Reality TV’s Effects on Teenage Girls

23 Dec

Skeptical Inquirer’s deputy editor, Ben Radford, recently wrote a post on the Center for Inquiry’s blog Free Thinking about a new study released by the Girl Scouts on the effects of reality TV on girls. Upon reading the post, SI’s assistant editor, Julia Burke, had some pointed questions about Ben’s conclusions. I thought their exchange would be of interest to We Are SkeptiXX readers. What do you think? Let us know in the comments section.

Poll Holds Surprises About Teen Self-Image, Reality TV Effects

By Benjamin Radford

A new survey from the Girl Scout Research Institute issued a report titled “Real to Me: Girls and Reality TV” which came to a variety of conclusions about the effects of reality TV on beliefs and attitudes of teen girls.

The survey was conducted in April 2011 with the research firm TRU and consisted of a national sample of 1,141 girls aged 11 to 17. The same questions were asked of two groups, one of whom regularly watched reality TV shows, and the other group that did not.

One interesting finding was that the majority of girls in both groups reported that they did not think that a girl’s value is based on how she looks. Sixty-two percent of reality TV viewers (and 72% of non-viewers) responded No to a question asking, “Do you think a girl’s value is based on how she looks?” Thus only 28% of non-viewers (which would represent most teens) say that a girl’s value is based on how she looks.

I suspected that most people would overestimate the number of girls who would say yes to that question, and so on my Facebook page I posted a query asking the following: “According to a poll of 1,000 U.S. teen girls, what percentage do you think said they believe a girl’s value is based on how she looks? 30%, 60%, or 90%?”

I got 25 responses from people: seven said 30%; ten said 60%; and eight said 90%. This was of course not a scientific poll, but I do find it interesting that most people (72%) overestimated the number of girls endorsing the belief that a girl’s value is based on how she looks-in some cases by a factor of three.

As with any survey question you can criticize the wording (though it’s much more straightforward than other poll questions I’ve seen), and I’m not endorsing nor denouncing this survey, suggesting that it’s valid or invalid. I can tell you that the results of the Girl Scout / TRU survey and my own informal Facebook poll both generally agree with my previous research: Namely that most people tend to overestimate the incidence and severity of self-image/body image issues in teen girls (and women in general).

That 28% of non-viewers and 38% of reality TV viewers endorsed the idea that a girl’s value is based on how she looks is concerning, but we need to recognize that they are in the minority. The fact that most (nearly three-quarters of) girls said that they don’t think a girl’s value is based on her appearance (and therefore reject the ubiquitous “beauty myth”) should be welcomed as good news, not buried in fine print. (I wrote about the tendency for social activists to emphasize the negative aspects of polls and surveys in my 2003 book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us.)

I’ve had discussions with people about this and one occasion the person, after being confronted with valid research data, polls, and surveys demonstrating that her opinion about what most teen girls thought was wrong, basically said to me, “Well, I don’t care if it’s 90% or 9%. Even one girl with bad body image is too many.”

I was stunned, and didn’t even know how to reply. Everyone agrees that issues like body image and anorexia and self-esteem are serious and important; no one is saying that if a disease or problem doesn’t affect the majority of people it’s not worth being concerned about. But to suggest that incidence numbers are not relevant-that most teens having body image problems is really the same as most teens not having body image problems (as long as some of them do)-demonstrates a shocking indifference to truth and reality. In order to find solutions to problems we first must understand them.

***

Julia Burke’s comments:

Ben, I have to take a few issues with your interpretation of this research, your conclusion, and your own “study.” Let’s take things one by one.

“The majority of girls in both groups reported that they did not think that a girl’s value is based on how she looks. Sixty-two percent of reality TV viewers (and 72% of non-viewers) responded No to a question asking, ‘Do you think a girl’s value is based on how she looks?’ Thus only 28% of non-viewers (which would represent most teens) say that a girl’s value is based on how she looks.

A girl’s value is based on how she looks. A girl’s value as a human being, as a contributor to this world, is based on her attractiveness and her attractiveness alone. Twenty-eight percent of young girls surveyed believe this. If that isn’t alarming by itself, I don’t suppose I can convince you that it is. I will say that a statistic that twenty-eight percent of teens believed that the Earth was flat would not, I believe, procure such a glass-half-full reaction. Furthermore, you said nonviewers represent most teens. Let’s look at that. The study (girlscouts.org/research/pdf/real_to_me_factsheet.pdf) states:

“Forty-seven percent of girls in this survey are ‘regular’ reality TV viewers, with 30% watching ‘sometimes’ and 23% ‘rarely/never’ (the group we refer to as ‘non-viewers’). This reflects slightly different viewership levels than general survey incidence rates, which are as follows: 52% ‘regular,’ 33% ‘sometimes,’ and 15% ‘rarely/never.’ This was done to achieve an adequate number of girls in each category for statistical comparison purposes.”

Nonviewers are 23 percent; hardly the majority. So that 38 percent number probably shouldn’t be waved aside so easily.

“I suspected that most people would overestimate the number of girls who would say yes to that question, and so on my Facebook page I posted a query asking the following: ‘According to a poll of 1,000 U.S. teen girls, what percentage do you think said they believe a girl’s value is based on how she looks? 30%, 60%, or 90%?’”

Why did you suspect that? Please explain your reasons for your hypothesis, as it seems to have affected your question: you only gave the options of numbers equal to or over the correct number. You didn’t even give responders a chance to underestimate, skewing the numbers to get the answer you’ve already decided to get.

And with only twenty-five responses, I’m not sure how useful this is even if the question wasn’t already skewed. Why is a query to your Facebook a valid selection? Your Facebook is people you know; like-minded colleagues, friends, your social circle. Drawing a “public opinion” poll from the people who are not only your Facebook friends but who are close enough friends to view and comment on your posts hardly seems useful.

“As with any survey question you can criticize the wording (though it’s much more straightforward than other poll questions I’ve seen), and I’m not endorsing nor denouncing this survey, suggesting that it’s valid or invalid. I can tell you that the results of the Girl Scout / TRU survey and my own informal Facebook poll both generally agree with my previous research: Namely that most people tend to overestimate the incidence and severity of self-image/body image issues in teen girls (and women in general).”

Which polls are you comparing it to, finding your wording more “straightforward”? You’ve also embedded here the declaration that the Girl Scout / TRU survey’s conclusion was the same as your premise—that both the incidence and the severity of self image/body image issues in teen girls is exaggerated.

In fact, the Girl Scout / TRU survey’s conclusions were more complicated:

“In our study, we found that girls who view reality TV regularly are more focused on the value of physical appearance.

• Seventy-two percent say they spend a lot of time on their appearance (vs. 42% of non-viewers).

• More than a third (38%) think that a girl’s value is based on how she looks (compared to 28% of non-viewers).

• They would rather be recognized for their outer beauty than their inner beauty (28% vs. 18% of non-viewers).”

In fact you’ve taken one statistic from the point of the study, which was intended as a comparison across multiple factors between reality TV viewers and nonviewers, and used it to confirm your pre-conclusion.

Finally, just a small thing, but your wording in that last sentence from the paragraph I quoted above (“…most people tend to overestimate the incidence and severity of self-image/body image issues in teen girls (and women in general)”) begs a few questions. Where do “women in general” come in? Where does “severity” come in—is the belief that one’s entire worth lies in one’s attractiveness not severe, and how was the public surmise of “severity” of body image issues tested here?

I have to suspect that you are operating on a previously accepted premise here, and I have to wonder why women’s body image issues—certainly a large presence in the media, but you haven’t shown that that’s unwarranted—have given you an ax to grind.

***

Ben’s response:

1) “A girl’s value is based on how she looks. A girl’s value as a human being, as a contributor to this world, is based on her attractiveness and her attractiveness alone.”

I’m sorry if anyone feels that way; fortunately I, most people I know, and the majority of girls in this survey disagree with you about this. I honestly don’t know anyone who thinks that a girl’s value is based on her appearance. I know many mothers who have daughters, and as far as I know all of them believe that their daughters’ value as a person has little to do with her appearance. Just last night on the ABC Nightly News a teen girl was profiled on national television—not for her appearance, but instead because she set up a charity for needy kids in her city.

Why do you claim that “a girl’s value as a human being, as a contributor to this world, is based on her attractiveness and her attractiveness alone?” Do you have any evidence that this is true, or that most people believe it’s true? Where did this come from? And if this is such a widely-accepted belief, how do you explain the fact that most girls in this survey reject it?

2) “Furthermore, you said nonviewers represent most teens. Let’s look at that. The study (girlscouts.org/research/pdf/real_to_me_factsheet.pdf) states: Forty-seven percent of girls in this survey are ‘regular’ reality TV viewers, with 30% watching ‘sometimes’ and 23% ‘rarely/never’ (the group we refer to as ‘non-viewers’). This reflects slightly different viewership levels than general survey incidence rates, which are as follows: 52% ‘regular,’ 33% ‘sometimes,’ and 15% ‘rarely/never.’ This was done to achieve an adequate number of girls in each category for statistical comparison purposes.”

That’s correct; as you note, fewer than half (47%) are regular reality TV viewers, and therefore by definition most teens do not regularly watch reality TV. Certainly, if we include people who “sometimes” watch reality TV, we get closer to three-quarters, though I’d want to know how the survey defined “sometimes” (once a week? once a month?). The TRU survey focused almost exclusively on regular viewers, so that’s the number I used. I’d be surprised if the majority of American teens in the general population regularly watch reality TV shows, but I guess it’s possible.

***

*12-28-11 UPDATE*

Ben responds to We Are SkeptiXX reader comments:

Julian wote “I can’t believe someone could be such a dishonest reader. He literally cut Julia Burke’s comment in half to make her say something she didn’t. Ms. Burke was expressing shock that he didn’t believe that 28% of girls (1 in 4) believing a girl’s worth is tied to her looks is reason enough to worry.”

I see no “dishonest reading” or quote mining anywhere… The original piece I wrote clearly states: “That 28% of non-viewers and 38% of reality TV viewers endorsed the idea that a girl’s value is based on how she looks is concerning.”

There seems to be a bit of misreading or misunderstanding (unlike Julian I won’t attribute it to dishonesty): “Is concerning” is exactly the opposite of suggesting that there is not “reason enough to worry.” I never stated or suggested that a certain threshold of girls endorsing this myth triggers “a reason to worry,” and if Julia or Julian are reading that into it, they are mistaken.

The issue—the whole point of the article—is whether or not the majority of girls endorse the idea that their value is based on their looks (which is the common assumption), not whether any (or a minority) endorse it. The idea, wrongly attributed to me by Julian (and perhaps Julia, I don’t know) that a malignant condition (poverty, cancer, anorexia, low self-esteem, etc.) is not a cause for concern unless it affects most people, is bizarre.

I think this also addresses slpierce’s comment; it’s not clear what statistics or numbers I “misrepresented.” But we’re trying to stick to one topic at a time, and perhaps Julia will address and clarify that later.


6 Responses to “Reality TV’s Effects on Teenage Girls”

  1. julian December 23, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    I’m clearly no scientist or learned individual but I’ve been told it’s a bad idea to rely on self reported attitudes. People tend to report attitudes more consistent with how they wish to be than how they really are.

    Also

    Why do you claim that “a girl’s value as a human being, as a contributor to this world, is based on her attractiveness and her attractiveness alone?” Do you have any evidence that this is true, or that most people believe it’s true?

    The 28% that reported they did.

    I can’t believe someone could be such a dishonest reader. He literally cut Julia Burke’s comment in half to make her say something she didn’t. Ms. Burke was expressing shock that he didn’t believe that 28% of girls (1 in 4) believing a girl’s worth is tied to her looks is reason enough to worry. She then goes on to replace ‘believing a girl’s worth is tied to her looks’ with ‘believing the Earth is flat’ to emphasize her point that this is something that should trouble anyone.

    I can’t believe a deputy editor for a skeptical publication would be eager to quotemine.

  2. jalyth December 23, 2011 at 11:50 pm #

    I would answer ‘no’ to that survey question, both now and back when I was in that age group. But that doesn’t mean I believe it. But it’s kind of clear what the “correct” answer is. There would have to be multiple questions, that aren’t so direct to suss out a real response.

    I don’t have any comment on reality tv, as I don’t watch it.

  3. gmoney December 24, 2011 at 1:50 am #

    Looking at the different results for reality tv viewers vs abstainers, I’m surprised nobody brought up the correlation / causation side of this. Of course, it may have been addressed in the actual study… it just seems to me that young women (and men) of a certain personality type are more likely to find reality tv entertaining. Just a thought… Merry Newtonmas!

  4. Karen December 24, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    I don’t have any data of my own to take on any data reported here, but I think that it’s an interesting question. A girl may believe that her value as a specific individual does not come from her looks, but there is plenty of research on attitudes and on the media that an average girl’s value–some composite girl, maybe, or a strange girl (a stranger, not a weird girl) on YouTube or an actress in a a movie–is definitely based on their looks. Privately, individual girls may be respected as people first, but as soon as a girl’s image is in the public sphere she’s fair game for criticism on her appearance from all comers.

    I just don’t think the age group from 11 to 17 is in the habit of thinking beyond themselves yet. I also don’t think that a girl that young is aware of how she’s been trained (at best) and/or manipulated (at worst) to care about her looks, and how many of her behaviors reflect that to others. So I’m glad that most of the girls interviewed feel confident about their personal value to others, but I don’t know that the results teach us that much about the effects of reality television on them.

  5. LKL December 25, 2011 at 12:54 am #

    There’s a slight difference between the questions, ‘do you believe that society values girls based on their looks,’ and ‘do you think a girl’s value is based on her looks.’ The question asked does not distinguish between the two.
    Either way, the fact that 1/4-1/3 of respondents answered ‘yes’ is a little depressing (but not surprising) to me; that’s enough of a block to have a significant impact on the social environment even of the girls who said no.

  6. slpierce December 27, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    Bravo to Julia.

    I also have to wonder why Mr. Radford is ignoring the conclusion that the Girl Scouts came to in favor of his own conclusion, which (as Julia pointed out) is ACTUALLY not supported by the survey’s numbers. We all know that it’s bad science to skew or misrepresent the numbers until they show what we want.

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