Poll Holds Surprises About Teen Self-Image, Reality TV Effects

December 8, 2011

A new survey from the Girl Scout Research Institute issued a report titled "Real to Me: Girls and Reality TV" which came to a variety of conclusions about the effects of reality TV on beliefs and attitudes of teen girls.

The survey was conducted in April 2011 with the research firm TRU and consisted of a national sample of 1,141 girls aged 11 to 17. The same questions were asked of two groups, one of whom regularly watched reality TV shows, and the other group that did not.

One interesting finding was that the majority of girls in both groups reported that they did not think that a girl's value is based on how she looks. Sixty-two percent of reality TV viewers (and 72% of non-viewers) responded No to a question asking, "Do you think a girl's value is based on how she looks?" Thus only 28% of non-viewers (which would represent most teens) say that a girl's value is based on how she looks.

I suspected that most people would overestimate the number of girls who would say yes to that question, and so on my Facebook page I posted a query asking the following: "According to a poll of 1,000 U.S. teen girls, what percentage do you think said they believe a girl's value is based on how she looks? 30%, 60%, or 90%?"

I got 25 responses from people: seven said 30%; ten said 60%; and eight said 90%. This was of course not a scientific poll, but I do find it interesting that most people (72%) overestimated the number of girls endorsing the belief that a girl's value is based on how she looks-in some cases by a factor of three.

As with any survey question you can criticize the wording (though it's much more straightforward than other poll questions I've seen), and I'm not endorsing nor denouncing this survey, suggesting that it's valid or invalid. I can tell you that the results of the Girl Scout / TRU survey and my own informal Facebook poll both generally agree with my previous research: Namely that most people tend to overestimate the incidence and severity of self-image/body image issues in teen girls (and women in general).

That 28% of non-viewers and 38% of reality TV viewers endorsed the idea that a girl's value is based on how she looks is concerning, but we need to recognize that they are in the minority. The fact that most (nearly three-quarters of) girls said that they don't think a girl's value is based on her appearance (and therefore reject the ubiquitous "beauty myth") should be welcomed as good news, not buried in fine print. (I wrote about the tendency for social activists to emphasize the negative aspects of polls and surveys in my 2003 book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us.)

I've had discussions with people about this and one occasion the person, after being confronted with valid research data, polls, and surveys demonstrating that her opinion about what most teen girls thought was wrong, basically said to me, "Well, I don't care if it's 90% or 9%. Even one girl with bad body image is too many."

I was stunned, and didn't even know how to reply. Everyone agrees that issues like body image and anorexia and self-esteem are serious and important; no one is saying that if a disease or problem doesn't affect the majority of people it's not worth being concerned about. But to suggest that incidence numbers are not relevant-that most teens having body image problems is really the same as most teens not having body image problems (as long as some of them do)-demonstrates a shocking indifference to truth and reality. In order to find solutions to problems we first must understand them.

Comments:

#1 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Friday December 09, 2011 at 1:22am

Ahh, a poll like this is probably subject to some version of the famous, or infamous, “Bradley effect,” with the girls in question, to some degree, saying what they think they’re supposed to say.

Unless, say, there’s a statistically significant drop in anorexia 10 years from now, what they believe may well be different.

#2 Anne C. Hanna (Guest) on Friday December 09, 2011 at 2:18am

I’m shocked to find myself agreeing with SocraticGadfly, but I think s/he’s nailed this one.  Usually if you want to get at people’s real attitudes on an issue like this you’ve got to do a somewhat more subtle poll.  If 1/3 to 2/5 are willing to agree straight up with the statement that a woman’s value is determined by her appearance, then you’ve gotta bet that the subconscious prevalence of that bias is a hell of a lot worse.  It may in fact not be a minority view at all.

#3 Anne C. Hanna on Friday December 09, 2011 at 2:19am

Grah, completely forgot that I have an actual account here.  Oh well.

#4 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 at 12:12am

Anne, it’s OK to be shocked.

#5 Louise Roberts (Guest) on Thursday December 15, 2011 at 6:08am

I think that many teen self image are being affected by tv. I think that tv have a big impact among teens. I think that we should be more careful on what tv shows to provide among out teens.Body Lotions

#6 Julia Burke (Guest) on Saturday December 17, 2011 at 8:18am

Ben, I have to take a few issues with your interpretation of this research, your conclusion, and your own “study.” Let’s take things one by one.

“The majority of girls in both groups reported that they did not think that a girl’s value is based on how she looks. Sixty-two percent of reality TV viewers (and 72% of non-viewers) responded No to a question asking, ‘Do you think a girl’s value is based on how she looks?’ Thus only 28% of non-viewers (which would represent most teens) say that a girl’s value is based on how she looks.

A girl’s value is based on how she looks. A girl’s value as a human being, as a contributor to this world, is based on her attractiveness and her attractiveness alone. Twenty-eight percent of young girls surveyed believe this. If that isn’t alarming by itself, I don’t suppose I can convince you that it is. I will say that a statistic that twenty-eight percent of teens believed that the Earth was flat would not, I believe, procure such a glass-half-full reaction. Furthermore, you said nonviewers represent most teens. Let’s look at that. The study (girlscouts.org/research/pdf/real_to_me_factsheet.pdf) states:

“Forty-seven percent of girls in this survey are ‘regular’ reality TV viewers, with 30% watching ‘sometimes’ and 23% ‘rarely/never’ (the group we refer to as ‘non-viewers’). This reflects slightly different viewership levels than general survey incidence rates, which are as follows: 52% ‘regular,’ 33% ‘sometimes,’ and 15% ‘rarely/never.’ This was done to achieve an adequate number of girls in each category for statistical comparison purposes.”

Nonviewers are 23 percent; hardly the majority. So that 38 percent number probably shouldn’t be waved aside so easily.

“I suspected that most people would overestimate the number of girls who would say yes to that question, and so on my Facebook page I posted a query asking the following: ‘According to a poll of 1,000 U.S. teen girls, what percentage do you think said they believe a girl’s value is based on how she looks? 30%, 60%, or 90%?’”

Why did you suspect that? Please explain your reasons for your hypothesis, as it seems to have affected your question: you only gave the options of numbers equal to or over the correct number. You didn’t even give responders a chance to underestimate, skewing the numbers to get the answer you’ve already decided to get.

And with only twenty-five responses, I’m not sure how useful this is even if the question wasn’t already skewed. Why is a query to your Facebook a valid selection? Your Facebook is people you know; like-minded colleagues, friends, your social circle. Drawing a “public opinion” poll from the people who are not only your Facebook friends but who are close enough friends to view and comment on your posts hardly seems useful.

“As with any survey question you can criticize the wording (though it’s much more straightforward than other poll questions I’ve seen), and I’m not endorsing nor denouncing this survey, suggesting that it’s valid or invalid. I can tell you that the results of the Girl Scout / TRU survey and my own informal Facebook poll both generally agree with my previous research: Namely that most people tend to overestimate the incidence and severity of self-image/body image issues in teen girls (and women in general).”

Which polls are you comparing it to, finding your wording more “straightforward”? You’ve also embedded here the declaration that the Girl Scout / TRU survey’s conclusion was the same as your premise—that both the incidence and the severity of self image/body image issues in teen girls is exaggerated.

In fact, the Girl Scout / TRU survey’s conclusions were more complicated:

“In our study, we found that girls who view reality TV regularly are more focused on the value of physical appearance.
• Seventy-two percent say they spend a lot of time on their appearance (vs. 42% of non-viewers).
• More than a third (38%) think that a girl’s value is based on how she looks (compared to 28% of non-viewers).
• They would rather be recognized for their outer beauty than their inner beauty (28% vs. 18% of non-viewers).

In fact you’ve taken one statistic from the point of the study, which was intended as a comparison across multiple factors between reality TV viewers and nonviewers, and used it to confirm your pre-conclusion.

Finally, just a small thing, but your wording in that last sentence from the paragraph I quoted above (“…most people tend to overestimate the incidence and severity of self-image/body image issues in teen girls (and women in general)”) begs a few questions. Where do “women in general” come in? Where does “severity” come in—is the belief that one’s entire worth lies in one’s attractiveness not severe, and how was the public surmise of “severity” of body image issues tested here?

I have to suspect that you are operating on a previously accepted premise here, and I have to wonder why women’s body image issues—certainly a large presence in the media, but you haven’t shown that that’s unwarranted—have given you an ax to grind.

#7 Ben Radford on Saturday December 17, 2011 at 2:22pm

>>Ben, I have to take a few issues with your interpretation of this research, your conclusion, and your own “study.” Let’s take things one by one.

Hi Julia!

Certainly. There’s way too much to address everything in detail at once, so rather than going in a lot of different directions at once I’ll start with the first two.

1) “A girl’s value is based on how she looks. A girl’s value as a human being, as a contributor to this world, is based on her attractiveness and her attractiveness alone.”

I’m sorry you feel that way; fortunately I, most people I know, and the majority of girls in this survey disagree with you about this. I honestly don’t know anyone who thinks that a girl’s value is based on her appearance. I know many mothers who have daughters, and as far as I know all of them believe that their daughters’ value as a person has little to do with her appearance. Just last night on the ABC Nightly News a teen girl was profiled on national television—not for her appearance, but instead because she set up a charity for needy kids in her city.

Why do you claim that “a girl’s value as a human being, as a contributor to this world, is based on her attractiveness and her attractiveness alone?” Do you have any evidence that this is true, or that most people believe it’s true? Where did this come from? And if this is such a widely-accepted belief, how do you explain the fact that most girls in this survey reject it?

2) “Furthermore, you said nonviewers represent most teens. Let’s look at that. The study (girlscouts.org/research/pdf/real_to_me_factsheet.pdf) states: Forty-seven percent of girls in this survey are ‘regular’ reality TV viewers, with 30% watching ‘sometimes’ and 23% ‘rarely/never’ (the group we refer to as ‘non-viewers’). This reflects slightly different viewership levels than general survey incidence rates, which are as follows: 52% ‘regular,’ 33% ‘sometimes,’ and 15% ‘rarely/never.’ This was done to achieve an adequate number of girls in each category for statistical comparison purposes.”

That’s correct; as you note, fewer than half (47%) are regular reality TV viewers, and therefore by definition most teens do not regularly watch reality TV. Certainly, if we include people who “sometimes” watch reality TV, we get closer to three-quarters, though I’d want to know how the survey defined “sometimes” (once a week? once a month?). The TRU survey focused almost exclusively on regular viewers, so that’s the number I used. I’d be surprised if the majority of American teens in the general population regularly watch reality TV shows, but I guess it’s possible.

#8 Julia Burke (Guest) on Saturday December 17, 2011 at 2:38pm

Ben, to the first point, I was, of course, restating the belief in detail to make the point that anyone believing it SHOULD be cause for alarm; afterwards I compared it to the belief that the world is flat. In the future I will make comparisons using “like” or “as” to avoid confusion

#9 Ben Radford on Saturday December 17, 2011 at 3:54pm

Julia- I didn’t mean to suggest that you personally endorse the idea that a girl’s value lies in her appearance, and I agree with you that if anyone thinks that’s true, then it’s of concern. The point I was trying to make was that if you believe that such a claim is widely accepted or believed (by the public, or girls in general), then I’m going to ask for evidence of that claim. That’s all.

I think Jules is right, this would make a great discussion on SkeptiXX. What do you say? Maybe we could do a point/ counterpoint discussion, posting once a week or something. We’d have to focus on one or two topics/questions at a time otherwise it will likely get scattered in too many directions at once.

#10 Ben Radford on Saturday December 17, 2011 at 4:02pm

Regarding the earlier posts about girls saying what they think the researchers want to hear: I usually hear of it as “demand characteristics” in psychological studies. It’s certainly true that that effect can be a confounding problem, but I’d be careful about saying that the girls in this survey are being deceptive or dishonest… At the end of the day you can’t just say that all polls and surveys are flawed because the respondents might have told the surveyors what they wanted to hear.

Personally I think that people need to listen more to what the girls and women say, instead of making assumptions about them. Their voices should be heard, and respected.

#11 Debster (Guest) on Wednesday January 04, 2012 at 2:21am

Too late, I know. But wow, I can’t not react. More than 1 in 4 girls believe that a girl is valued by her looks alone. That’s a devastating statistic. That’s a quarter of little girls growing up thinking that if she isn’t good looking enough, she is worth nothing. And if she is good looking enough, her brains, character, personality don’t matter.  That’s not even counting the in-betweeners still plagued with the idea that their looks have some impact on their value. That is surprising. I never imagined it would be so much. If there was just one little girl like this, you would want to know how this happened, and how soon she can be helped.

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