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A Shift Toward Self

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By Stuart Wolpert

Published Jul 25, 2011 12:00 AM


A study shows fame as the top value promoted in TV programs targeted to pre-teens in 2007, with emphasis on community feeling and kindness to others far less than before.

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"Don't you know who I am? Remember my name. Fame! I'm gonna live forever."
— Irene Cara, "Fame"

Being famous is now the number one value emphasized by television shows popular with 9- to 11-year-olds, according to a recent study by UCLA psychologists.

On a list of 16 values, fame jumped from 15th in both 1987 and 1997 to first in 2007. From 1997 to 2007, the quality of benevolence (being kind and helping others) fell from second to 13th, and tradition dropped from fourth to 15th.

The study assessed the values of characters in popular television shows in each decade from 1967 to 2007, with two shows per decade evaluated.

"I was shocked, especially by the dramatic changes in the last 10 years," says Yalda T. Uhls, a UCLA doctoral student in developmental psychology and the lead author of the study. "I thought fame would be important but did not expect this drastic an increase or such a dramatic decrease in other values, such as community feeling. If you believe, as I do, that television reflects the culture, then American culture has changed drastically."

Community feeling (being part of a group) was the top value in 1967, 1977 and 1997 and was number two in 1987, the study found. By 2007, however, it had fallen out of the top 10, to 11th.

"The rise of fame in preteen television may be one influence in the documented rise of narcissism in our culture," explains the study's senior author, Patricia M. Greenfield, a UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Children's Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles. "Popular television shows are part of the environment that causes the increased narcissism, but they also reflect the culture. They both reflect it and serve as a powerful socialization force for the next generation."

The top five values in 2007 were fame, achievement, popularity, image and financial success. In 1997, the top five were community feeling, benevolence, image, tradition and self-acceptance. In 2007, benevolence dropped to 12th and community feeling to 11th. Financial success went from 12th in 1967 and 1997 to fifth in 2007.

The two least emphasized values in 2007 were spiritualism (16th) and tradition (15th); tradition had been ranked fourth in 1997.

Uhls and Greenfield analyzed Nielsen demographic data to determine the most popular shows with 9- to 11-year-olds and then surveyed 60 participants, aged 18 to 59, to determine how important each value was in episodes of the various shows.

"The biggest change occurred from 1997 to 2007, when YouTube, Facebook and Twitter exploded in popularity," Uhls says. "Their growth parallels the rise in narcissism and the drop in empathy among college students in the United States, as other research has shown. We don't think this is a coincidence. Changes we have seen in narcissism and empathy are being reflected on television. In the past, children had their home, community and school; now they have thousands of 'friends' who look at their photos and their posts and comment on them. The growth of social media gives children access to an audience beyond the school grounds."

"If you have 400 or more Facebook friends, which many high school and college students do, you are on stage," Greenfield says. "It's intrinsically narcissistic."

"Preteens are at an age when they want to be popular, just like the famous teenagers they see on TV and the Internet," adds Uhls, who has an 11-year-old daughter and formerly worked as a movie studio executive. "With Internet celebrities and reality TV stars everywhere, the pathway for nearly anyone to become famous, without a connection to hard work and skill, may seem easier than ever. When being famous and rich is much more important than being kind to others, what will happen to kids as they form their values and their identities?"

To learn about the Children's Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles, visit www.cdmc.ucla.edu .


This article originally appeared online at UCLA Today, July 11, 2011.

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