Have you ever noticed that when you watch the news a lot, which is filled with reports of crime and violence, you suddenly become very paranoid, convinced that you would soon be the victim of a violent crime? Turns out, there’s a good explanation for that. George Gerbner developed the Cultivation Theory, which states “Television makes specific and measurable contributions to viewers’ conceptions of reality” (Gerbner et al., 1980, p. 10). For more than 30 years, Gerbner led a research group studying the effects of television viewing on the viewer’s perception of reality. He asked questions about what kind of content was on television and the consequences of living with and learning from television. He wanted to understand how television viewing impacted people’s perception of reality.
Gerbner believed that how much television a person watched every day influenced how much their perception of reality was tied to television content. For example, his research showed that heavy television viewers share viewpoints cultivated by television that are not shared by light television viewers, even when you consider things like age, gender, socioeconomic status and race (Gerbner et al., 1980). In other words, the only thing that these people had in common was heavy TV viewing, and that is what shaped their viewpoints. Ward and Rivadenayra (1999) propose that it is not only the amount of media we consume, but also how involved we are with the media, that impacts our view of reality. So, if an adolescent feels particularly connected to a certain story or character, the themes in that media will have a stronger influence. What does this mean? It means that media use affects the way that we view the world around us. Our perception of reality is shaped by the content of the media that we consume.
Gerbner uses the term Resonance to describe the strengthening of the belief that certain life experiences are more common than they really are due to viewing a reality presented through media (Gerbner et al., 1980). Ward (2002, 2003) and colleagues (Rivadenerya & Ward, 2007) apply this same idea to adolescents’ ideas about sexuality, gender stereotypes, and sexual behaviors.
The power of television to influence a person’s perception of reality whether it supports his or her own experiences or not speaks to the importance of investigating the content of the messages that are sent through media in general. Applying these concepts to how sexualized media impacts children, we see that when children are repeatedly exposed to sexualized themes and images, they begin to believe that this is how the real world functions.
It follows that mass media influence how users of media come to think about gender roles, sexuality, attractiveness, desirability and appropriate behavior. We often hear things like, “Media doesn’t matter, parenting does.” But, Gerbner’s theory and the recent work by Ward and others tells us that media does matter. Children and adolescents who consistently see females being objectified will learn to internalize that idea. Even if they don’t see the women in their lives being treated in an objectified manner, those who are heavy media consumers and particularly connected to certain shows or characters will likely begin to believe the gender stereotypes and sexualized views that are presented.
In fact, research has shown us that adolescents consistently report the belief that their peers are engaging in frequent sexual activity, even when they and their friends are not (Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999). This is Cultivation Theory in action. The adolescent thinks, “Well, I’m not doing that, and none of the people I know are, but a lot of other kids are.” Why do they think this is true? Especially for heavy media users, this belief is promoted by the heavy focus on romance and sexualization that is seen in media marketed to adolescents. Where are all the women and girls who care so much about their appearance and who they can attract? Where are those who think it’s more important to be pretty and desired than anything else, who view themselves as objects? For the most part, they are on the screen. But as young people consume media, they begin to adopt this idea as reality. Their view of reality is, in fact, built not just on what they see in real life, but what they see in media. Yes, media matters.
Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). The ‘‘mainstreaming’’ of America: Violence Profile No. 11. Journal of Communication, 30(3), 10–29.
Rivadeneyra, R., Ward, L.M., & Gordon, M. (2007). Distorted reflections: Media exposure and latino adolescents’ conceptions of self. Media Psychology, 9, 261-290.
Ward, L.M. & Rivadeneyra, R. (1999). Contributions of entertainment television to adolescents’ sexual attitudes and expectations: The role of viewing amount versus viewer involvement. The Journal of Sex Research, 36, (3) 237-249.
Ward, L. M. (2002). Does television exposure affect emerging adults’ attitudes and assumptions about sexual relationships? Correlational and experimental confirmation. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 31(1), 1–15.
Ward, L. M. (2003). Understanding the role of entertainment media in the sexual socialization of American youth: A review of empirical research. Developmental Review, 23(3), 347– 388.