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Article updated: 11/4/2011 12:29 PM

Study says girls affected by reality TV

Documentary shown in suburbs explores impact

A scene from “Miss Representation,” which will be screened at two suburban schools this month.

A scene from "Miss Representation," which will be screened at two suburban schools this month.

 

Photo courtesy of MissRepresentation.org

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, writer, director and producer of the documentary, “Miss Representation.”

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, writer, director and producer of the documentary, "Miss Representation."

 
Buffalo Grove High School students Emily Davidson, from left, Kate Schneider, Sarah Naughton and Jessica Sparacino talk about the reality TV shows they watch.

Buffalo Grove High School students Emily Davidson, from left, Kate Schneider, Sarah Naughton and Jessica Sparacino talk about the reality TV shows they watch.

 

JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

Buffalo Grove High School students Emily Davidson, from left, Kate Schneider, Sarah Naughton and Jessica Sparacino talk about the reality TV shows they watch.

Buffalo Grove High School students Emily Davidson, from left, Kate Schneider, Sarah Naughton and Jessica Sparacino talk about the reality TV shows they watch.

 

JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

Emily Davidson, 14, of Arlington Heights, talks about the reality TV shows she and her friends watch.

Emily Davidson, 14, of Arlington Heights, talks about the reality TV shows she and her friends watch.

 

JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

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"Jersey Shore" is such a popular TV show in suburban high schools that a few girls mimic the diva attitudes and brassy fashions of its female stars, or use popular phrases from the show, like, "It's T-shirt time!"

However, most teens consider "Jersey Shore" and other reality TV shows just mindless entertainment, says Kate Schneider, a Buffalo Grove High School freshman from Arlington Heights.

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'Miss Representation' free screenings

Ÿ 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3, at Northern Illinois University auditorium, 5555 Trillium Boulevard, Hoffman Estates. A panel discussion will follow the movie.
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For more information, see MissRepresentation.org

"I don't think Snooki has inspired me to do anything," said the 13-year-old, laughing and referencing one of the show's stars. "I don't take is so seriously."

But some girls do, according to a newly released report from the Girl Scouts Research Institute, "Real to Me: Girls and Reality TV."

Even those who don't think they're taking it seriously might still be negatively impacted, according to the new documentary "Miss Representation," which will be screened Thursday night in Hoffman Estates.

The study of more than 1,100 tween and teenage girls found reality TV -- shows like "Teen Mom," "American Idol," "The Bachelor," "Project Runway" and "Jersey Shore" -- have mixed effects on girls.

On one hand, they can be uplifting, educational and motivational, but they also can negatively impact girls' relationships and self-esteem, the study found.

The study concluded that girls who regularly watched reality TV accepted -- and expected -- a higher level of drama, aggression and bullying in their own lives. It also showed these girls measured their worth primarily by physical appearance. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed believed the shows are "mostly real and unscripted."

The problem with themes like "mean girls" becoming popular or pitting themselves against other girls is that it normalizes the behavior, says developmental psychologist Andrea Bastiana Archibald with Girl Scouts of the USA.

On the flip side, the study showed girls who watch reality TV are more self-assured than non-viewers and are more likely to aspire to leadership. The shows also inspired conversations with their parents, and raised their awareness of social issues and causes.

Emily Davidson, 14, a Buffalo Grove High School freshman from Arlington Heights, said she was inspired by a "Project Runway" contestant who had HIV.

"I thought, wow, if you had HIV and you could do that, imagine what I can do?" said Davidson, who is interested in fashion design. "There's always someone who comes from nothing and does well."

Jennifer Heynez, 15, a junior at Palatine High School, said she was inspired to see her mom start exercising and eating healthier after watching "Biggest Loser."

Some shows make a positive impact on girls by showing examples of how they don't want to end up. Davidson said a "Jersey Shore" episode where Snooki was in a bar lifting up her dress and flashing people disgusted her.

"You think about how stupid it is, and how embarrassing it is, and it makes you want to do better in school," Davidson said.

Heynez said watching "Teen Mom" has taught her and her friends how difficult it would be to raise a baby at her age.

"I'd rather not be a teen mom because that'd be so much hard work," she said.

Mixed feelings about reality TV are even felt in the first family. President Barak Obama reportedly prefers that his daughters Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10, don't watch the Kardashian family reality shows, but first lady Michelle Obama sees no harm in it as long as their daughters recognize that it's not reality and only entertainment.

To help girls decipher the fact from fiction on these shows, the Girl Scouts launched a campaign, at girlrealitycheck.com. MissRepresentation.org also has a call-to-action campaign.

More girls watch reality TV

There doesn't appear to be a study of how boys are affected by reality TV, but it could be because the majority of reality TV watchers are young girls and women.

Reality TV attracts far more female viewers than males, and the shows are profitable for the networks because they're cheap to produce and draw large, young audiences, says Brad Adgate, the senior vice president of research at Horizon Media.

Most reality shows -- such as "The Bachelor," "Teen Mom," "Real Houswives" or "Keeping up with the Kardashians" -- are geared to women. MTV's audience is 65 percent female, Adgate said.

Data shows younger viewers tend to watch the cable reality TV shows while older viewers tend to watch the network reality TV shows, Adgate said.

During the difficult 10 p.m. slot, MTV airs "Jersey Shore."

"Eight million people tuned in. It's got a median age of 23. That's huge. It's the highest rated show on Thursday nights among adults 12-49," he said. "It's not like people in the 50s or 60s are going to be watching this stuff. So from an economic model, it works."

By comparison, Adgate said the median age of "American Idol" last season was between 48 and 49.

Drama and meanness sells, which is what troubles Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the writer, producer and editor of the "Miss Representation" documentary, which also will be screened Nov. 21 at Benedictine University in Lisle.

The film, which has aired repeatedly on the OWN network, says the media is sending women a message that their value lies in their bodies, which in turn distracts them from becoming leaders. This sexism trivializes women, and makes them seem less powerful, she said.

While Newsom doesn't think all reality TV is bad, she doesn't see much value in it.

"The reality shows that demean women, or where they're obsessed with beauty, or obsessed with finding a man ... it further encourages a culture that causes women to self-objectify, and for men to see women as second-class," she said. "We've got to elevate ourselves as a society. Our culture is celebrating (Kim Kardashian) for a sex tape, and the ambition in her family to exploit reality TV and our dumbed-down culture for her financial gain ... so frankly, right now, we need some serious elevation."

Arlington Heights moms Angela Sparacino and Maureen Schneider say they're OK with letting their teenage daughters watch reality TV in limited amounts as a way to unwind after a night of homework and after-school activities.

They sometimes watch the shows with their daughters and have found some "teachable moments."

"When we were kids, there was this commercial with an egg that said, 'This is your brain on drugs.' 'Jersey Shore' is like saying, 'This is your brain on alcohol.' It's like inspiration not to drink," Sparacino said.

Kate Schneider says she's usually too busy to watch much TV, but when she does, she and her friends are wise to the produced drama, the product placement and the way people behave when a camera is on them.

"As long as you know it's fake and not real life, you can enjoy it," Kate Schneider said.

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