Effects of Media on Teens: A Look at the Research

By Alison Burkhardt and Daniel White Hodge
May 1, 2012

We know there is a lot of research on how media affects adolescents, but many of these whitepapers are only available via academic libraries. We decided to gather some useful nuggets of information that cross cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. Listed below are some important points, followed by questions for discussion and our list of references for this information.

American media and culture significantly impacts media and culture around the globe, as well as how teenagers view beauty. 

In a 2009 Good Morning America recreation of the 1940s study by Kenneth and Mamie Clark which asked black children to choose which baby doll they prefer (black or white), 47% of the children stated the white baby doll was the prettiest, reinforcing that ideals on beauty are shaped at an early age. (AHUJA, 2009)

In another example, Thai teenage females are beginning to view Asian teenage males as attractive, due to the "Bieberization" of Korean pop singers, as opposed to holding them to the oft-held Western standard of beauty. (Siriyuvasak & Hyunjoon, 2007)

Mass media gives indicators to young people about what is considered “normal” and “not-normal,” reinforcing stereotypes and teaching young people how they should view themselves and others around them. (Orange & George, 2000)

“When [journalists] report what is normal, they also make an implicit statement about what is abnormal. If they favor the old or new, and if they imply what they consider normal should be considered normal, they convey preferences — individual, institutional, and societal — in the news they report ((Gans, 1979) as cited in Johnson, 1991).

In studies of media from around the country, there are disproportionately higher reported instances of minorities shown in a negative light victimizing Caucasians. (Johnson, 1991)

Media has different effects on adolescents based on their time spent engaging with the media.

Low income families spend more money on television programming than on hobbies, and young people in these homes watch far more hours of television than those of higher income homes where more money is spent on hobbies. Orange and George correlate the academic gap by low income African American students with the higher rate of television/media usage. (Orange & George, 2000)

The more exposure to unrealistic violence in media (e.g. games, television, movies), the higher the likelihood for aggression or violence in young people.

Realistic violence is defined as showing punishments for violent actions and displaying the emotional and physical pain associated with violence, and the majority of youth-targeted media (including mainstream blockbusters) do not qualify as realistic violence.

Most media targeting youth show a hero acting aggressively in the name of the greater good. These consistent unrealistic portrayals shown to young people, with little to no exposure to realistic violence, can result in apathy towards violent acts. “Typically a hero violently and justifiably defeats a villain. As Bandura (1986) states, when aggressive behavior is modeled by someone who is powerful and attractive to youth, learning is very likely to follow. In contrast, Kremar and Valkenburg (1999) tell us that youth with a history of watching realistically portrayed violence (such as that shown in the program Cops) are less likely to accept the use of justified violence. (As cited in Kirsch, 2012, p. 207)

Children’s programming has far more violence than any other regularly scheduled programming.

“… for every four violence acts on prime time television, 32 violent acts occur on children’s programs every hour." The report also states that violent characters are found in 56% of children’s programs, compared to 34% of prime time programs. Characters who are victims of violence are found in 74% of children’s programs, compared to 34% of prime time programs. Finally, characters that commit crimes or are victims of crime are found in 79% of children’s programs, compared to 47% in prime time. (Orange & George, 2000)

Music and music video choice by aggressive teens may be a means to develop their identity. 

Most research does not show indicators that teens who watch aggressive music videos or listen to aggressive lyrics are, or will become, aggressive. Some research suggests that teens who choose music with aggressive lyrics/videos choose it because they see it as a reflection of themselves, rather than the music influencing them to be aggressive. As many aggressive teens are perhaps labeled as anti-social or defiant, these music/music video choices can help them identify with a social group.

Carpentier, Knoblock, and Zillmann (2003) contend that some youth prefer this music because the lyrics and pictures mirror their aggressive lifestyle. Gardstrom (1999) supports this contention, with a study that shows juvenile delinquents report their choice of music is a reflection of their lifestyle more than a cause of it. (As cited in Kirsch, 2012, p 190)

Carpentier and colleagues (2003) contend that teenagers high in aggressive behavior and rebellion are attracted to “defiant, antisocial music (and more so than are other adolescents) in an attempt to define their social identities.” (As cited in Kirsch, 2012, p190)

Excessive media viewing alters the way an adolescent’s brain functions. 

“Healy (1990) contended that intensive or excessive [media] viewing can affect a child’s brain and the development of creativity and intelligence by: a) reducing stimulation of parts of the brain that are critical for the development of language, reading and analytic thinking, b) diminishing mental ability and attention, and c) discouraging the development of executive systems needed for regulating attention organization and motivation.” (Orange & George, 2000)

Aggression may or may not result in continuing aggression as adults. 

Many facets of development include times of rebellion or aggression as children grow and learn boundaries. Aggression coupled with other environmental and behavioral factors can result in a young person moving beyond aggression into violent behaviors, but not always. There is no formula to predict a young person’s development with aggression. (Kirsch, 2012)

But for those that continue to be aggressive, Kokko, Pulkkinen, Huesmann, Dubow & Boxer note that “Aggressive youth are more likely to become aggressive adults and may remain that way for the next 30 to 40 years. (As cited in Kirsch, 2012, p. 27)

Social media and online gaming groups do not necessarily produce a false sense of friendship. 

Valkenburg, Peter & Schouten (2006) indicate in their research that “it is the quality of the relationships (as measured by the tone of the [positive or negative] feedback) and not the quantity of “friends” that influence adolescents’ feeling about their social selves.” (As cited in Kirsch, 2012, p 245)

Conclusions and Application

This is a small sample of the research out there on how media affects adolescents. All research has room for error, and should be read knowing that there are always exceptions. It’s also important to consider the sample used for the research to determine if the findings are specific to a region or people group. That said, we wanted to give you some information that might help you and your team better understand how the media your teenagers are engaging with affects their abilities to learn, grow, and relate in today’s society.

We encourage you to gather your students and/or leadership teams and use the following discussion points: 

  1. What are your students viewing and how might it be affecting them? For that matter, what are you viewing and how might it affect you?
  2. To avoid a “Christ against culture” stance/ethos, how do we deal with misogyny, sexism, and degrading lyrics/messages within videos toward women? Particularly women of color? How do you begin to get into the conversation with your students?
  3. How might relationships online turn into healthy ones in “real life?” How does that affect the way you do ministry?
  4. To take this a step further, how does race affect this? For example, most “Heroes” are White heterosexual males. What might that say to a Black gay teen? How might that affect Latinas playing video games?

Works Cited

AHUJA, G. (2009, March 31). What a Doll Tells Us About Race. Retrieved from Good Morning America: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Story?id=7213714

Johnson, K. A. (1991). Objective News and Other Myths: The Poisoning of Young Black Minds. Journal of Negro Education, 328 - 341.

Kirsch, S. J. (2012). Children, Adolescents and Media Violence. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publishers.

Orange, C. M., & George, A. M. (2000). Child Sacrifice: Black America's Price of Paying the Pied Piper. Journal of Black Studies, 294 - 313.

Siriyuvasak, U., & Hyunjoon, S. (2007). Asianizing K-pop: Production, Consumption and Identification Patterns Among Thai Youth. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 109-136.

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