– Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse: MTV, “Jersey Shore” and “Our Girls.”

If you believe that media are a reflection of our time, then Houston, we have a problem.

A report released this week from the Parent’s Television Council finds that the language and behavior exhibited in the four most popular reality shows on MTV promote and even glamorize narrow stereotypes of men and women.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Anyone familiar with the binge drinking and domestic abuse on “Jersey Shore” could predict that kind of trouble. But what is surprising is the disturbing trend in the way girls and women treat one another in these shows. The PTC report finds that the degrading and sexualized dialogue is more likely to be spoken by women to or about other women, and thus represents “a true crisis of vision in how networks present females in the media.” In every show examined (“Jersey Shore,” “Real World,” “Teen Mom 2” and “16 and Pregnant),” females were the object of shockingly derogatory and sexist terms,” most of it by other females.

This isn’t entirely new. Reality shows that revolve around winning a man or a prize have always used behind-the-scenes catfights to drive the plot line. Heck, the producers keep contestants from sleeping more than a few hours at night to ensure the claws come out. Aren’t these shows just an opportunity for the major networks to make money off the absurd behavior of absurd people? Does it matter?

Actually, yes. New studies tell us that the more girls consume such media, the more likely they are to accept traditional sex roles and stereotypes, see aggression toward other girls as part and parcel of being feminine, to think that sexualization is empowerment, and that sexual harassment is a normal part of relationships. Girls exposed to a lot of this kind of media — and girls are the primary audience for these shows — have lower self-esteem, higher rates of depression and eating disorders, and lower grades.

The kicker? Reality shows like “16 and Pregnant” aren’t going away anytime soon — and in fact, they’re more popular than ever. Today, reality shows make up 20 percent of prime time programming.

A national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that today’s technology gives teens nearly 24-hour media access, resulting in a dramatic increase in the amount of time that youths are spending with entertainment media, such as reality TV shows.

Youths ages 8 to 18 devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes each day to using entertainment media. With ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), youths fit a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those 7-plus hours.

So our responsibility as parents and advocates is to offer girls and boys the media literacy skills that will help them navigate these ever-present messages. Anyone paying half-attention knows we face an epidemic of bullying and sexual harassment in schools, but we rarely consider media literacy part of the solution.

Even if we did, No Child Left Behind offers little room for schools to creatively tackle the social realities of kids’ lives. Parents are left to battle a 24-7 media bombardment alone, fending off the tentacles of slick marketers who will do whatever it takes to channel kids’ desires and interests along narrow stereotypical routes.

Hardy Girls Healthy Women and other youth-serving organizations face a tough challenge as we combat these media messages. After all, we’re up against corporations that can spend billions to foster anxiety, self-hate, harmful body consciousness and competition with other girls, all in their bid to sell products and buy viewers. But that doesn’t mean we’re not up for the fight.

In February 2012, Hardy Girls Healthy Women will launch its media literacy and girl-fighting prevention program in Greater Portland middle schools. Our efforts to work with girls to develop their critical thinking skills, give them opportunities to work together in coalition, and provide scaffolding for social activism are the first steps in combating reality TV’s sad, harmful messages.

We invite parents, educators and others working with youths to join us in pushing back against these harmful media messages by engaging the young in critical thinking and media activism.