Folks have been decrying the deleterious effects of TV for decades — so how did it take this long before someone realized that the tube could turn your brain to mush by proxy?
Harvard researchers this week published a study showing that Fijian teenage girls were more likely to have an eating disorder if their friends own television sets, whether or not they have one themselves. Residents of the remote South Pacific island started seeing their first TVs in the tender mid-nineties, and most people are still without their own sets. According to the study, in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the weightiest factor in a girl’s proclivity to purge was how many of her friends have access to a TV; peer exposure accounted for a 60% increase in the likelihood of severe eating disorder symptoms, far more than personal watching habits.
Among the biggest influences on changing teens’ attitudes over the past 15 years: Beverly Hills 90201, Melrose Place and (wait for it) Seinfeld.
The lead author, Anne Becker, of Harvard Medical School suggests that “if you are a parent and you are concerned about limiting cultural exposure, it simply isn’t going to be enough to switch off the TV. If you are going to think about interventions, it would have to be at a community or peer-based level.” But then she loses me: “Up until now, it has been very difficult to get people who produce media as entertainment to come to the table and think about how they might ensure that their products are not harmful to children.”
Whoa now. I was with you when you put responsibility for talking to kids in the hands of their parents, but holding the broadcasters responsible and advocating regulation is misguided, likely ineffective and could potentially walk the line of constitutionally problematic. Above all, it’s really, really irritating. It’s hard enough to find a decent show or movie to watch without a bunch of bleeding hearts storming the celluloid to confiscate cigarettes and fatten up lead actresses.
Sure, I see tall skinny women on TV and sometimes I feel less than. But you know what? I’d rather that than have to watch ugly people in creampuff stories. I get enough fatties and uggos in the real world. Art — or a sitcom — is supposed to imitate life, not recreate it. And parents are supposed to make their chubby tweens feel good about themselves, not Fox and NBC.
It’s truly fascinating that secondhand TV is so powerful, and the results warrant attention. Pop culture is an insidious beast. Its influence is kind of like herpes — it sneaks in while you’re enjoying yourself, has affected many of your friends (though they won’t admit it) and its hopelessly incurable.
And like herpes, we should be careful about letting the media get too deep into our systems, but we can’t go regulating away the reverse cowgirls of entertainment programming. With TV as with sex, if you don’t feel a little bad about yourself afterward, you’re doing it wrong.