Hey, Dads! Stop Basing Fatherhood Beliefs on TV Shows

Watching TV shows featuring dads makes expectant fathers think men aren't important in kids' lives, a new study says.

ed oneill and ty burrell 2015
Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Tony Soprano. Walter White. Jay Prichett.

They're all dads on popular TV shows, but the phrase "good father" isn't necessarily the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear their names. And if you're a man with a baby on the way who watches a lot of TV, that may be a problem: According to a recent study, new dads-to-be are vulnerable to media messages about their roles as caregivers.

According to the study's lead author Patty Kuo, a University of Michigan grad student, first-time expectant fathers who watched television shows featuring dads believed that men were unimportant in their children's lives.

"Our findings show that within the broader social context that under-prepares men for fatherhood, men are especially vulnerable to negative media messages about fathers," Kuo said. She added that while TV content frequently depicts fathers as emotionally available, they also are often shown as bumbling and incompetent.

The study was relatively small, including responses from about 200 first-time expectant parents who completed an online survey on their daily viewing habits. Respondents averaged more than 30 hours of TV per week, including an impressive 25 percent who said their viewing habits exceeded 49 hours. That's a lot of TV!

Parents listed the TV shows they watched, which included: "The Walking Dead," "Parenthood," "Modern Family," "Raising Hope," "Louie," "Shameless," "Family Guy," "The Simpsons," and "Teen Mom."

The study found, in general, men watched more TV than women, especially shows that prominently featured fathers. Men also perceived TV to be more realistic, which contributed to their beliefs about weakened importance for fathers.

The researchers theorize that while there is definitely a dumbing down of dads, there are other more attractive aspects of fathers on TV that may be appealing. For example, Walter White ("Breaking Bad") and Tony Soprano ("The Sopranos") may not be sensitive fathers, but they are formidable and powerful men. Phil Dunphy and Jay Pritchett from "Modern Family" may not be competent fathers, but they are married to beautiful wives and adored by their families.

"Although the portrayals of these men as fathers are negative," the researchers wrote, "the overall portrayals of these fathers as men are attractive because they portray these men as powerful, dominant or sexually virile."

Two out of four of them are also pathologically violent. What kind of message is that sending? Kuo said the unattractive portrayals of fathers are counter to expectant mothers' desires for an involved and equal partner. "Therefore," she explained, "Women may not rely as much on these [TV] images for forming their beliefs about fathers' roles in families."

Let's hope not.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and a mom. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and follow her on Twitter at @holleewoodworld.

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