What TV Teaches Our Teens

New Study Shows That TV Teaches Teens to Value Fame Above All Else

A young girl with a vintage television set.TV is influential, which isn’t terribly shocking. More shocking is the decline in our values over the decades—and how closely that decline may be connected to our TV-watching habits.

According to a recent study by UCLA, published in Cyberpsychology: The Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, community feeling no longer reigns as a core value.

Based on a list of 16 values encouraged in television shows, the study shows that over the past 40 years, community feeling not only dropped from the top spot, but slipped completely from the top 10 echelon—in 2007, community feeling ranked 11th.

The authors of the UCLA study wanted to gauge the importance of the values to participants after they watched various TV shows. Examining Nielsen data to find out which TV shows are most popular among 9 to 11-year-olds, the researchers followed up by recruiting participants between 18 to 59 years old to watch these TV shows and then to complete a survey. The four questions posed to participants included:

  1. What they considered the theme of the show.
  2. What they considered the theme of the episode.
  3. Rating the importance of the values to the show.
  4. Indicating the importance of personality characteristics for characters on the shows. 

The findings? “As predicted, fame, financial success, and other individualistic values, notably achievement, rose in importance across the decades,” the study says. Fame (defined by the study as “the aspiration to be famous”) took the number one spot, trailed by achievement and popularity as second and third most valued. The sweeping change in values over the decades marked the shift from more wholesome 50s family TV to less-so contemporary reality and popular shows (looking at American Idol and Hannah Montana for example)—which promote the concept of fame by celebrating vaulted popularity status. This can be enticing to vulnerable teens eager to fit in.

The 360 in values coincides with the rise of various online social networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). The authors note how emerging technologies create new avenues for teenagers (and adults) to develop and expand an audience for their own brand- and fame-building. In an era of stacking up Facebook friends and tweeting every thought and activity, there is an instant audience at the reach. It isn’t surprising that fame is at the top of teenagers’ and tweens’ minds. 

Plus, these technologies continually add new ways to expose teens to TV shows. The study cites statistics from a Kaiser Family Foundation report, stating that “in 2009, youth spent nearly an hour a day watching TV content on platforms other than a traditional television set, including Internet, cell phones and iPods.”

All the world really is a stage. And we have the power and technology to be at the center of it. Not surprising, note the study authors, is the rise in narcissistic behavior and corresponding severe drop in empathy. (Low spots in the 2007 study: spiritualism (16th) and tradition (15th). 

The concern to watch for in coming years and decades, the authors note, is that teens, who are caught between the pressures of fitting in and the desire to develop a sense of self and identity, might look to misguided sources as they shape their values. “If tweens observe characters they admire succeeding and achieving wide public recognition and material success with little effort or training, they are likely to believe that this success is entirely possible and easy to achieve,” say the authors.

Which sheds an eerie new light on the old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Are we fostering a skewed sense of self-worth, placing more value on stardom than on developing into socially responsible and compassionate members of society? 

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