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How Much Does TV Impact Real Life?

Along with baseball and apple pie, television is one thing Americans absolutely love. But we’re told time and again that our obsession with the tube is detrimental to our overall health and happiness. Some go so far as to blame television for what they view as the erosion of moral conscience and common decency in modern society. However, a slew of new studies turn the idea of television’s bad influence on its head. In fact, it’s been posited that TV is actually beneficial — helping with everything from preparing kids for success in school to decreasing sexual violence. With so many conflicting opinions out there, we decided to break down some of the things TV gets blamed for and find out if we could find a causal relationship between tuning in and being bad. Violent TV Encourages Violence Off-Screen For decades there have been reports about the danger of exposing people, especially children, to violent images on TV. While it seems impossible to deny that seeing up to 200,000 violent acts portrayed on television before age 18 has some sort of impact on our psyches, it’s oversimplified to make TV public enemy number one when it comes to violence in society. A variety of factors contribute to a person’s proclivity for violence, including violent acts observed in real life, socioeconomic status, education, and mental illness. TV may contribute to making violence seem more commonplace, but it’s difficult to link television violence directly to real-life actions. On the flip side, a recent study shows a positive societal effect from watching shows like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” where the bad guys usually pay and acts of sexual violence are not portrayed as the victim’s fault. Just as television violence can potentially breed violence, the proper handling of violent acts can help create a more educated, empowered society that recognizes sexual violence for what it is and condemns such actions and the perpetrators. Sex on TV Is Corrupting Your Children Ever since the Bradys brought the shared marital bed to primetime, people have been concerned about the negative impact of sex on TV. It has been found that teens who are exposed to higher numbers of sexual situations on television are more likely to engage in a sexual relationship. However, studies also show that teens are also more aware of the risks of sexual behavior thanks to TV. In addition to the emotional and health impacts of initiating sexual behavior too early, many worry that reality shows like “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” glamorize teen pregnancy. Even though MTV made a point to promote resources that discourage teen pregnancy, the shows still garnered their share of criticism. One star of “Teen Mom 2,” Jenelle Evans, had three friends get pregnant within a year of her turn on the show, validating the growing concern that these shows are more a bad influence than a cautionary tale. But experts are divided on the real impact. Teen pregnancy has been on a steady decline since 2009, the same year “16 and Pregnant” debuted. Beautiful People on TV Make Us Hate Our Bodies It’s not uncommon to see a mom of three portrayed on television with a clear thigh gap and middle-aged dads with washboard abs. While that sometimes happens in real life, it’s definitely not the norm. With so much attention on healthy body image, it’s easy to point the finger at moms like Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) on “Modern Family” and blame them for the reason women are tempted to starve themselves before hitting the beach. Reality television seems to be the biggest culprit when it comes to portraying unrealistic images of what “normal” people look like. Most women are not size two, but for years shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Real World” feature gals who would easily have a heyday in any fashion magazine’s sample closet. Yet when shows like “How to Look Good Naked” try to promote positive body image by showcasing “real” women, it still has a negative impact on how viewers feel about their bodies. Thankfully, research shows that it takes more than a hot (or not) body on television to breed negative body image. When it comes to teens’ body image issues, they are far more likely to compare themselves to each other than to characters on their favorite shows. Which is good news, as long as they don’t consider the tightly toned people on reality shows to be their peers. When it comes to placing blame, we love to make TV the bad guy. However, upon closer examination, television is rarely the primary cause of society’s evils. TV may not be to blame for increased violence or my desire to lose 10 pounds, but television does wield influence. And its influence keeps changing. It’s nice to know that television’s power can be used as effectively for good as for evil. In fact, it seems just as easy to tie television to positive societal attitudes and changes as to negative ones. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to use this knowledge to ease my binge-watching guilt and settle in for a marathon of my latest small-screen obsession.

About the Author

Rebecca Edwards is a pop culture junkie who loves watching, reading about and riffing on her TV addiction du jour. She has been a writer for over two decades. Her current TV obsessions include "Shameless," "True Detective" and "American Horror Story."

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