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What are your kids watching? How college movies and TV shows affect college expectations

Updated: Apr 18, 2022

This post is part of an edutainment series published exclusively on College For The Win.

This is the second post in a series on Learning Through Edutainment.

Who doesn’t love watching TV? It can be a great stress reliever and time waster when we just want to chill out and relax. With streaming so easily available, everyone is able to find something that they love. TV is also a great tool used for teaching and learning, as I covered in my previous post about edutainment.

For years, we have seen cries from the public about what we find in our TV shows, and what is being shown to our kids. Typically, these arguments focus on topics like violence and sex. In this post I want to tackle this topic a little differently. Studies have shown that the media does have an impact on what people believe and how they behave. This is done through a process called Mere Exposure Theory. Mere Exposure Theory simply states that the longer we are exposed to something, the more likely we are to embrace it, enjoy it, and believe in it.

This would mean that, in theory, a child or young adult who watches movies and television shows about college would very likely believe that this is what college is really like. There’s a potential issue with this. For starters, can you name the types of college movies out there? Some of the most popular college movies include Animal House, Van Wilder, Neighbors, and Old School, movies that emphasize the party life of college. To be fair, though, we’ve also seen more recent college movies that actually have a good, positive message about college, such as Rudy, Monster’s University, and Accepted.


When you start talking about TV shows, the range gets even more all over the place. We have shows like Community about the zany adventures of a study group at a community college. You have Greek, about a girl and her little brother trying to rush for their sorority and fraternity, respectively. More recently, we have Grownish, a spinoff of the popular show Blackish, where Zoey Johnson, played by the talented actress Yara Shahidi, sets off on her own college adventures.


But the question is still there: What lessons are students learning from college movies and television shows? A recent study on college media and student expectations did just that.

In the study, 156 new college students were surveyed on their consumption of college movies, college TV shows, and college novels. They were each asked to list the college movies, college TV shows, and college novels that they saw. Below are the most common ones listed.

The study also focused on what part of college each of those works focused on. Was it college parties? Was it other parts of college life? Or was the show not really about college and just happened to have characters that were in college? The results of that analysis are below.

The results were fascinating. There are several things that we can take away from this study. Each of them are listed below.

1. Men watch more college party movies than women.

As shown in the chart below, men were much more likely to watch “college party” movies than women. In fact, they watched more college media than women in general.

Men were significantly more likely to watch movies like Animal House and Old School while women were more likely to watch movies like Pitch Perfect and The House Bunny, or shows like Greek and Gilmore Girls. We see a trend here that men tend to watch shows and movies with men protagonists and women tend to watch shows and movies with women protagonists, which makes sense. It just so happens that depending on the gender of the protagonist often tends to dictate what type of movie it is.

2. Heavy college media watchers had stronger stereotypical college attitudes than light college media watchers.

Those who fell into the “watch a lot of college media” category were much more likely to believe that college was like the media they watched. That means that students who watched movies with heavy college parties were more likely to believe that college was about partying. Students who watched shows with social issues and relationship drama were more likely to believe that college was all about the drama. This was the same for both men and women, where men had the “college party” expectations and women had the “college drama” expectations. Interesting, neither group had any real emphasis on academics.

3. Heavy college media watchers didn’t realize they were being influenced.

Perhaps the most interesting finding in this study was that, despite the fact that heavy college media watchers were much more likely to share the same college beliefs as the shows and movies they watched, they were also significantly more likely to reject that they were influenced by the media. Whereas the light college media watchers agreed that what they watched about college had a part to play in their college expectations, the heavy media watchers were more adamant in saying that they were not influenced by what they watched. But in the same study, they clearly held very similar beliefs that college was like the shows and movies they watched. This suggests that college media can and will reinforce any expectations that one could already have about college.

So what does that mean?

Keeping in mind that the participants in this study were college-age students and were so strongly affected by what they watched, imagine what this does to high school students or elementary-age students who watch college media. It is never too early to begin discussing college with children, regardless of age. The fact is that they will be exposed to college culture whether you present them to it or not. It’s important that they are able to distinguish between fact and fiction, healthy and unhealthy behaviors, in order to be a successful college student if they choose to attend.

What lessons do you think the kids in your life are learning about college? Are they good or bad lessons? Should college media be discussed further and more formally in traditional college preparation programs? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Stay tuned for the next article in the series, Edutainment in the classroom: What students are saying about college media, as part of the series Learning Through Edutainment.


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