Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

The Negative Impact Of Television On Rural Life

July 21, 1997

Do you know more about the White House than your Court House? Or how about entertainment and sports celebrities than the neighbor next door? How much does television dominate your free time? Do you interact more on the Internet than with real people down the road?

Welcome to small town America 1997.

It is not all bad. Media innovations provide much learning, networking, entrepreneurial activity and economic opportunity for rural areas. With electronics and mass communication, location is no longer an obstacle to progress. We are the most informed people in the history of the world.

Interactive TV and long distance learning help enrich rural schools. Technology can be used to build and strengthen rural culture. However, there is a cost to this inundation of media. See if you agree with some of the following points.

1. TV stereotypes rural people as uncultured. What is the stereotype? Hicks, country bumpkins, rubes, good ole boys and rednecks. Definitely uncultured. Beverly Hillbillies. I've met rural people who are agonizingly self-conscious about this image. They carry an extra burden of feeling the need to prove they are just as smart and sophisticated as anyone else in society.

2. Rural life is ignored. More insidious than being put down is being ignored altogether. The vast majority of lifestyle issues presented on national TV deal with urban scenes, dilemmas and values. The only life that is "real" or interesting is in the city.

To be ignored so completely carries this message: rural life is not important, not significant, marginal and not worthy of mention. Rural settings and people are the backdrop and bit players in the drama of life. When life in the hinterlands is not recognized as having a unique logic and destiny of its own, how valid can it be? In a way, rural people are affected by being ignored as they are about unflattering portrayals.

3. Rural people feel cheated. How about the glamourous, materialistic, high flying, high rolling lifestyles shown in movies and on television shows? The entertainment industry portrays a distorted image of life in order to dramatize and entertain.

City people know TV and movie stereotypes of city life are not real. But our neighbors in third world countries who consume our media believe most Americans have mansions, maids and motorcars galore, except for the very poor or minorities. The wealth and lifestyles portrayed in the media do not reflect the actual work people do on a day-to-day basis.

Some rural people may respond to the media bombardment of the rich and famous with feelings of being cheated and deprived of the rewards of this life. They work hard, do all the "right" things and feel short-changed for their efforts. For farmers, who do hard physical jobs, it feeds their belief that they are the only ones doing real work.

4. Television promotes individualism. This may be the most insidious effect of media on rural life. Television is a medium of individualism and celebrity personalities. Relationships, community, group effort, negotiations, compromise and sustained effort are not visual.

Complex issues or relationships don't make good stories. Discrete events and personalities do. Television tips the scales away from basic values that sustain rural communities.

In a direct way, television competes with patterns of rural living. Instead of visiting their neighbors, attending community events or actively creating community entertainment, rural people are at home, along with their urban cousins, watching television. The community they see and hear about is a global village instead of their own village.

Without interaction, trust and cooperation, ties to the local community are weakened. Culture becomes homogenized and all communities edge toward being electronic bedroom communities. It is the intensity and trust people place in each other as they cooperate to solve mutual problems that create a sense of community.

With the ever present national news, rural people borrow problems from elsewhere and assume they are going on in their own back yard. At the same time, they are becoming less informed about local issues and problems.

5. Teenagers identify with pop culture that undermines core values and standards of morality. The

attitudes and styles of teens spread like TV and movie-fueled wildfires throughout our culture. Messages of rebellion, individualism and the stupidity of parents and adult authority figures hit at a time when youth are naturally trying to separate from their parents and from their own identities.

Rural youth not only pickup those messages, but also the message that rural life is inferior or irrelevant. They leave with no vision of how they might return and have a desirable life in a rural area.

6. Rural people develop fears of city life. Rural people get the impression that city life is dangerous. Studies reveal that rural people consistently overestimate the amount of crime in New York City and Miami. Rural youth may also be intimidated by TV messages of urban life as uncaring and dangerous. People are fearful and limit their travel and education opportunities. The extra dose of paranoia takes its toll.

Will the electronic ally-stimulated global village supplant the rural village? Not right away. Not as long as rural people nourish their relationships and work together to solve common problems.