Researcher finds TV's powerful influence on pregnancy, childbirth

February 13, 2018 by Melanie Schefft, University of Cincinnati
University of Cincinnati sociology research reveals that highly dramatized reality pregnancy and childbirth TV programs hold an unrecognized influence on pregnant women—and possibly impacting more highly educated consumers. Credit: University of Cincinnati

Surfing through cable TV channels often results in catching a glimpse of a woman giving birth or preparing for motherhood in one of the popular pregnancy and childbirth reality shows.

But how much do shows like "Maternity Ward," TLC's "A Baby Story" or Discovery Health's "Birth Day" really influence how women perceive and manage their own pregnancies?

It's a lot, according to a University of Cincinnati sociology study.

The project, funded by a National Science Foundation dissertation improvement grant and recently published in the journal Sociology of Health & Illness, assessed the TV viewing habits of a diverse group of pregnant women from the New York and Connecticut metropolitan areas.

Danielle Bessett, UC associate professor of sociology, and Stef Murawsky, sociology grad student, drew from a sample of 64 pregnant women from various educational, socioeconomic and racial backgrounds to understand the influence of television on their expectations of and birth.

During their pregnancies, a number of women ranked shows such as "Maternity Ward" and "A Baby Story" among the highest for shows that influenced their perceptions of pregnancy and childbirth, but not everyone admitted to tuning in.

The 'reality' of TV

Early in the interview process, the women were all asked if they actually watched pregnancy-related programming. Those who reported watching these shows were then asked to distinguish whether or not they thought viewing was a valuable tool for gathering helpful information.

Of the 64 women surveyed, a sizeable minority (44 percent) –– mostly comprised of stay-at-home moms or those who were unemployed –– said they watched at least some pregnancy-related television. But the researchers reported that the participants who worked outside the home and had higher levels of education were less likely to admit to watching these shows.

"We found clear educational differences in how viewers believed television influenced their pregnancy knowledge," says Bessett in the journal article. "Women with higher levels of education generally disavowed all television as an information source for themselves, but instead reported only using reality programming as entertainment or to educate their children about pregnancy."

"Conversely, women who had less educational attainment were more likely to include reality TV programs as part of their comprehensive approach to gathering information and basically didn't want to rule out any potential source of information."

Bessett says this is important because previous studies of women's means for seeking information about pregnancy primarily focused on interactions with clinicians, pregnancy books or the internet. "But TV is now seen by some as a resource for health information, and social class seems to play a role in that," she adds.

Influential paradox

Bessett's study revealed an even more surprising twist. Upon further questioning, those who claimed they didn't watch or use reality TV to get their pregnancy and childbirth information seemingly contradicted themselves. When asked to describe where they gathered their information, they repeatedly referred to medical or ultrasound-related scenes they had seen in TV shows or movies.

"These were the same women that earlier in the interview process denied any connection to TV viewing and their expectations of their own pregnancy and childbirth," says Bessett. "We found a real divide by class where women with less education could and would readily admit that they used TV as a source for learning about pregnancy and what they should expect."

But Bessett points out that women who had of education initially admitted to only watching the reality pregnancy shows occasionally and only for entertainment.

However, in deeper interview questioning, this same group referred to specific television programs as a powerful information sources, ultimately revealing what Bessett refers to as a "tension and contradiction" when it comes to reality TV's influence.

"We attribute this phenomenon to an unrecognized influence within the educated group," says Bessett. Apparently "many women simply don't want TV to have a strong influence medically because of a lack of credibility attached to television in general, so they have a hard time recognizing TV's actual influence."

To view or not to view

Whether the educated group did not recognize that they were as influenced as they were by TV viewing or simply wanted to downplay any influence because of TV's perceived negative stigma is unknown.

"The literature already shows that women of a higher social class with more education are more likely to devalue TV, especially reality TV," says Bessett. "And then there are cultural acceptability reasons for why they watch, which is to actually hate-watch or watch with tongue-in-cheek."

According to Bessett this valuable new awareness suggests that scholars must not only focus on patients' professed methods for seeking medical , but also explore the unrecognized role that television plays in their lives.

Previous studies show how unrealistically these programs often portray normal pregnancy and birth. Bessett asserts that are getting a much more dramatic and medicalized view of childbirth –– scripted more to grab attention and excite the emotions of viewers.

"Because of the higher portrayal of medical interventions in these programs than occur in real life, we feel television producers should assume a greater sense of responsibility to make sure that what they portray on the air is as accurate and contextualized as it can be and to make the public aware of any enhanced dramatization," says Bessett.

"We argue that the sensationalizing of medical drama in reality shows is a critical issue and definitely something that producers should be more conscious of, especially now that this study shows how strongly these representations do shape expectations."

Explore further: Women want support managing their weight during pregnancy

More information: Danielle Bessett et al. 'I guess I do have to take back what I said before, about television': Pregnant women's understandings and use of televisual representations of childbearing, Sociology of Health & Illness (2017). DOI: 10.1111/1467-9566.12658

Related Stories

Women want support managing their weight during pregnancy

November 2, 2017
Australian women want their healthcare providers to actively advise them about weight management during and after pregnancy, a Monash University study reveals.

International team explores the stigma surrounding abortion

June 28, 2011
An international team of researchers says abortion stigma is under-researched, under theorized and over emphasized in one category: women who've had abortions. As a result, they're launching a new direction into research ...

Many pregnant women search the Internet for medication safety information

September 7, 2017
A new study reveals that due to a lack of specific recommendations for medication use during pregnancy, many pregnant women search the Internet for information.

Hypertension during pregnancy may affect women's long-term cardiovascular health

August 18, 2017
Women who experience hypertension during pregnancy face an increased risk of heart disease and hypertension later in life, according to a new study.

Recommended for you

Dietary fat is good? Dietary fat is bad? Coming to consensus

November 15, 2018
Which is better, a low-fat/high-carbohydrate diet or a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet—or is it the type of fat that matters? In a new paper featured on the cover of Science magazine's special issue on nutrition, researchers ...

Why we shouldn't like coffee, but we do

November 15, 2018
Why do we like the bitter taste of coffee? Bitterness evolved as a natural warning system to protect the body from harmful substances. By evolutionary logic, we should want to spit it out.

Survey reveals how we use music as a possible sleep aid

November 14, 2018
Many individuals use music in the hope that it fights sleep difficulties, according to a study published November 14 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Tabitha Trahan of the University of Sheffield, UK, and colleagues. ...

Colder, darker climates increase alcohol consumption and liver disease

November 14, 2018
Where you live could influence how much you drink. According to new research from the University of Pittsburgh Division of Gastroenterology, people living in colder regions with less sunlight drink more alcohol than their ...

Want to cut down on your meds? Your pharmacist can help.

November 14, 2018
Pharmacists are pivotal in the process of deprescribing risky medications in seniors, leading many to stop taking unnecessary sleeping pills, anti-inflammatories and other drugs, a new Canadian study has found.

No accounting for these tastes: Artificial flavors a mystery

November 13, 2018
Six artificial flavors are being ordered out of the food supply in a dispute over their safety, but good luck to anyone who wants to know which cookies, candies or drinks they're in.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.