Do you love me? Learning about relationships from TV

“Television has come to dominate the hours in our day, the organization of our living rooms, the topics of our conversations, our conceptions of pleasure, the things to which we look forward, the way we amuse our children, and the way we discover the world we live in. Many also argue that television has come to dominate what we think, how we think, and what we think about” (4).

For the emerging pre-teen eager to discover his or her role in life as a “sexual, productive, responsible adult with a reasonably consistent set of attitudes and values” (Erickson 1968), the mass narratives disseminated by television serve as common knowledge and agreed upon scripts to be integrated into expanding theories regarding themselves and their surrounding environment. Several correlation studies have established that heavy television viewing is associated with a greater acceptance and belief in of the social reality presented by television (otherwise referred to as televised reality). This phenomenon, known as Cultivation Theory, can affect all aspects of social life including concepts of sex, violence, gender stereotypes, family and marital happiness, and person perception (Gerbner 1973).

The 20th century will be remembered for its heralding of “the information age.” Over the past 100 years, communication technology has progressed by leaps and bounds altering the way we interact with our selves, each other, and mass societies around the world. Inventions including the automobile, the telephone, cinema, airplanes, and the Internet have made the transportation of individuals and messages progressively more instantaneous. This investigation focuses on messages transmitted by television, a pervasive and powerful invention, and its prominent role in the lives of children developing in this mediated environment.

Adolescents consume between 6 ½ and 8 ½ hours of media per day (Roberts, Foehr, Rideout 2005), comparable to the amount of time spent in school. Although the proportion of time spent with different media (e.g. music, Internet, video games) varies, television is still our primary source of culture, providing entertainment and narratives by which we assess our own lives. According to Livingstone (1990):

Social Development

Puberty has long been understood as one of life’s most difficult phases. These years are rife with the complexity of physical, hormonal, and social change. The child struggles to establish themselves and their identities among a myriad of normalizing factors including school, church, parents, and peers. According to Singer and Singer (1990), “… the phase of puberty and early adolescence in children may be of great importance in the development of internalized socialization through fantasy and imagination about possible social and sex roles, career choices, adventure, and romance” (98). Adolescents distance themselves from their parents during this period in order to experiment with being cognizant, purposeful, self-directed adults and employ concepts of future possible selves to direct their actions through a tumultuous environment. Adolescents use many sources to developing these theories including parents, siblings, friends, celebrities, and popular media to access possible and functional examples in order to construct social scripts.

Social scripts (or schemas) are the heuristic by which we are able to understand and predict upcoming social interactions. They are mental structures that we use to simplify our knowledge about the world around us. Narratives are essential to understanding the social world (Gergen & Gergen, 1984) and, by creating expected narratives for future interactions, we affect our method of interaction with others. A common example is the restaurant script. After several trips to a restaurant, one has expectations regarding the progression of events: greeting the hostess, ordering, paying the bill, and so on. With the prevalence of popular media, youth turn to television programming to create scripts that may not be as casual as dining, including narratives regarding families, friends and sexual relationships.

According to Alexander (1990), “the naturalistic stories that individuals and families construct should become a significant data based for mass communication research because it is at this point that mediated texts become integrated into other social processes” (57). It is important to note that children are not simply confusing television with real life; they are utilizing its content as data to affect their impressions of the “real world” (pun intended). These narratives create a common knowledge base for adolescents and allow them to create common schemas, regardless of differences in parenting, religion, location, or socioeconomic status (SES), thus allowing them to infer relationships between motives, actions and consequences (Collins 1983). These scripts are often mediated by concepts of social norms; the belief that televised behaviors are ‘normal’ aids in the construction and implementation of social scripts.

Cultivation Theory

Cultivation Theory states that heavy viewers are likely to see the world according to the social reality constructed by television as compared to light viewers (Gerbner 1973). Naïve viewers interpret these homogenous messages from mass media as social norms and “beliefs regarding social norms have been shown to affect sexual decisions and behaviors of emergent adults” (Ward 2002). Therefore, what are these televised social norms? Several analyses of primetime programming have been conducted to investigate the occurrence of social phenomena on the small screen and its drastic departures from reality. In the early seventies, Gerbner was inspired by the differences in gender presentation onscreen; despite an even ratio of men to women in the population, approximately 70% of primetime television characters were male (Gerbner 1973). Recently, the prevalence of sex and violence on television have dominated the research due to their social implications, not because they are more important than other information learned from television (Collins et al 2004). These differences between televised and actual reality can result in a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance, where individuals endorse what they perceived to be the group norm, regardless of personal dissent. These assumptions are often cited as a major component of teenage behavior.

In addition to social norms, cultivation effects are mediated by several different factors; these include the viewer’s similarity to and relationship with the characters, as well as perceptions of televised realism. Stuart Hall (1980) defined viewers based on their interpretations of programming: Dominant viewers consume programming as it is intended; this relationship is usually defined by a similarity and understanding of the characters and storylines on a personal level. Negotiated viewers, while sympathetic to the character motives and storylines, are not as easily drawn into the narrative; this distance can be attributed to differences in race, class and gender, but the viewer is aware of how the program should be watched, and often appreciates it on some level. Finally, Oppositional viewers do not associate with the characters or storylines at all due to a drastic discrepancy between their lives and the lives presented onscreen. Internalization of programming content depends on one’s relationship with the televised message. This is particularly important for adolescents who may be turning to television for answers regarding their psycho-social development.

Furthermore, the realism of a program can effect the reception of its message. Realistic messages can easily be integrated into a viewer’s schema, as these scripts are easily associated with preexisting exemplars. Perceived realism of television crime and emergency dramas was a statistically significant predictor of shooting estimates (Busselle, 2001); that is to say that the more realistic a viewer deemed a program, the more likely its message was integrated into his or her concepts of reality. This delicate balance becomes even more effective among adolescents, who demonstrate great changes in what they believe to be “realistic.” In a study investigating the realism of television families, Signorelli and Morgan (2001) found that in 2nd grade, all television families are considered realistic, conventional or unconventional, while 6th and 10th grade students rated traditional families as more realistic. Furthermore, these older students reported that about half of American families are similar to those seen on television. The effects of these beliefs on the viewer’s self-perception will be further analyzed in the correlation studies.

Cultivation Theory in Action: Violence and Sex

These two hot topics of cultivation research often receive great media coverage and legislative attention due to their high-risk status. Multiple content analyses have revealed that children are exposed to over 5 sexual references per hour (Kunkel et al., 2005) and 4.4 violent acts per hour on television (PTC, 2007). According to Gerbner, the prevalence of these images deliver the message that we are a hypersexual and violent society, thus creating televised social norms that encourage individuals to resort to sexual and violent resolutions of issues. In 1996, less than 5% of programs featuring violence offered a non-violent solution (Lichter, Lichter, Amundson 1999). Anecdotally, the increase in school shootings has been attributed to troubled teens resorting to violence to solve social problems (e.g. they picked on me, they ignored me) and an increase in sexual behavior among teens has been related to the expectation of sex as a major component of relationships.

Television consumption has been correlated with an increase in violent activity. However, the question remains whether the television causes violence or whether violent individuals are drawn to television’s violent nature. Either way, the occurrence of violence on television is significantly higher than the national average. Heavy viewing has been associated with an increase in aggressive acts (Johnson et al 2002), while immediate controlled trials have demonstrated that children exposed to violent programming are slower to seek adult help when viewing violence among other children (Thomas & Drabman 1975) and men exposed to violent programming show fewer negative reactions to watching additional violence (Linz, Donnerstein, Penrod 1984).

In an amazing longitudinal study published in 2002, Johnson et al collected data from 707 individuals over 17 years including television viewing habits and violent or aggressive acts. They found that television viewing was associated with increased aggression against others; there were significant differences between individuals who watched less than an hour of television a day and those that watched more than an hour (see Figure 1). Furthermore, there was a drastic discrepancy between males and females; the males tended to show a greater number of assaults at age 14, while females showed an increase at age 22. This gender difference may be attributed to differences in program choices; however, this data was not collected and could not be correlated. According to this research, television mediates links between environmental risks and subsequent aggressive behavior (Johnson et al 2002).

Figure 1: Association between time spent watching television at mean age 14 by males and females with and without a history of aggressive behavior, and the prevalence of aggressive acts against others, reported at mean age 16 (males) or 22 (females) (Johnson et al 2002).

The presence of sex on television is inescapable; “sex sells” everything from television programs to dish soap. Content analyses have demonstrated that discussion about sex appears in about 70% of all programs (Collins et al. 2004), up from 56% in 1998 and 64% in 2002 (Roberts, Foeher, Rideout 2005). The prevalence of sexual content has been regularly correlated with an increase in sexual behavior and a reporting of more casual attitudes towards sex.

Collins et al. conducted a year longitudinal survey assessing the sexual behaviors of 1700 teens aged 12-17 around the United States. Baseline measures revealed that a diet of television high in sexual content was strongly related to initiation of intercourse and advancement of non-coital activity levels in the following year; alternatively, exposure to the risks of sex was related to less progression in non-coital behavior. Once individual variables were controlled (e.g. having older friends, getting low grades, parental monitoring and religiosity), exposure to sexual content on television remained a strong predictor of intercourse initiation among those who were virgins at the first interview: 1-SD increase in exposure to sexual content on television was equivalent in its effects on intercourse to an increase in age of 9 months. The implications of this study on youth development and sexual behavior are extensive: 12-year-olds who watched the highest levels of sexual content among youths their age appeared much like youths 2 to 3 years older who watched the lowest levels of sexual content among their peers (Figure 2). Not only are children growing up faster, they are also approaching relationships with schemas developed by entertainment television, an idealized and often unrealistic source of social learning.

Figure 2: Predicted probabilities of intercourse initiation among virgins exposed to high versus low levels of TV sexual content (Collins et al 2004).

Cultivation Theory in Action: Family Expectations

Television families (as most often portrayed in sitcoms) have remained effectively traditional and conservative despite changes in the American family; over two thirds of programs with families focus on conventional families (Signorelli & Morgan 2001). The majority of televised American families feature both parents, 2-3 children, in a multi-story house, with multiple bedrooms. Furthermore, most of the programs that feature families are sitcoms, thus providing easily solved problems in 22 minutes, complete with humor (Signorelli & Morgan 2001) thus offering viewers a difficult dynamic to attain. According to Alexander, “media are implicated in the accomplishment of numerous family functions: defining role expectations [and] articulating the nature of relationships” (53). Heavy female viewers tend to report a greater desire to get married younger, have children earlier in life and have high career expectations (Signorelli & Morgan 2001). Television families provide a norm for real families to judge themselves regarding quality and context of family organization (Gerbner 1973).

A variety of studies have correlated television viewing and familial happiness; across the research, heavy viewers tend to report less satisfaction with their domestic lives. Morgan & Harr-Mazar found a positive relationship between television viewing and reports that “families are good,” “being single is bad,” and “families are large” (Signorelli & Morgan 2001). Furthermore, heavy viewing leads to the belief that families are affiliative (i.e. tending towards affiliation or familial cohesiveness) regardless of the programming content (Signorelli & Morgan 2001). Baran and Courtright discovered a negative relationship between viewing marital relationships on television and self-reported marital happiness (Perse, Pavitt, Burggraf 1990). These expected positive family relationships broadcast on television cause individuals to focus on the inconsistencies within their own families leading to greater disappointment with their own domestic situation. The messages of television are clearly being used to develop some standard of domestic bliss, resulting in significant emotional effects among viewers who cannot replicate these relationships.

Prior Research

Little research has been conducted on the ability of television to change behavior. This section will address two studies that are particularly relevant regarding television’s ability to affect behavior.
Sanders, Montgomery, Brechman-Toussant (2000). The Mass Media and the Prevention of Child Behavior Problems: The Evaluation of a Television Series to Promote Positive Outcomes for Parents and Their Children. Journal of Child Psychiatry. 41(7): 939-48.

This study examines the impact of a 12-episode television series, Families, on disruptive child behavior and family adjustment. Subjects consisted of 56 urban Australian mothers with children aged between 2 and 8; subjects in the experimental condition (TV) were instructed to watch two episodes a week and read an accompanying tip-sheet (treatment integrity was maintained if they watched more than 8 episodes, i.e. 66% completion rate). Mothers in the waitlist condition (WL) completed the pre and post measures (they received the videos after the six-week experiment was completed). Measures included the Eyberg Child Behavior Inventory (ECBI), a Parenting Scale (PS), Parenting Sense of Competence (PSOC), Depression-Anxiety-Stress Scales (DASS), the Parenting Problem Checklist (PPC), and the Abbreviated Acceptability Rating Profile (AARP).

Families consisted of six primary segments: a feature story, a discussion with a celebrity family regarding a range of issues, family health care tips, pet care, interesting facts and figures about the current state of families in society, and a segment that provided parents with “guidelines and clear instructions for using a range of parenting strategies designed to address common behavioral problems, prevent problems from occurring and to teach children new skills and help them master difficult tasks” (942).

At the end of the six weeks, mothers in the TV condition reported significantly fewer problem behaviors and a higher level of parental competence as compared to mothers in the control (WL) condition. Furthermore, children in the TV condition showed significant improvement in behavior post-intervention according to the ECBI. Six months after the intervention, series of follow-up measures were collected from 21 of the 28 mothers in the TV condition to assess maintenance of the intervention. Results indicated no significant difference between post-intervention and follow-up scores on the ECBI and the PSOC.

This study demonstrated that a self-directed, televisual intervention can significantly reduce parental perceptions of children’s disruptive behavior and increase self-reported competence. Although the subject pool is significantly older than the target group, it is evident that television can be used as a tool for teaching within the domestic sphere and can improve familial relationships when designed with this intention. This study does not explore the effect of narrative on developing relationships; rather it employs direct instruction to older adults who have already developed general relationship styles and practices. The next study will investigate the effects of entertainment television on concepts of substance abuse and problem solving skills.
Singer & Singer (1994). Evaluating the Classroom Viewing of a Television Series: “Degrassi Junior High”. In Media, Children and the Family: Social Scientific, Psychodynamic, and Clinical Perspectives. Ed. Zillman, Bryant, Huston.

In this study, researchers investigated the effects of watching DJH on concepts of substance abuse and social problem-solving skills in a classroom setting. The program was aimed at a late puberty to adolescent target population and will be discussed at length in Research Methods and Design. However, its potential as an intervention is well documented in this study. Subjects included students from 5th-8th grade in a school district in central Connecticut (mean age 11.5 years). The study tested the role of classroom discussions on the comprehension and integration of the program’s narratives in students’ schemas regarding topics of interest.

Subjects were divided into three groups: control, viewing, and viewing with discussion. The latter participated in a teacher-led discussion after each episode. Five episodes were selected that were particularly relevant to the topics of interest. Collected measures included a TV Information Form to assess the subject’s viewing habits (i.e. hours spent viewing television and favorite programs), an Options Questionnaire to assess students’ attitudes toward smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and using drugs, a Coping Questionnaire to assess how a person copes with stress focusing on emotional coping and problem solving, a Mood and State Questionnaire to assess moods over the past month, a Story Comprehension measure to ensure that subjects understood the episode and levels of agreement regarding their personal relationship to the story, an Emotions Questionnaire to tap the way participants felt after viewing each episode, and a characters Questionnaire to assess reactions to the various main characters. All measures were collected pre and post-classroom exposure.

Although the study sought to investigate the role of classroom discussions, little difference was found between the two experimental groups. There were several significant effects from in the viewing group as compared to the control group including a reduction in preference for violent programming and a slight decline in acceptance of smoking and alcohol use (especially in the discussion condition). Furthermore, both viewing conditions showed a significant reduction in overall television viewing (especially the discussion condition) as compared to the control group, which may have been related to a more discriminating home-viewing orientation (this was confirmed with qualitative discussions with students, teachers and some parents). Unfortunately, there was no significant difference regarding the subjects’ coping skills or problem solving. However, the qualitative responses related to these topics were “excellent” despite the minimal evidence yielded by objective testing measures.

This study demonstrates DJH’s ability to affect youth attitudes and encourage discussion among adolescents regarding social issues. There was a general agreement with the episodes’ endings (thereby increasing the realism and integration into developing schemas) and mid-range responses regarding similarity or identification. The discussion group elicited greater ratings for “future thought and discussion.” Many of these measures will be employed in the current study.


Alexander, A. (1990). The Effect of Media on Family Interaction. In Media, Children, and the Family: Social Scientific, Psychodynamic, and Clinical Perspectives. Zillman, Bryant, Huston (Eds.). Hilldale, NJ: LEA Publishers.

Busselle, RW. (2001). Television Exposure, Perceived Realism, and Exemplar Accessibility in the Social Judgment Process. Media Psychology. 3: 43-67.

Collins RL et al (2004). Watching Sex on Television Predicts Adolescent Initiation of Sexual Behavior. Pediatrics. 114:280-89.

Collins, WA. (1983). Interpretation and inference in children’s television viewing. In J. Bryant & DR Anderson (Eds.), Children’s Understanding of Television. New York: Academic Press.

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Gerbner, George. (1973). “Cultural Indicators: the Third Voice.” In Communications Technology and Social Policy. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1973.

Gergen, MM., Gergen, KJ. (1984). The Social Construction of Narrative Accounts. Hilldale, NJ: LEA Publishers.

Hall, S. (1980). ‘Encoding/Decoding’. In Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies. Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Ed.):1972-79 London: Hutchinson.

Johnson JG. (2002). Television Viewing and Aggressive Behavior During Adolescence and Adulthood. Science. 295:2468-71.

Kunkel, D. et al (2005). Sex on TV 4. Kaiser Family Foundation. March.

Lichter, SR., Lichter, L., Amundson, D. (1999). Merchandising Mayhem: Violence in Popular Entertainment 1998-1999. Center for Media and Public Affairs. Washington DC.

Linz, D., Donnerstein, E., Penrod. (1984). The Effects of Multiple Exposures to Filmed Violence Against Women. Journal of Communication. 34(3): 130-47.

Livingstone, S. (1990). Making Sense of Television: The Psychology of Audience Interpretation. Pergamon Publishers.

Perse, EM., Pavitt, C., Burggraf, CS. (1990). Implicit theories of marriage and Evaluations of Marriage on Television. Human Communications Research. 16(3): 387-408.

PTC (2007). Dying to entertain: violence on primetime broadcast TV 1998-2006. Parents Television Council.

Roberts, DF., Foehr, UG., Rideout, V. (2005). “Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation”. March.

Sanders, Montgomery, Brechman-Toussant (2000). The Mass Media and the Prevention of Child Behavior Problems: The Evaluation of a Television Series to Promote Positive Outcomes for Parents and Their Children. Journal of Child Psychiatry. 41(7): 939-48.

Signorelli, N., Morgan, M. (2001). Television and the Family: The Cultivation Perspective. In Social Learning from Broadcast Television. Swan, K., Meskill, C., Damaio, S. (Eds.). Hampton Press.

Singer DG., Singer, JL. (1990). Evaluating the Classroom Viewing of a Television Series: “Degrassi Junior High.” In Media, Children, and the Family: Social Scientific, Psychodynamic, and Clinical Perspectives. Zillman, Bryant, Huston (Eds.). Hilldale, NJ: LEA Publishers.

Thomas, MH., Drabman RS. (1975). Toleration of Real Life Aggression As a Function of Exposure to Televised Violence and Age of Subject. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly. 21(3):227-32.

Ward, LM. (2002). Does Television Exposure Affect Emerging Adults’ Attitudes and Assumptions About Sexual Relationships? Correlational and Experimental Confirmation. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 31(1):1-15.

About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
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