What kind of impact does daily exposure to television have on us?

There's certainly no question that we are all television junkies. According to data from a 2014 Nielsen report, Americans watch an average of five hours of television a day and that rises sharply as we grow older. For people over 65, that rises to over seven hours a day and those figures have remained fairly stable over time.  Though we worry about the effect of television watching on children, they actually spend less time watching television than adults do (since they have more outside interests to draw them away from the tube). 

According to cultivation theory, the amount of time we spend "living" in the reality shown on television increases our willingness to believe what we are seeing.   This implies that television watching "cultivates" how we perceive reality.   So, perhaps it's not so hard to believe that "reality television" has become so popular.  Cultivation theory was first developed by the late George Gerbner, who also established the Cultural Indicators Research Project in 1968.  

According to cultivation theory,  the power that television has comes from being fundamentally different from all other forms of mass media. You need to know how to read to be influenced by books or newspapers and you need money to see a movie or a play.  To go online or play a video game, you need to have a fair degree of technological savvy.  With television however, all you need to do it sit there and watch.  The universal nature of television means that everyone can watch the same television programs and take in the same kind of media messages.  This gives us what Gerbner called "a centralized system of story-telling" and a shared way of seeing the world. 

As just one example, it was George Gerbner who coined the term "mean world syndrome" to describe how frequent television watching causes people to see the world as a frightening and dangerous place.  Even though the amount of television violence we see on a regular basis doesn't really correspond to the real world, it still seems real enough to shape our view of the world.  If people are convinced that the world is filled with dangerous people (regardless of actual crime statistics), is it any wonder that law-and-order policies are so popular?

But can constant television viewing shape our very personalities?   A new research study published in the Journal of Popular Media Culture suggests that it does.   Robert B. Lull of the University of Pennsylvania and Ted M. Dickinson of Ohio State University are both media psychologists interested in the psychological impact of television viewing on one particular personality trait:  narcissism.  Defined as "extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one's own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type,"  narcissism seems to be linked to a number of disturbing new trends that seem more common in recent years.  

Along with attitude surveys suggesting that people are showing less empathy and greater individualism, people also appear to be more materialistic and self-preoccupied.  Time Magazine named "You" as Person of the Year in 2006 while "selfies" are becoming more outrageous and self-promoting every day.   Research studies consistently show that narcissism in college students has risen in the past thirty years. 

Though narcissism is viewed as a personality disorder in its most extreme form, it can still be a problem for people not meeting the DSM-V diagnostic criteria.   We are all narcissistic to some extent, some more than others, but various narcissistic symptoms, including the need for exhibitionism and a sense of entitlement, tend to be manageable (usually).   People with narcissism issues can show other problems such as infidelity, domestic violence, or psychopathic behavior.

While there is still little actual research linking narcissism to television viewing, studies have shown that television can make people more materialistic, usually because of the effect of television advertising.   Since materialism and narcissism are closely associated, many researchers have speculated that television exposure may lead to narcissism.  This is a particular concern since television is so universal.  

But there are also certain television genres that reflect narcissism more than others. Reality television, for example.  Not only are reality TV stars often extremely narcissistic, but people high in narcissism prefer to watch these shows since they reflect their own values.   Narcissism is increasingly common with sports figures, entertainment "divas", and even politicians with many political figures making outrageous statements simply to get attention.

In their study, Lull and Dickinson recruited 565 undergraduates with an average age of 20.  All participants completed online surveys measuring their television watching habits including how many hours of television they watched each week, which programs they preferred, and whether they watched the program on television or using other technology such as a tablet or iPhone. They then completed a 40-item test of narcissism that has been used in previous research studies.

Results showed that participants who reported higher levels of daily television exposure also scored higher on narcissism. The college-aged participants also scored significantly higher on narcissism than a similar sized sample six years earlier suggesting that narcissism is apparently increasing in college students.  Participants with high narcissism scores preferred reality television shows, sporting events, political talk shows, and suspense/thriller/horror shows.  On the other hand, participants scoring lower on narcissism preferred news programs.

So, does television watching lead to narcissism, or can something else account for these results?   These study results are the first of their kind specifically looking at how narcissism is related to television viewing though there is no way to prove that one causes the other.  More research is definitely needed to explore how other forms of popular media can shape the kind of narcissistic attitudes being measured here. Still, as Lull and Dickinson point out, these results appear to confirm that television watching, and possibly other forms of mass media as well, can cultivate narcissism.

So spare a thought to the kind of message you are getting from the television program you are watching.  How is it shaping your own way of looking at the world?

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