sometimes (30 percent) and those who rarely/never watch reality TV (23 percent) — and then contrasted the responses of regular reality TV viewers against the respondents who rarely/never (watch) reality TV.

Girl Scout Research Institute concluded, "Of girls surveyed, regular reality TV viewers differ dramatically from their non-viewing peers in their expectations of peer relationships, their overall self-image, and their understanding of how the world works."

By way of illustration, 49 percent of the girls who regularly view reality TV said they're happier when they have a boyfriend or are dating someone — while only 28 percent of the non-viewing girls responded similarly.

Media critic Pozner cites the dearth of functional media literacy among today's youth as a primary catalyst leading to passive media consumption, a state of mind that allows reality TV and television advertising to gain an almost impervious foothold in the worldview of teenage girls.

"We just don't teach (enough) media literacy," Pozner said. "Media companies want us to engage with media in a passive way because that passivity is really key to a mindset that fosters consumption. ... We can't be passive when we watch television, because that's when the advertising messages and the ideological messages sneak in under our defenses."

Strategies for parents

As undesirable as some of the reality TV content may be, experts offer a multitude of strategies for parents to help their teens make wise choices about consuming and internalizing media.

Parents Television Council's Henson advises practical measures such as cutting the cord on all MTV programming ("there's nothing redemptive about it," she said) and removing televisions from bedrooms.

"Watch with your kids whenever possible," Henson said. "That way if they're exposed to (negative) messages in the shows that they're watching, at least you're there to provide a counterbalance. ... You can explain to them that what they're seeing is not true reality, but a manipulated reality."

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