Some American Women Educate Themselves through Reality TV

September 10, 2015 | Gillian Burrell

Woman watching television
Photo credit: Public domain image edited by The Science Explorer

A recent study indicates that a woman’s perceptions about pregnancy and birth are influenced by shows like Baby Story and Birth Day. Whether they’ll admit it depends on their education level.

Educating the public on important health issues can pose an unrelenting challenge – particularly in this modern age. On one hand, the widespread availability of electronic media provides public health educators with multiple avenues to spread important messages. On the other hand, television and the internet tend to popularize misinformation.

A recent study from the University of Cincinnati finds that television can even influence our hopes and fears about pregnancy.

The researchers, led by Danielle Besset, interviewed 64 pregnant American women over a period of two years to understand the subliminal effect of fictional and reality television. Their findings show that the majority of study participants were profoundly influenced by television’s portrayal of pregnancy, whether or not they realized it.

Of the 64 participants, 44 percent watched a reality television show specifically about pregnancy and birth, but even those that didn’t were shown to be influenced by television. In fact, the majority of the women who were interviewed referenced at least one dramatic medical scene from television while describing their fears about their own birth.

This is not the first study to reveal television’s influence on our perception of reality. In 2013, University of Wisconsin psychologists showed that viewers of reality television tend to overestimate how often the average American engages in affairs, divorces, and verbal aggression.

According to Besset, television gives women the impression that the average pregnancy is highly medicalized. Prior research has shown that reality television shows like Baby Story, Maternity Ward, and Birth Day over-represent the number of births that require medical interventions.

“So there is a strong sense that what women are getting from those reality shows is a more skewed and medicalized view,” says Bessett.  

Interestingly, not all women were willing to admit to this influence. The researchers noticed clear correlations between a participant’s attitude to television and their level of education. Those women who were less educated acknowledged and even embraced the influence of television. Many saw television as part of their self-guided learning process and often critically evaluated the validity of the information. Conversely, those with higher educations denied being influenced by what they viewed on television, despite the fact that they too cited television episodes when describing their expectations for their birth.

“If we believe that television works most insidiously or effectively on people when they don’t realize that it has power, then we can actually argue that the more highly educated women who were the most likely to say that television really didn’t have any effect on them, may in the end actually be more subject to the power of television than were women who saw television as an opportunity to learn about birth and recognized TV’s influence,” says Bessett.


Based on materials provided by the University of Cincinnati.


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