As the world’s population soars toward 10 billion people, one of the quickest ways to reduce birth rates could be as simple as a television show. Decades of studies in Brazil, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and elsewhere suggest certain media–especially aspirational family-oriented dramas known as novelas or soap operas–can trigger rapid changes in a woman’s expectations about her life, and ultimately her reality.
Researchers are still untangling the pervasive effects such television shows have around the world, as Fred Pearce in reports Conservation Magazine, but depicting modern, urban lifestyles on mass media appears to set off a cascade of social forces that drive lower fertility in more traditional societies.
Although many variables besides television are at play behind the scenes, the arrival of “soaps” has been tightly correlated with falling fertility around the world. Because correlation does not imply causation, an emerging body of research has sought to explain how a television show could profoundly affect individuals’ behaviors in this way.
Nowhere is the effect better documented than Brazil. In 1960, the average Brazilian family had 6.3 children. By 2000, the number was down to 2.3 (just above replacement level for the population), and stands at just 1.9 today. What happened? Women’s changing expectations about their lives, easy access to birth control, rapid urbanization and economic growth all accompanied this shift.
These rising expectations, and their link to novelas, has proved fascinating for researchers. Brazil’s prime purveyor of novelas, the station Rede Globo, started rolling out its broadcast to the nation in the 1960s. Their arrival heralded falling birth rates in rural areas where no such programming existed before. The shows tended to depict aspirational, affluent families with fewer children than the norm. In the 115 novelas on Globo from 1965 to 1999, more than 90% of young female characters had one child or less, while 72% were childless–figures that are a dramatic break from Brazilian norms.
To control for other variables, researchers looked at programming content, key demographics, and timing of the show in specific markets. Their findings, updated and published last year in the American Economic Journal, showed fertility decreases were biggest in the years after novelas aired that portrayed upward social mobility. The effect was strongest among women who had lower socioeconomic status and were closest in age to main female characters. The evidence shows the novelas may have affected a woman’s decision to have more children, rather than preclude children entirely. The correlation has held up in other regions, such as in Africa and South Asia, reports USAID.
But scientists caution against drawing definitive conclusions. The mechanism behind the phenomenon is still not fully explained, and the many confounding factors are hard to eliminate.
And television is not a cure-all for social ills, as developed countries already well know. The modern lifestyles portrayed in soaps can do damage as well. Fiji stands as a cautionary tale.
Researchers who were present at the arrival of Western television to the south Pacific islands watched as ethnic Fijian adolescent girls acquired eating disorders almost unheard of in the isolated archipelago before the arrival of Western television. In the British Journal of Psychiatry, they report that as television spread in the Nadroga province between 1995 and 1999, the frequency of dieting rose significantly, while self-induced vomiting to lose weight increased from 0% to 11.3%.
All in all, whether governments should ever start encouraging more TV watching isn’t quite so clear.