Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Does Media Matter: Media and Perception of Reality

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.

12 comments on “Does Media Matter: Media and Perception of Reality

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  6. jlmjjh
    November 1, 2012

    Reblogged this on PhD Research Blog.

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  10. Aalia
    September 15, 2011

    Thank you Jennifer for this. A worrying aspect of the vision of women, I believe, is strongly connected to the internet. Nowadays, not only can you access the internet via a PC, but also portable devices like mobiles and iPads. Having such portable devices simply means that young children and teenagers can increase their private education while no one is looking, such as in a bedroom late at night, sitting waiting for buses (the list is endless).

    If our young people have this pleasure at their fingertips 24/7, then it really is unsure what they are purposely looking up or accidentally coming across. I think there is a strong connection with what teenagers are looking at and why young girls are slowly depleting their mental worth and concentrating on their outer appearance for the sake of male attention.

    For example, teenage boys in particular, have access to pornography and sexuality degrading and exploited images and video of women more than ever before. I understand that this is a major plus to owning portable devices that access the net for young men. I’m worried that if these kinds of images are popular to look at and share with each other, it in turn rubs off on their female peers.

    There is absolutely no attempt at hiding the fact that these are the images they enjoy looking at and they openly share them with their female friends.

    I am 27, and 10 years ago at high school, the girls had no idea what our fellow male peers did during their private moments, nor did we have a clue at what kind of nekkid girls they were getting boners over. And more importantly, we were never expected to endure descriptive discussions on what they found on the net the night before under the covers of their doona. This was helpful, I believe, looking back now. As young girls, 95% of our male friends’ sexual “discovery” was off limits to us and vice versa.

    It’s different now. Looking at young girls profile pictures just on facebook makes me realize we as women (particularly young girls) have been exposed enormously to another aspect of sexuality like a freight train hitting them; and it’s not our sexuality we are exposing, but one they think their male friends like to look at. You know the profile pictures I’m talking about. Most of them are so sexuality explicit that all is missing is the additions of body fluids and what ever else you can imagine. Even when you look at the comments on these pictures, it’s clear who they’ve taken the pictures for; for their male friends to leave comments, and wow, this is a girl they go to school with.

    Now, us women who are older have the ability to con onto this fact that fantasy is fantasy and many of us over time have put two and two together and discovered the difference between what men may like to look at as opposed to what we actually are; normal everyday women who don’t fit into that pornish realm one iota.

    I just don’t understand why suddenly, in this day and age, there are young girls out there who have to not only deal with their own sexuality, but that of their male peers too, and at such young ages.

  11. Erin @mktgchildhood
    September 14, 2011

    And so, eventually, the beliefs about reality based on TV images actually become reality. Or at least start to move us in that direction, as more and more children and adolescents internalize what they see and then grow up to influence the culture themselves. At least, that’s the progression I imagine, unless we challenge these negative media images and teach children media literacy.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      September 14, 2011

      Yes! The studies that Ward has done show that these sexualized messages impact the way kids see reality and themselves. In my next post I’ll talk more about how media impacts kids’ view of themselves. Very interesting stuff.

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