Every January, a highly advertised event occurs in the U.S.: a new season of the hit reality TV series “American Idol” begins. On the show, hundreds of teens and young adults compete for a chance to sing before a national audience and possibly earn a record deal. Since its inception, the show has become the highest rated in the history of television, with more votes cast for the performers per season than for the nation’s president. Cue the lights, camera and—psychologists say—the skewed lesson on human values.
A recent study by UCLA psychologists says modern television shows popular among preteens, like “American Idol” and “Hanna Montana,” teach children that fame is the most important value for a person to cultivate and possess. The study analyzed the values emphasized in the two highest rated shows among young people for each decade starting in 1967. For 2007, fame replaced the value of community feeling, which had held the top spot for the previous four decades—except for 1987, in which it ranked No 2. Now, community feeling ranks 11th out of 16 values.
Benevolence (kindness toward others) and tradition have likewise taken a fall. For most other decades, benevolence ranked second on the values list. For 2007, however, it plummeted to 13th place. Tradition, which ranked 4th in importance just 10 years before, now ranks 15th—the spot fame previously occupied in all other years studied. Whereas community feeling, benevolence, image, tradition and self-acceptance once represented the top five values reflected in television shows for preteens, they have been replaced by fame, achievement, popularity, image and financial success.
Researchers conducted the study by using Nielsen demographic data to select the two most popular shows among preteens for each decade, then asked a panel of 60 adult subjects to rate how much emphasis each value received in the shows’ episodes as embodied by their characters. Shows analyzed included “Andy Griffith,” “The Lucy Show,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Happy Days.”
Psychologists are shocked by the findings, which they say indicate a drastic cultural shift occurring in the past decade alone. The results seem to corroborate evidence of a rise in narcissism documented by several other recent studies of U.S. culture. Indeed, those studies show that 10 percent of adults in their twenties have, at some point, experienced symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a serious clinical psychosis. Individuals with NPD exhibit great self-confidence and self-love but lack empathy, leading to anti-social behaviors. Psychologists blame advertising, materialism, the Internet, social media and changes in parenting styles as responsible for the increase in narcissism.
One reason psychologists find these figures so disturbing is that narcissism can have devastating effects on the nation’s economy. Some researchers point to evidence that narcissism played a role in the 2008 financial crisis as people took on mortgages that exceeded their incomes and CEOs thought their companies too big to fail. Narcissism may also be driving excessive government spending, tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts to welfare for the poor, demonstrating a lack of concern about the less fortunate and the debt burden that will be left to future generations. Such behavior is ultimately unhealthy for the economy, as excessive debt coupled with decreasing investments in public infrastructure could lead to a severe economic collapse.
UCLA psychologists found that not only do fame-centered TV shows like “American Idol” and “Hanna Montana” reflect the current culture, they also serve to socialize upcoming generations. That means children and teens are learning to crave fame over healthier, more socially beneficial values like benevolence. More than that, say researchers, these shows give children the impression that fame can be easily achieved without hard work, sacrifice, or even skill. Such a message skews children’s perceptions of reality. In reality, achieving superstar status is difficult and demanding, and those seeking easy fame are likely to meet with crushing failure, disappointment and disillusionment.
Psychologists say parents can help turn the narcissistic tide by discussing the values emphasized on TV shows with their children. However, researchers warn that it may be a losing battle. With children consuming hours of media programming a day and enjoying nearly unlimited access to their peers through social media, parents may simply be unable to keep up.
The study, by authors Uhls and Greenfield, can be found in the July 2011 issue of Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace.