Under the Influence

Approximately $60 billion is spent every year on television advertising. That’s $200 for every man, woman, and child. It is spent in the hopes that by seeing something on television, people will think or act in some desired fashion.

Judging by the reaction to a new study on television’s effect on our kids, that $60 billion might better be used as kindling.

The study by the Rand Corporation followed 2,000 kids between the ages of 12 and 17 for three years. It asked them about “their television viewing habits and sexual behavior.” The shows they reported watching were analyzed “to determine the frequency and type of sexual content the adolescents were exposed to during their TV viewing.”

The researchers found that adolescents with “high levels of exposure” to television shows containing “sexual content” were twice as likely to be “involved in a pregnancy” as those with less exposure.

The researchers acknowledge, as social scientists do, that correlation isn’t causality. Watching television shows with “sexual content” didn’t cause kids to have sex and get pregnant. At least not by itself. As Anita Chandra, the lead author, said, “Television is just one part of a teenager’s media diet that helps to influence their behavior.”

The key word, you see, is “influence.” Teenagers are people, not robots, and they can’t be programmed. But their attitudes, values, and actions can be shaped by what they watch.

This seems obvious, but both the people who produce these kinds of shows as well as their audience, deny any connection. I guess that’s all they can do! The creator of the racy show Gossip Girl had the audacity to tell NPR that “teens were having sex and getting pregnant ‘long before there was even television.’” Talk about missing the point.

A 15-year-old from suburban Washington said that she didn’t “think the show affects teens’ behavior,” but added that she “suspects that it might affect their attitudes.”

“Affects their attitudes” is, of course, another way of saying “influence.” If we honestly believed that what people watch had no effect on their attitudes and, thus, their actions, we wouldn’t spend $60 billion a year on TV advertising! Our trips to the movies wouldn’t include the now-mandatory ads for cars, soft drinks, and all the other stuff companies want us to buy.

Likewise, we wouldn’t ban cigarette ads from television, and there wouldn’t be a fuss over people smoking on TV and in movies. No one would care about the impact of these images on “impressionable” teenagers. After all, people were smoking long before there was television and even the movies, right?

But we know better. We know that, as writer Terry Mattingly says, images have a cumulative affect on our souls and dispositions. One by one, they shape our imaginations, and, thus, our ideas about what is normative and desirable.

Better than anyone, advertisers understand the power of images. It’s why they’re so anxious to be associated with a show that is billed as “every parent’s nightmare.” They know that the kids watching are prepared to buy both what’s in the commercials and what’s in between them, as well.

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  • Grace Harman

    In the 1940′s and ’50′s the out of wedlock pregnancy rate including all ages and races in the U.S. averaged 2 per thousand – according to the U.S. book of vital statistics. What is it now -after TV and school “safe sex” education indoctrination? Maybe 300 per thousand?

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