Globalization & Behaviour Part Two
Does Western TV cause eating disorders?

Travis Dixon Abnormal Psychology, IB Psychology HL Extensions, Social and Cultural Psychology Leave a Comment

The influence of Western TV is one way globalization could be influencing human behaviour.
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How does globalization influence behaviour? First we need to understand what globalization is and how it occurs. In the second post in this series, we review the definition of globalization and examine another potential example of its influence on human behaviour – through Western TV, the thin ideal and eating disorders.

Barbie has been accused of sending the message of “the thin ideal” to young girls because her proportions defy biology.

Globalization is often referred to as Westernization because the spread of ideas comes from the West. One way the spread of ideas occurs is through television. As we watch TV, it might influence our attitudes, values and beliefs because we want to be like the people we see on TV. This means that globalization could affect behaviour because more Western TV is being shown around the world.

Read more:

Western media (TV, movies, magazines) is often accused of causing eating disorders because it portrays “the thin ideal.” This is the idea that the perfect female figure is slender and slim. Girls see their favourite pop stars and movie stars who seemingly all conform to the thin ideal and they want to be like them. This could cause girls to be unhappy with their bodies, which is the first step in developing an eating disorder.

Globalization is the process by which cultures can influence one another and become more alike. One way this can happen is through media, including TV.

But how do we know that the media is really to blame? Deducing a cause-effect relationship between exposure to the thin ideal in Western media and eating disorders is very difficult. Correlational studies can easily be conducted by correlating hours spent watching TV or reading magazines and eating attitudes (read an example here), but these are always limited by their correlational nature.

This is where natural experiments can be really helpful. In the following study, researchers investigated what happened to the eating attitudes of young girls before and after TV was brought to their remote Fijian Island.

“The Thin Ideal” shown in Western media might be influencing young girls in other countries, such as Fiji.

Key Study: TV and Eating Disorders In Fiji

(Becker et al. 2002)

Aim:  To investigate how TV can affect eating disorders in a “media naive population.”

Methods:

  • Participants were native Fijian teenage girls, average aged of 17 years. Living on the isolated island of Vanua Levu in Fiji.
  • Researchers gathered data 3 months after TV was introduced and 3 years later (1995 and 1998).
  • Eating Attitudes Test (EAT) was used to gather data (see example here). This is common questionnaire used to measure risks for eating disorders. Any score >20 is considered high and at risk for an eating disorder.
  • Qualitative semi-structured interviews were also conducted.

Results:

  • EAT scores increased – went from 13% having a score >20 to 29% with a score >20 (>20 is considered a risk for eating disorders).
  • Girls with TV in homes were 3 x more likely to have an EAT score >20
  • Vomiting after eating went from 0% to 11%
  • Dieting went from being rare to 69% of girls saying they had tried dieting and 75% saying they felt too big or fat.
  • Girls admired characters on TV and wanted to be like them.

Conclusions:

  • The introduction of TV caused a sharp rise in eating behaviours and attitudes that are risk factors for eating disorders.
  • Globalization could be influencing behaviour through the spread of Western ideas (including the thin ideal) to other populations. This could cause changes in behaviour, such as a rise in eating disorders in young girls.

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • This study was conducted before the internet was as widespread as it is today. Do you think we would expect the same results if TV was introduced to a similarly remote island?
  • Are there any reasons you can think of why these results might not generalize to other similar populations?
  • Do these results mean we can say that Western TV causes eating disorders?
  • Can you think of any other ways the spread of Western media might be having an effect on global populations?

This post has been written using material adapted from our IB Psychology Revision Guide.

References:

Becker, A., Burwell, R., Herzog, D., Hamburg, P., & Gilman, S. (2002). Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls. British Journal of Psychiatry, 180(6), 509-514. doi:10.1192/bjp.180.6.509

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