Trashy television may cost us more than just our time

Study tracks cognitive and political consequences of exposure to tabloid television

Love Island contestant Maura Higgins. Photograph: Facebook

Love Island contestant Maura Higgins. Photograph: Facebook

 

How easily influenced are we? How much weight do we give to what informs our behaviour and identity and opinions? Humans are cute in that we like to think we’ve come to every conclusion ourselves, unencumbered by context, uninfluenced by environment, unmoved by messaging. But that’s wrong, obviously.

You’d struggle to find a more seductive headline than one in the business section of the Washington Post last week: “How trashy TV made children dumber and enabled a wave of populist leaders.” Yikes.

The article assesses a study in the American Economic Review by researchers from Universitat Pompeu Fabra, in Barcelona, Queen Mary college at the University of London, and Bocconi University, in Milan, about the impact of particular television trends in 1980s and 1990s Italy, and the political consequences.

Poor-quality programming seems to nudge people towards poor-quality politicians

Mediaset, which the Post calls “an aggressive and unabashedly unsophisticated channel”, entered the market in the 1980s, buying local television stations and pushing light entertainment. Where RAI, the public broadcaster, was somewhat serious, Mediaset went unashamedly for the chewing-gum-for-the-brain end of things.

Simple messages

The study is rooted in comparing towns that had Mediaset with equivalent towns that got access to the channel a few years later, and tried to find out what the impact of trash television is on society. The data shows that, as the Post put it, “more exposure to Mediaset’s vapid programming was followed by an enduring boost in support for populist candidates peddling simple messages and easy answers”.

Interestingly, the demographics that responded most to such programming are over-55s and children under 10. If you were one of those kids watching Mediaset in 1985 you would grow up to be “less cognitively sophisticated and less civically minded” than your peer who didn’t watch Mediaset, a broadcaster, of course, owned by Silvio Berlusconi. So, poor-quality programming, seems to nudge people towards poor-quality politicians.

I came across this study when I saw Francesca Cavallo talking about it on Instagram. Cavallo is the co-author with Elena Favilli of the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls book series, which replaces anodyne princess-type stories with genuine female role models. The books have sold more than a million copies and have been translated into nearly 50 languages. She spoke about the “very worrying correlation” between the amount of trashy television people watch and their vulnerability to populist leaders.

If you’ve spent your life ambiently gorging on vapid entertainment, that is going to have an impact on how you consume and connect with information

“This is to say,” Cavallo said, “that entertainment is never just entertainment, especially when it comes to kids. So, when your kids are parked in front of YouTube or they’re ‘just’ watching cartoons or TV shows, they are never ‘just’ doing that. This is because all the time that they spend not reading a book or not playing with their peers or not engaging with nature is time that will turn them into citizens that are less likely to be engaged, less likely to be active in their communities and to care about diversity, for example, or the climate emergency.

“It is high time that we take more seriously the responsibility that we have towards how children in our families spend their time . . . It’s not just a responsibility towards our own children, it’s a responsibility towards our planet.”

One of the things that we’re seeing with the current wave of populist, fascist and far-right leaders is the simplicity of their messages. While it’s right to pay a lot of attention to what they’re saying, we should also examine how they’re saying it. If you’ve spent your life ambiently gorging on vapid entertainment, that is going to have an impact on how you consume and connect with information. I’ve lost count of the number of posts on social media I’ve seen from people who seem personally affronted that anyone would have the gall to deride Love Island, for example, and that doing so is somehow classist, sexist, obnoxious, anti-fun, mean or a cliche.

Populist arguments

The same goes for criticising the Kardashians – that doing so is somehow virtue signalling, anti-feminist (my favourite) and predictable. These same sentiments, which often orientate around “snobbery” and perceive an opinion about a popular show as an attack on ordinary people and simple pleasures, are strikingly similar to the arguments populists use against “elites”.

There are plenty of conversations at the moment about the quality of news and current affairs people are consuming, but this study shows that we should be taking a broader look at the impact of consumption. It is entertainment, not news, that appears to have a role in people responding to populist messages and figures. Whereas RAI broadcast news and educational programming, Mediaset was a bombardment of soap operas, films and cartoons. As MIT professor Benjamin Olken was quoted in the Post report as saying: “TV that’s not explicitly about politics can have an effect on politics.”

Children are particularly malleable when it comes to messaging. It is incumbent on parents to really think about what their kids are consuming. Escalating screen time and intervening too often in children’s play and activities with mindless entertainment are obviously damaging. Occupying and distracting children with screens are going to have an impact. There’s nothing wrong with doing nothing. After all, it’s boredom, not stimulation, that is the foundation of creativity.

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