Under the Influence

There is a television set near my desk at work, and it is often tuned to MTV. This is because, in the features department, we need to keep abreast of the latest trends in music, youth culture and skankiness. Some might say extended viewing of this channel would affect one’s behavior, but I think that’s wack, yo.

Actually, I do think watching MTV all day has skewed my perception of reality, which was fuzzy to begin with. I go home thinking, “Hey, how come I’m always wearing a shirt, like a chump? No one else wears shirts!” It also gives me unhealthy, unnatural shame about the condition of my own body, which I believe was one of the stated goals of the network in the first place.

One of MTV’s original shows is “True Life,” a documentary series in which people who have dramatic problems are paraded around while sensitive songs by Blink-182 and Missy Elliott play in the background. We meet teens with eating disorders, pregnant teens, teens with too many piercings and teens who binge drink. But what made these teens do these things in the first place? Isn’t MTV expressing sympathy for them sort of like Marlboro expressing sympathy for people with lung cancer?

Does MTV, or any media, actually influence people’s behavior? Of course it does. Advertisers wouldn’t produce commercials if they didn’t think sounds and pictures had some power to make people do things. The question is how strong the influence is.

Pretty strong, according to a new study published in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health. (This issue has a GREAT centerfold of Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, by the way.) Researchers from Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Alabama at Birmingham studied the behavior of 522 black females ages 14-18 and found that those who watched 14 hours or more of rap videos a week were far more likely than their peers to engage in violent behavior, be arrested, have multiple sex partners and acquire STDs (though they did not necessarily do all these things at once) (though I would not put it past them, teens being excessive as they are).

“Maybe they see what’s on the rap music videos and think that’s how teenagers act, and that’s how I should act,” said Gina Wingood, co-author of the study and associate professor of behavioral sciences and health education at Emory University. (You can read the study in PDF format here.)

We’re ultimately responsible for our own actions, of course, but should we remove all blame from the things that influence us?

When MTV’s “The Real World” shows gorgeous people cohabitating, fornicating, imbibing and carousing, does that make those activities seem a little more appealing to the youth who watch the channel? Or are those things appealing anyway, without MTV doing P.R. for them?

When someone watches MTV’s “Jackass” and subsequently maims himself re-enacting one of the stunts, perhaps by setting his groin aflame with a bottle rocket, is that MTV’s fault? Or is it the fault of his parents, who bred him, or of the government, who allowed people with such inferior genes to reproduce in the first place?

It would seem that if MTV doesn’t actively promote unhealthy behavior, it certainly doesn’t do much to discourage it. Witness the series “Becoming,” whose premise is to encourage imitative behavior of pop stars. On this show, ordinary teens who are fanatics of a particular singer get to become that person for a day, culminating in re-shooting one of the performer’s videos with the teen in the lead role. As far as I can tell, the teen never actually gets to meet his or her idol, which makes the whole thing pretty cruel, really. But they do get to imitate the person and feel what it’s like to be that person for a day.

Now, there are the obvious problems with this. For example, why is MTV encouraging our youth to be losers? Seriously, kids, get a life.

Furthermore, while there are singers I like, and even love — Juice Newton, I’m looking in your direction — there aren’t any whom I’ve ever wanted to BE. I mean, I like potatoes, too, but I don’t wish to become one.

And what if your particular idol is Mariah Carey? Does that mean you have to spend 24 hours dazedly wandering the streets, asking passersby if they have change for a Grammy?

But the real point is, here is a show whose whole purpose is to encourage teens not to be themselves — the smart, wonderful, passionate people teens can be — but instead to be someone else, some fabricated, made-over person they’ve never met. There is so much potential in our youth — well, your youth; I don’t have any of my own — that it seems a shame to have it mishandled by poor influences. And I know you would take me more seriously if I did, but I am NOT putting my shirt back on.

I had no idea who the current surgeon general was, of course. I had to look it up. I'm fairly sure I had never, ever heard his name before.

Many thanks to my friend Lindsay who pointed out the study. I was writing about MTV anyway, and the study happened to come out at just the right time. Its inclusion drastically changed the tone and direction of the column, improving it a great deal.

My editor confessed laughing at the Mariah Carey joke while not really understanding where it was coming from. I think I feel the same way about it.