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.