Rethinking TV Parental Guidelines

Advertising professor says researchers are overlooking ethical issues, such as materialism

Robert Lewis TV Banner

In the pilot episode of "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody," the main characters face a dilemma between being loyal to their friends or ditching their friends to fit in with a group of cool kids. Although they succumb to peer pressure, Zack and Cody eventually reconcile with their original friends.

Like most (56 percent) of the youth TV program dilemmas coded by Assistant Professor of Advertising Robert Lewis and other researchers at The University of Texas at Austin Moody College of Communication, this dilemma is between selfish and moralistic motivations. Among selfish motivations, materialism and status top the list. Among moralistic motivations, concern and care for others were most common.

"Those who care a lot about what's on your TV have always focused on the children," Lewis said. "Sex and violence are prevalent, they say, and these are the moral issues that have the biggest corrupting influence. Research professors have responded by observing the frequency and character of these depictions, but there are several other moral issues – such as materialism and status – that we may be overlooking."

Like researchers, Lewis said parents could be failing to notice when TV content clashes with their values.

"I think parents should simply be aware of their values and how the media might be shaping their children's values beyond the easy-to-spot depictions like violence and sex," Lewis said. "Hopefully, the research will provoke some awareness to help parents tune their radars toward the less obvious depictions like status."

Instead of starting with a specific moral concern and then observing TV content to see if it's there, Lewis and researchers created a TV content coding system based on fundamental human motives. To code moralistic motivations, researchers followed the "Moral Foundations Theory," published by a group of social psychologists in 2012. To code selfish motivations, they followed psychologist Douglas Kenrick's reformulation of Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs".

Moralistic motivations, in order of prevalence on youth TV programs, included:

  • Care – concerned with feeling and disliking the pain of others
  • Fairness – related to motivations for justice, reciprocity and punishing cheaters
  • In-group loyalty – dealing with group identity and punishment of outsiders
  • Authority – respecting dominance hierarchies
  • Purity – dealing with the psychology of disgust and unquestioned sacred values

Selfish motivations, in order of prevalence on youth TV programs, included:

  • Status/esteem – concerned with gaining resources to enhance alliances and social regard, feelings of competence and autonomy
  • Safety – concerned with familiar surroundings, sensitivity to threats
  • Homeostatic regulation – concerned with nutrition and physiological imbalances
  • Affiliation – concerned with needs to relate with familiar people
  • Mating – concerned with sexual opportunity as well as long-term alliances

Research was based on a list of programs that the Nielsen Company divided into three age groups: 2-5, 6-11 and 12-17. The youngest category included programs such as "Curious George" and "Go, Diego, Go!" The middle category included programs such as "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody" and "iCarly." The oldest category included programs such as "Modern Family" and "Teen Wolf."

Researchers randomly sampled 10 programs for each age group, coding 556 scenes for dilemmas.

Only 26 percent of the dilemmas identified were between moralistic motivations. Dilemmas between selfish motivations comprised 18 percent of the study.

Dilemmas were more prevalent in content for ages 6 and older. Lewis said this means the majority of TV programming is in line with age-based cognitive differences, as people’s ability to detect and deliberate on dilemmas increases with age.

The research was published in the July 2014 print edition of Mass Communication and Society. The National Communication Association's Mass Communication Division named it the 2013 Top Paper. The annual award recognizes excellence in scholarship.

Marc Speir
Senior Content Producer