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Is TV Teaching Kids to Value Fame Above All?

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Is fame more important to tweens than it used to be? A new study suggests that young kids of this decade are vastly more familiar with and are more likely to value individualistic personality traits like fame, achievement and wealth than kids of past eras — way back before the term “tween” was even invented — largely because of popular TV shows and other types of media.

The study, which was done by Yalda Uhls and Patricia Greenfield of the University of California, Los Angeles, analyzed the content of the two most popular TV shows with kids aged 9 to 11 once a decade from 1967 to 2007. They found that, particularly between 1997 and 2007, the value placed on characteristics like fame and achievement in such shows had skyrocketed. The importance of community-oriented traits like benevolence and conformity, meanwhile, took a back seat.

Uhls and Greenfield theorize that because social change in that decade was mostly driven by technological expansion, this dramatic shift in cultural values was also technology-based. Increased access to these shows through mobile and other devices, along with the Internet-based advertising and TV fan clubs, may amplify their impact on kids’ impressionable minds, the authors said.

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In 1997, when the two most popular tween shows were Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Boy Meets World, the portrayal of values like fame was relatively low (it ranked 15th out of 16 values), the study found. This was in keeping with prior years (the era of The Lucy Show or even Alf) when fame had always fallen near the bottom.

By 2007, viewers said the most important values promoted by the top shows — Hannah Montana and American Idol — were fame and achievement. Conversely, “community feeling,” that is, the importance of being part of a community, which had been the first or second most important value in any TV show until 1997, was ranked 11th by 2007.

The authors calculated their rankings based on analyses by 60 people aged 18 to 59 who  read descriptions of each show and of one particular episode of the show, and ranked their values. Some of the participants were familiar with the shows already, others weren’t. Interestingly, the younger viewers tended rated fame more highly as a value in all shows, suggesting to the authors that they were more attuned to watch for it.

Other studies have noted a rise in narcissism among college students in recent decades, and the authors believe the two trends might be related. There has also been a concomitant dribbling off of empathy, according to research presented last year at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science. “A meta-analysis of 72 studies from 1977 to 2009 revealed that empathy levels dropped over 40%,” the authors wrote, “with the biggest drop after the year 2000.”

Technology has intensified these trends in the last decade, Uhls and Greenfield say. Because TV shows are now available on so many different devices, not just the TV set, there can often be several screens running in any home at one time. Therefore, modern tweens can get more unadulterated doses of TV than in past decades when the whole family had to watch one TV set together. Younger kids — those viewers who are more likely to place importance on unrealistic values like becoming famous like a Jonas Brother — can have those dreams and fantasies projected back at them, without annoying parents to talk about what a load of old codswallop it is.

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And the expansion of social media means that tweens can spend more time with the same show — sharing clips with others, uploading YouTube responses and delving into fan websites. “In the current media-saturated environment,” the authors write, “tweens are exposed to popular TV characters not only while watching TV programming, but potentially even more intensively and interactively while on the Internet.”

The big question is, are these shows having a negative effect on their viewers or are they just harmless fun? “In so far as fame in and of itself is an unrealistic ambition disconnected from academic achievement, it could undermine motivation to succeed in school and thus result in dissatisfaction later in life,” say the study authors, sounding a lot like mothers at homework time.

That doesn’t mean they’re wrong however, just as mom wasn’t. Uhls and Greenfield have done further focus group work with tweens and says the results, which are not yet published, are not encouraging. “Our data provide evidence that tweens do see these shows about fame as reality rather than fantasy,”  says Greenfield.

Of course, if TV is teaching young people to seek fame without working hard for it, there is one upside: the world will never run out of fodder for reality TV.

The study was published in the journal Cyberpsychology.

Correction [11 a.m.]: An earlier version of this post misstated that the 60 participants in the study watched an episode of each TV show before ranking the show’s values. In fact, they read descriptions of the episodes.

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