A new University of Cincinnati study on the influence that television programs have on pregnant women has found that most women are more affected by TV representations of childbirth than they think.
The study, funded by the NSF and conducted by Danielle Bessett, PhD, assistant professor of sociology, followed a diverse group of 64 women over the course of two years and investigated how they understood their television viewing practices related to pregnancy and birth. It found that class, as measured by education level, had the greatest influence on whether a woman acknowledged television as a significant source of pregnancy-related information. Highly educated women and those who worked outside the home were more likely to dismiss TV, while those with less education and who were unemployed or took care of children at home were more likely to report watching and learning from such shows as TLC’s “Baby Story” and “Maternity Ward” and Discovery Health’s “Birth Day.”
The particularly interesting finding is that TV portrayals affect women's perceptions even when they don't believe they have an influence. Bessett developed the term "cultural mythologies of pregnancy" to describe how TV, film, media, and word of mouth create expectations about "the way things are." Most reality TV and fictionalized programming presents childbirth as more dramatic and full of medical interventions than the majority of births really are, and these images made a lasting impression on women.
As quoted in the press release, Bessett says, “Hearing women –– even women who said TV had no influence on them –– trace their expectations back to specific television episodes is one of the few ways that we can see the power of these mythologies.” Many women mentioned pregnancy representations they had seen long before they got pregnant.
Women who reported watching TV considered it part of a comprehensive childbirth education program and would often evaluate the programs' reliability, while women who disavowed television saw it as entertainment or education for children, likely from a desire to be seen as valuing science and medical expertise.
“If we believe that television works most insidiously or effectively on people when they don’t realize that it has power, then we can actually argue that the more highly educated women who were the most likely to say that television really didn’t have any effect on them, may in the end actually be more subject to the power of television than were women who saw television as an opportunity to learn about birth and recognized TV’s influence,” hypothesizes Bessett.
“This research implies that many women underestimate or under-report the extent to which their expectations of pregnancy and birth are shaped by popular media," concludes Bessett, suggesting that "scholars must not only focus on patients’ professed methods for seeking information, but also explore the unrecognized role that television plays in their lives."