There is little doubt that the media as a far more profound affect on our culture than does the entire profession of psychology*. There have been myriad studies showing the negative effect of images of “perfect bodies” on the way we view our own bodies+. Furthermore, there is some evidence (not always conclusive) to show that violence on television or the movies does have an aggravating affect on individuals who are exposed to that.
Perhaps more subtle is the effect of everyday television that unwittingly promotes cultural values that can be read as negative. Take for example the shaming and bullying that regularly goes on shows like the “X Factor” or indeed the whole concept of “Big Brother**” in which the aim of the show, really, is to exclude and excommunicate housemates. More complexly are shows like “Embarrassing Bodies” which purport to be public about education, while at the same time it arguable exploits those individuals that choose to participate. See my review in The Guardian for more on this here.
My point here is not the reductive one of “the media is bad for people” – on the contrary, I believe that the media is probably one of the single richest sources from which we can begin to understand our own society. The much derided A-level and university programmes in media and cultural studies are simply misunderstood. These programmes (the good ones, at least) aren’t about watching TV at school, they about how we can learn to be critical of the media, and use what is out there to better understand our society. I helped design courses at the University of Essex on just these principles from a depth psychological perspective.
The media isn’t a passive source of data for these kinds studies. Those working in the media should be aware of the power that they wield, and I believe that they should wield it well and responsibly. I have been fortunate enough to be involved in two good examples of responsible psychological media produced by the BBC.
The first example is the BBC Radio 1 Teen Awards:
On September 14th I participated as a panellist to help choose three extraordinary “Teen Heroes” to be presented with the prestigious “Teen Hero” award at the BBC Radio 1’s Teen Awards on October 8th. The panel not only consisted of celebrity role models for young people (including Aled Jones, Gemma Cairney, Pixie Lott, Vernon Kay, and Oritse from JLS) but also representatives from the Prince’s Trust, the British Youth Council, and myself – to offer a psychological perspective.
The Teen Awards is a big media event featuring pop performers, giving a chance for young people to vote for their own choices in a number of categories including music, sport, and film. What makes it good responsible media is the fact that these extraordinary teenagers, who are not pop stars or celebrities in the usual sort of way, can be celebrated for their amazing achievements as teenagers. The role models that will be presented this evening will not just be those with talent in the usual sense, but those who have given something back – often against great odds.
The chance for such teens to be celebrated is undoubtedly good for them – as frequently good deeds can go unnoticed. But it does more than this. It creates role models, it celebrates those who give back, and it also promotes the good causes these teens are behind. It reminds us, in that most public way, both what we can be proud of and what we can aspire to.
The second example is the shortlisting of BBC Radio 1’s “The Surgery with Aled” for a Mind Media Award:
The Surgery is another programme that I think does good psychology in the media^. The show runs on Sunday nights from 9-10 and provides a space for young people to phone in with their medical, psychological, or emotional issues. Many shows offer a “general surgery” where anything goes, while others are themed, often according to trends in the news or culture.
The Surgery provides a supportive space in which callers are not shamed – rather they are supported. This support not only comes from the team of experts on hand to answer questions, but also from listeners who text and tweet the show in support of the callers who are often suffering. A 24 hour helpline is available for callers and others to seek further help from local or national services.
The Surgery provides a space where it is okay to be troubled, where you don’t need to be ashamed to ask the embarrassing questions. It is body positive, gay/bi/trans positive, and youth positive. Our nomination of a Mind Media Award is testament not only to the intention of the show, but also its continued success.
Psychology and the media is an ongoing theme on which I will continue to write. There is a wealth of room here, not only to analyse and understand, but also in which to participate and encourage, doing our best to ensure that more of the media to which we are exposed is ethical, responsible, and enables individuals to come away from it feeling like they have gained something useful.
*By “profession of psychology” I mean it in the widest sense, from counsellors and psychotherapists working with individuals, to experimental and academic psychologists conducting research.
+See Susie Orbach’s new book “Bodies” or her classic text, “Fat is a Feminist Issue”.
** It is only fair I confess that I once participated in Big Brother as a psychological expert. Though I feel that my own participation in this was respectful of the participants involved — my taking part was nonetheless ethically problematic because of the nature of the show had taken by that time. I have learned to be more circumspect about those programmes in which I will take part.
^ I declare my bias as a regular contributor to this show!