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The Third Person Effect as an Obstacle to Media Literacy

Third Person Obstacle Abstract

Communication scholars and parents alike are concerned about the potential effect of television on teenagers. One way to buffer televisions influence is to teach audience members to become media literate. The third person effect, however, may be a significant obstacle to teaching media literacy, especially to teenage audiences who are sure they know it all and feel they are smarter than the media. Focus groups of Latina teenage girls were asked about the potential effect of telenovela viewing on teenage audiences. The data show qualitative support for a third person effect. The teenagers were sure there was no effect on them, but articulated potentially dangerous effects on others. This study provides insight into the dynamics of the third person effect so that improvements can be incorporated into media literacy curriculum.

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Communication scholars agree that television is an important cultural force interacting to influence the way people think and see the world. As the media environment develops to include multi-media computers and access to information from an ever-expanding array of technologies, its influence will only increase. In fact, in the United States, more families own television sets than telephones, and those sets are turned on about seven hours each day. In addition, about one-third of peoples free time is spent watching television, more than the next ten most popular leisure activities combined (Brown and Steele, 1995). The cultural environment of adolescents, especially in Southern California, has changed to include a large group of Latinos. This ever-increasing segment of the population has not been ignored by the television industry. Spanish language networks have expanded and developed to serve this growing audience. One of the most popular networks in Southern California is Univisin, whose parent company, Televisa, is the largest network in Mexico. Univisins popularity among Spanish-speaking households is evidenced by its 37 percent share of the Hispanic/Latino audience (Univision Press Packet, 1999). Teenagers are, of course, part of this growth. Univisin, like its English language counterparts, has created programs that attract teenager viewers to the set. The popular Spanish language network has attracted the teen audience with telenovelas (soap operas) that deal with teen issues, such as dating in high school, peer pressure, and parental issues, while using young actors to provide identifiable characters for this

Third Person Obstacle audience. The problem is not the increasing number of programs available for teens, but that these programs represent a world where the issues facing adolescents are either invisible or easily solved within the episode. The unrealistic presentation of teenage experiences on television may influence how teenagers think about their own lives. Telenovelas follow the genre conventions of soap operas and typically revolve around romantic relationships, personal tragedy and triumph, as well as sexual

interactions -- whether explicit or implicit. Telenovelas are different from American soap operas in that they have an ending, usually after approximately 150 episodes (McAnany, 1993). Telenovelas are a dominant form of entertainment programming and appeal to all audiences. During the daytime Univisin airs telenovelas aimed at children, the seven oclock hour is usually reserved for the teen novela, while the prime-time telenovelas appeal to a large general audience of both males and females of all ages. While previous research (see for example, Greenberg and Busselle, 1996a; Brown and Steele, 1995; Strasburger, 1995) indicates that even when children move into adolescence and their television viewing decreases, television is still an important source of entertainment and information. Accordingly, researchers have, for decades, investigated the potential impact media representations of violence and sex have on child and adolescent development. They consider television programs as a cultural text that may teach these young viewers cultural norms and expectations and, thus, ways to interact in daily life (Fingerson 1999; Granello, 1998). One important element that has been missing from much of the discussion of the potential impact of television on teenagers understanding of the world around them is the

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ability of teens to become empowered to challenge the media messages. It is unlikely that the television industry will curtail its desire for profits to create media products that do not portray beautiful people with unrealistic lifestyles in order to save a teenagers self esteem from plummeting or from learning unrealistic expectations about life. Nevertheless, teenagers can buffer these images by becoming media literate. Adults have usually found it necessary to protect the younger generation from declining morals and values, which are constantly being challenged by teenagers. Most recently the mass media have been the scapegoat for many instances from Columbine to a perceived rise in teenage sexual encounters. The passing of legislation like the 1990 Childrens Television Act and the 1996 Telecommunications Act is seen as one way to protect the child audience. Although regulating content is an important step in buffering media influence, it may be more important to ensure that all audience members are media literate. While I am in favor of media literacy at all ages, this investigation looks at a specific segment of the teenage audience to uncover their perceptions of media influence.

Media literacy is a concept used to describe the ability to critically analyze media messages (Lewis and Jhally, 1998). Silverblatt (1995) explains that is it necessary for the audience to understand how the media industries operate, as well as to learn the ability of critical consumption. Being a critical audience member is more than just being active. Every audience member actively interprets what he or she sees on television through his or her unique cultural lens, but being a critical consumer entails more than interpretation. Each audience member needs to understand the game of the television industry. The

Third Person Obstacle reason television exists is to sell the audience to advertisers and understanding this fact

may change how the viewer sees and understands programming. Viewers should practice asking questions about what is missing, who is represented, and whose stories get told. The answers will help the viewer understand the unrealistic nature of television and ultimately give the audience member power over the text. The power is being a media literate consumer. Lewis and Jhally (1998) state: Media literacy, in short, is about more than the analysis of messages, it is about an awareness of why those messages are there. It is not enough know that they are produced, or even how, in a technical sense, they are produced. To appreciate the significance of contemporary media, we need to know why they are produced, under what constraints and conditions, and by whom (p. 111). Becoming media literate is not a simple task (Silverblatt, 1995). As with many cultural realizations there needs to be a moment when a person realizes there is a problem -- a time of awakening. This awakening can be hindered by the feeling that the media are just entertainment and therefore void of any serious influence especially on oneself. The third person effect, the idea that the mass media affects other people but not me, can be investigated as a potential obstacle in the ability to become media literate. This phenomena has been documented in many studies (see for example, David and Johnson, 1998; Peiser and Peter, 2000; Buckingham, 1998) where people explained the medias powerful influence on others, but believed they were immune. The effect is fueled by the idea of ones superiority to others. Given the norm that it is not smart to be influenced by mass media, it therefore seems not surprising that people tend to perceive greater media effects on others (Peiser and Peter, 2000, p. 27). The third person effects

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influence on media education may be heightened by the fact that most audience members view themselves as smarter than television, while imagining others, especially those not within their social strata, as more vulnerable to potential negative influences (Salwen and Dupagne, 1999). The effect may be particularly strong with teenagers and children who believe that younger viewers are quite susceptible to the influence of media, but whatever age they are at is the magic age when the media stops affecting them. For example, fourteen year-olds will explain how media affects eleven year-olds, while they worry about six year olds who are concerned about their three year old sibling. Buckingham (1998) states, There is kind of infinite regression here, as children at each age claim to have already attained the age of reason some years previously (p. 29). The third person effect is presents itself when others perceive themselves as superior to the idea of media effects. This ego-enhancing element of the third person effect may be particularly strong for teenagers who are very concerned with enhancing their self-images. McLeod et al (2001) show that although respondents will only attribute negative effects to others, when it comes to the positive impact of mass media people are more likely to agree that they have been affected. Teenagers who have been the targets of many pro-social messages may be likely to agree that these messages have been beneficial to them in some way. Much of the research regarding the third person effect has been quantitative and has been administered to undergraduate college students. In Perloffs (1999) critical review of the literature regarding the third person effect, he explains the need to expand

Third Person Obstacle the way in which data about the third person effect is collected and analyzed. This research hopes to complement the current literature of third person effects by adding a

qualitative element using participants who have been under represented in the literature -Latinas. Thus, the following research question: Will an interpretative community of Latina teenagers demonstrate the third person effect when discussing the potential impact of Mexican telenovelas on others?

METHOD The specific methods employed in the data collection process include focus groups and in-depth, follow-up interviews to explore an interpretive community. An interpretative community is defined as a group of persons who share strategies for classifying and decoding certain texts (Jensen, 1987, p. 29). Simply stated, these communities are usually made up of friends or families. McQuail (1994) explains: Media reception research emphasized the study of audiences as sets of people with unique, though often shared, experiences and as in charge of their own lives (p. 297). The interpretive community in this case is that of Latina teenagers who share a common culture and socioeconomic status. The teenagers are mostly in their early teens and attend private Catholic high schools in San Diego. This particular interpretive community will provide insight into the reception practices of this type of audience member.

Third Person Obstacle In conducting intercultural research, careful consideration of ethnic differences needs to be taken before the initial communication. Spending time within the Latin culture both in Spain and Mexico, as well as with Latinos living in Southern California, was useful in initiating intercultural research. Nevertheless, special care was taken to ensure that I did not offend or hinder the data collection process by being unaware of cultural norms or standards. In addition to the differences between the culture of the participants and my own, consideration of the participants ages was important. It was crucial to use language that was not only culturally appropriate, but also appropriate for their age group. The sample of focus group/interview participants included twenty-four teenagers from middle-upper class families who attended private Catholic high schools. The homogeneity of the sample of teenagers limits the discussion about the role of television

viewing to this specific sub-set of Latina teenagers. While the findings cannot be used to discuss the larger population of teenagers, the goal is to uncover in-depth information about a particular interpretive community. Latinos are a growing segment of the viewing audience and as such should be included in on-going reception studies. Therefore, the homogeneity of the sample is an asset because it allows for an analysis of the interpretive elements that may be common across this group of teens (Jensen, 1987). Furthermore, their socio-economic status makes them similar to the characters on the television programs, which often leads to interpretations based on their ability to identify with certain situations (McQuail, 1994).

Third Person Obstacle Two focus groups were conducted at a private Catholic High School in San Diego, California in October 1999. Permission to conduct the focus groups was granted by the Social Studies Department Chairperson and Principal. The form and line of questioning were approved by the Human Subjects Committee at the University of Washington. In addition, each teen who participated in the focus groups returned a consent/assent form signed by her parent. The first focus group consisted of seven Latina teenagers who expressed interest and familiarity with telenovelas. The second group started with nine teenagers, but one

teen left before the conclusion of the focus group. Both focus groups were conducted in a classroom at the high school and lasted approximately 50 minutes. The comfortable and familiar setting helped to relax the participants and allowed them to speak freely about their impressions of telenovelas. A third focus group was conducted at another Catholic High School in November 1999. This focus group was conducted after school in a classroom that was familiar to the students. There were eight participants. The focus group lasted approximately 60 minutes. Permission was granted by the Assistant Principal. Again, each student was given a consent/assent form that was signed by her parent. All of the participants were fluent in both Spanish and English and were frequent viewers of telenovelas. The ethnic background was predominantly Mexican although one teen made it clear she was Puerto Rican. All the teenagers were between the ages of 14 and 18 years. A total of eight in-depth interviews were also conducted. One interview was with a respondent who did not participate in the focus groups. The interview was conducted at

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a local restaurant and lasted approximately 90 minutes. The other seven interviews were conducted with Latinas who did participate in the focus groups and were follow-up interviews. The follow-up interviews were conducted at the first Catholic High School and each lasted about 20 minutes. Although we were discussing Spanish-language programming, the interviews and focus groups were conducted in English. The data were transcribed by myself or a professional transcriber. The interview schedule focused on the teenagers perceptions of potential effects from televised representations of romantic relationships. This line of questioning was used as a way to assess the perceived effects of viewing telenovelas on others. The purpose of the focus groups was not to ascertain effects on this audience, but to look for evidence of a third person effect through qualitative methods to provide a richer understanding of the phenomena.

RESULTS1 The teenagers in this sample were eager to discuss the potential impact of viewing telenovelas. They were fans of the shows and most of them had been watching this genre of programming since early childhood. The discussion of telenovela viewing was general although the popular programs at the time were Tres Mujeres and Sin T. These programs followed the typical conventions of the genre and included themes of love, adultry, marriage, and revenge. Sin T featured teenagers in the starring roles and

The names of the participants have been changed to protect their identities.

Third Person Obstacle centered around the lives of four teenage girls attending a private boarding school in Mexico. Tres Mujeres was a relatively long-running telenovela that centered on adult romantic relationships. The participants were viewers of these programs and able to discuss particular storylines as well as telenovelas in general. As I began investigating the teenagers perceptions of the potential influence


telenovela messages have on audiences, they did not imagine any negative influences on themselves, but were eager to talk about negative influences on others. Socially desirable influences were seen when the social distance of self and other was reduced. The types of comments that were made by the teenagers in the sample can be categorized by using previous research as a foundation. The categories of talk were consistent with paternalistic attitudes (McLeod et al, 2001), ego-enhancement (Perloff, 1999) and positive effects. The way the teenagers articulated their perceptions about media effects adds a new dimension to understanding the third person effect in a more natural setting a conversation about effects.

Paternalistic Attitudes The need to protect other teenagers and especially children much younger was a common theme among the participants. The teenagers saw themselves as superior to younger viewers and articulated the need to protect them from the potentially dangerous messages in the telenovelas. They felt younger children should not be exposed to telenovelas with themes they deemed inappropriate, such as promiscuity, adultery, and drug use. It must be noted that the teenagers in the sample are approximately fourteen

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years old and still demonstrate paternalistic attitudes. The other in this case is inferior due to their age. The younger children need protection from the negative effects of television. While other studies link these attitudes with calls for censorship, the teenagers did not make this link. Nevertheless, they recommended children should be kept from watching certain shows.

Sofa: I think it is bad for younger kids who dont see the difference about what the ladies in the novelas are portraying. They are very sophisticated but they tell lies to get their way and kids might think that they should lie to get their way.

Sylvia: They are very susceptible...Little kids shouldnt watch it because they get some bad ideas from it because they are always taking things in.

Lola: It [viewing telenovelas] may make you more ambitious, it may not change anything you do, it may make you think differently. But they are very sexually promiscuous on those shows and they dont make them have many consequences...that is not a very good thing to show.

Alejandra: Yeah, if there was some little girl out there watching it and she lies to her teacher, I think that could be very influencing. When youre little, you live in this fantasy world...when youre in middle school.

Alexa: For example, the one who got cheated on by the girl. His friends helped him out and bought him drink and brought him to a club and they found him a

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girl. And that is what a person might think after they have been cheated on -- they are going to go out with their friends to meet somebody new. They are going to get some kind of example from them.

Alexa: if little kids watch them [telenovelas] they may get the wrong idea.

The qualitative articulation of the concept of paternalism complements McLeod et als (2001) findings. Even young people see others as needing protection; the feeling of superiority remains constant.

Ego-enhancement When they were specifically asked if they thought viewing telenovelas may influence them, the participants continued to reveal an aspect of the third person effect ego-enhancement by expressing their own protection from influences. Many of the teens explained that because of their age and strong moral upbringing, they were not susceptible to the influences of televised messages. Here is where the strong cultural ties became most apparent. They perceived Mexicans (all but one participant, who did not comment in this category, are Mexican) as more moral and better able to protect themselves from televisions negative effects. Here the other shifts from a perceived younger child to other teenagers, specifically those who are not Mexican.

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Sylvia: in Mexico we are more moral and we are really into religion. So we are watching telenovelas because we like to watch them, I dont get ideas from watching them. I am going to have sex on my honeymoon.

Marta: In Mexico, the family is very united, I am very close to my parents, I can tell them anything.

Mona: Women use sexuality a lot to get what they want...They want to get a job, to get promoted, they sleep with their boss, to get money by sleeping with rich guys. The way they walk and dress with their skirts slit up to there...but, if you have your morals set, even if you watch telenovelas you wont become like that.

Another aspect to ego-enhancement is the idea of superiority due to age. The teenagers felt that since they had reached high school they knew it all.

Elena: Once you have lived your teenage years and you have seen a lot of things so you are not as susceptible [to TVs influence].

Sofa: No, because we all know that it is fantasy or fairy tales.

Alexa: ...we dont look at it and think oh we want to do that but maybe little kids do...older people have been influenced by other things and they can reason more.

Again, the qualitative evidence shows how the idea of ego-enhancement is articulated in ways that are not seen through survey data. The teenagers were able to talk about how the protect themselves from negative messages while others may not be able to because of their age or upbringing.

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Positive effect of socially desirable behavior While the teens were eager to point out that they were not influenced by what they perceived as negative messages, they praised televisions ability to influence teens in positive ways. For example, showing negative consequences of drug use and unprotected sexual encounters were seen as positive messages for teenagers like themselves. It seems as though the social distance is closer now between the participants and the teenagers they are talking about. Here the other is more like them because the outcome is desirable.

Monica: I like [stories] with teenagers, I think its better because you can relate to them more instead of adults. [I like it] when they deal with all sorts of problems like drugs and how to deal with it or family struggles.

Monica: [consequences] I think it is positive and negative. Positive because teenagers could watch and say I shouldnt do it [sex] because look at all the consequences and you are a mother now.

Liza: There is a new one, its all about teenagers... Its kind of cool because you can see all the different problems teenagers have...and how you can solve them....In the 1990s there are a lot of problems with drugs. A lot of teenagers are smoking, a lot of teenagers are drinking, a lot of teenagers are doing drugs, they are doing the hard stuff. We are the future of this country...It is true [that teens learn from TV] because when you have a problem you dont want to accept that you are the only one having that problem and you dont want to accept that because you think people will look weird at you or something but its true. In showing them in the telenovelas they can see that they are not the only ones

Third Person Obstacle having those problems that they can get help, that there is a solution for their problems...like getting pregnant or doing drugs.


Mara: There are popular actors and you could relate to the themes, drugs and everything. They [the producers] deal with that, but in a positive way. Its not like they show drugs and they do it, they deal with the matter and they try to help each other at the end of the scene.... Also with divorce, they can show when a teenagers parents get divorced and how their daughter goes through that...they [the audience] can actually learn something too.

Since many of the stories on the telenovelas revolve around romantic relationships, the participants explained that they thought it was a good idea to couple potential consequences of sexual interactions when showing sexual activity to ensure that audience members would realize that this type of behavior is wrong.

Patricia: They just talked about it [a characters abortion] and they showed how it was not really accepted at all, especially in Mexican cultures. The majority are Catholic and the culture teaches that kids are always human.

Alexa: They also show the consequences if you are not going to use protection. For example the girl will be impregnated and it would show the consequence of how it will affect her life. There was one on a novela where the girl was in love with the boy, but the boy didnt love her but he still slept with her and she wasnt using protection and became pregnant and he said he didnt want to have anything to do with that.

Third Person Obstacle Throughout our discussions these girls made it clear that they felt smarter than others,


more moral than others and therefore were not susceptible to any negative influence from television viewing. They did however praise the television for being able to positively influence teenagers when the message is socially desirable.

CONCLUSION Implications for Media Literacy The problem with dismissing television as just entertainment is that teenagers might too easily dismiss the potential negative (or even positive) influences because they think they are smarter than the television. The responses by the teenagers show elements of the third person effect, therefore making this superior attitude a hindrance in educating viewers about the negative effects of television viewing. The teenagers comments were consistent with the ideas of paternalism, egoenhancement, and positive beliefs. They see younger viewers as being at risk to what they perceive as negative images -- images of premarital sex, divorce as an easy solution, adultery, and the portrayal of women. The teens expressed that viewers, especially younger ones, could get the wrong idea. The participants demonstrated the third person effect when discussing the telenovelas potential impact on other teenagers and especially younger children. While most of the teenagers in the sample were only fourteen, they felt that had had enough life experience to buffer the medias impact. What is crucial to the development of critical media consumers is the awareness that the media do influence us -- even those of us who

Third Person Obstacle study it as a career. The consumer is empowered only when he or she realizes how


powerful media messages can be. Therefore, the third person effect is a major obstacle to media literacy. Most communication scholars agree that media literacy can be a powerful buffer to mass medias influence, but the first step must be the awareness of susceptibility. The awareness is a necessary awakening before the process of media literacy can begin. The teenagers in this sample clearly are not aware of the potential effect of televised messages on themselves they can only talk about the influence on others. Understanding the nuances of the third person effect can help educators to create media literacy curriculum with these obstacles in mind. One way of helping teenagers learn about the impact of media is to talk to them about others possibly discuss medias impact on younger children, and then turn the discussion to themselves. The avenues for future research are many. One limitation of this study is the homogenous backgrounds of the participants. While understanding how Latina teenagers talk about media messages complements much research done with mostly Anglo populations, it is important to broaden the scope to incorporate the varied cultures of teenagers that are now living in the United States. The value of the research is that it provides insight into how the third person effect manifests itself in conversations about televised messages with teenagers. Although it is beyond the scope of this project to propose an answer how best to overcome this obstacle, it clearly demonstrates teenage superiority in evaluating the impact of television of their understanding of the world. Media literacy programs must

Third Person Obstacle take this starting point into account and be diligent about ensuring that teens have had a moment of awakening about televisions influence before charging ahead with a media literacy curriculum.


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