One of my favorite things about this blog is that in my research I occasionally come across a survey or a piece of research that completely affirms something that I have instinctively known for some time. I think this happens to all youth workers at one time or another and it can be incredibly vindicating. You work with teens all the time and you just know that there is a connection between two things, though you have no concrete proof. Then, there it is in your newsfeed and all you want to do is print it off and post it for all your parents and teens to see.
In this case, the survey I found was even more exciting because the “See, I knew it was true!” moment combines research on three things I write about often: girls, reality television and teachable moments. (Yes, regular readers, I just heard that groan from here. I promise, I’ll get off the anti-reality television show soapbox soon.)
The Girl Scout Research Institute just completed a survey of 1,100 girls between 11 and 17 years old nationwide. They asked girls to self-identify if they regularly watched reality shows or not and then proceeded to ask them questions about relationships, self-image and about reality shows themselves. A good chunk of what they found will be not at all surprising to most, but there are some really interesting pieces of note.
Girls who watched reality television regularly were more likely to believe that gossiping is a normal part of girls’ relationships (78% vs. 54%) and to agree with statements like, “Being mean earns you more respect than being nice.” Reality show watchers responded that it is harder to trust girls (63% vs. 50%) and that girls are naturally “catty” with each other (68% vs. 50%). The girls who regularly watch reality television also reported spending significantly longer amounts of time on their appearance than girls who did not.
Reality television may not be all bad, however. Reality show watchers exceeded other girls in their confidence levels in almost every personal characteristic, including maturity, intelligence and humor. They are also more likely to be aware of and aspire to lead on social issues. Even more impressive, two-thirds said that these reality shows have sparked important conversations with parents and friends.
One of the most interesting parts of the survey was that 50% of the girls said they thought reality shows like “Jersey Shore” and “The Real World” are completely unscripted. 75% of the girls said they thought competitions shows like “American Idol” and “Project Runway” are unscripted. Yet, many of those who have participated in these reality shows have publically come out saying that these shows are far from a fair representation of reality. Just after these survey results were released Kasia Pilewicz, a former contestant on “America’s Next Top Model,” said, “They’re not getting how much of it is edited, and how much of it is scripted and staged–almost like it is fictional but you’re just playing yourself. I worry that a 10-year-old might try to emulate this and think this is how you should live your life and this is how you should treat your friends.” According to this survey, her concerns may be justified.
While this survey did not differentiate between those girls who watched “Jersey Shore” from the girls watching “Mythbusters,” it does give us some interesting insight into what reality television is doing to the attitudes of girls. It is good to see that these shows are making them more socially aware. Yet it is clear we must fight the idea that these programs show us reality when in fact they do not. In claiming to be real, they teach young girls that this is how the world works, encouraging attitudes and behaviors that fly in the face of what God would want for them. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.'”
I appreciated hearing that these girls’ parents and friends were discussing what they were seeing, not just watching it absentmindedly. While I have no interest in which Kardashian is moving or what Snookie is doing for fun, reality shows are one of those unlikely places that hold a whole host of teachable moments. If the students are going to continue to watch it, we have to take advantage of how this programming lends itself to discussions of, “What would you do in that situation?” and “How would you feel if that happened to you?”
This is true of any media. Any time teens are watching television, listening to music or seeing movies, I hope that they are having critical, faith-based conversations about what they see. It is why knowing pop culture is so important. These conversations help teens from being mislead by faulty messages. We need to give our teens the lenses of faith to see, understand and be critical of any media they encounter every day for the rest of their lives.