The Real Housewives Made Me Do It: How TV Influences Behavior

Television has a terrible reputation. I vividly remember my mother telling me my eyes would become square if I watched too much of it. To my knowledge, no studies link watching television with the development of square eyes yet. However, research does show that too much time in front of the television takes a toll on our health.

study by the American Heart Association shows that adults who watch TV for three hours or more a day may double their risk of premature death.

Another study shows how television programs can have a negative influence. Shows like The Real Housewives that depict aggressive behavior like bullying and manipulation can impact real life behavior. In a study entitled Just “Harmless Entertainment”?  Effects of Surveillance Reality TV on Physical Aggression, participants were separated into three groups. One group watched Real Housewives or Jersey Shore, the second group watched an uplifting show like Little People, Big World, and the third group watched a crime drama like CSI.  After watching the shows, those who had sat through Real Housewives or Jersey Shore exhibited more aggression. As the researcher states:

This research clearly shows that these programs are not simply harmless entertainment—exposure to this verbal and relational aggression increases physical aggression.

That said, television can be a positive influence too. In India, the introduction of cable TV had social benefits.  Within months of its arrival, surveys indicate it had a major effect on attitudes about gender:

Introduction of cable television is associated with significant decreases in the reported acceptability of domestic violence towards women…as well as increases in women’s autonomy and decreases in fertility. We also find suggestive evidence that exposure to cable increases school enrollment for younger children, perhaps through increased participation of women in household decision-making.

The Indian women who watched television were also less likely to report a preference for having a son than a daughter.  Bollywood-style soap operas are thought to have been especially influential by depicting urban women working outside the home and making decisions about their lives. The theory is that by observing these sophisticated women, social norms and attitudes changed.

In America, studies have shown  how television programs can decrease prejudice.  The best example,  Will and Grace, has been credited with helping viewers get to know gay people. As the lead researcher writes:

With the emergence of the extraordinary Will and Grace show, more and more Americans, sort of from the safety of their armchair, could learn a bit about gay people who they might not otherwise have learned from in real life.

Television isn’t just entertainment, it changes attitudes too, but choose what you watch carefully.

As my favorite character, the Dowager Countess, says on Downton Abbey:

Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman