The mass media can play a significant role in shaping the social attitudes and social behaviors of children and adolescents. These effects are distinct from more general media effects that do not involve attitudes toward or behaviors with others, such as purchasing behaviors or learning educational content. Although parents exert the most influence on children, the mass media can be considered secondary agents of socialization. Research has found that mass media use, especially exposure to television, can affect the development of children’s self-image, attitudes toward others, and interpersonal behaviors. Researchers also have studied the role of media in youth’s development of political attitudes and behaviors.
Effects On Children’s Self-Image
When children view television, they compare themselves to characters and situations and form assessments of themselves. Usually, the effect on children’s self-image is negative. For example, viewing of advertisements is related to lower self-esteem and depression among children who come from low-income families. It is likely that children feel bad about themselves because they cannot have the products that are advertised on television.
The link between television exposure and self-image also is evident among adolescents. Research on body image shows that adolescent girls who view a lot of television feel worse about their bodies and are more likely to have symptoms of eating disorders than do adolescent girls who watch less television. Scholars speculate that this effect is due to the comparisons the viewers make between themselves and the people they see on television. In this case, consistent viewing of very thin female bodies leads adolescent girls to believe that this body type is normal and desirable, thereby leading to feelings of inadequacy if their bodies do not compare favorably. At times, the effect of television viewing on self-image and self-esteem can be positive. Among African-American children, for instance, viewing of television featuring AfricanAmerican actors is related to higher self-esteem scores. Although televised depictions of African-Americans tend to be stereotyped, it seems that the sheer presence of members of their own racial group improves African-American children’s self-esteem. In addition, when children or adolescents compare themselves to characters who seem to be worse off than themselves, either physically or socially, television can bolster self-esteem.
Effects On Children’s Attitudes About Others
Television viewing also can influence children’s attitudes about others. Numerous analyses of the content of television have shown that televised depictions of women are stereotypical.
Research has found that women appear less often on television (with soap operas as the exception); and, when they do appear, they are typically young, attractive, involved in romantic relationships, and either without employment or holding very stereotypical types of jobs. Research suggests that exposure to these images helps children develop or maintain stereotypes about women. For example, children who are heavy television viewers are more likely to believe that women should engage in a very narrow and stereotypical range of behaviors and hold certain types of jobs, such as teachers and nurses. Moreover, television can influence young girls’ career aspirations, as heavy viewers tend to desire more stereotypical jobs than do lighter viewers.
In addition, portrayals of minorities are stereotypical. For example, African-American actors are seen less often on television. When they do appear, they are typically cast in a very narrow range of minor roles. The presence and portrayal of African-Americans also differ by the genre of the program. African-Americans are most plentiful in comedies, where they assume less serious roles. When they appear in dramas, the storylines surrounding African-American characters often focus on race issues. Finally, news programs often over-represent African-Americans as law breakers, providing viewers with a skewed perception of their role in crime.
Television viewing also can shape children’s – and adults’ – wariness about other people and situations. Heavy viewers, for example, are more likely to believe that the world is a mean and dangerous place. These individuals are more prone to overestimating both the likelihood that they will be victims of crime and the crime rate in general. Some scholars believe that television cultivates us to accept that the world we see on television is reflective of the world outside of our own windows. Because television is filled with violence and stereotypes, heavy viewers develop skewed beliefs about people and the world. Communication scholar George Gerbner developed this “cultivation theory,” and he and his colleagues have found some support for it. On the other hand, cultivation theory also has been the subject of much criticism. Among other things, critics charge that the theory’s underlying assumption – that any type of television content carries the same message – is flawed (Gerbner et al. 1994).
Effects On Children’s Interpersonal Behaviors
A lot of research has studied the effects of television viewing on children’s interpersonal behaviors, including how children handle conflict and other social situations. The research suggests that heavy viewing is associated with more aggression among children. This effect is strongest among elementary-school children, perhaps because they are most impressionable and are still actively seeking role models for behavior. In addition, the effect is usually stronger among boys than among girls. This could be because, in general, aggression is a more tolerable form of behavior among males than females (Paik & Comstock 1994).
Certain televised portrayals increase the likelihood that children will imitate television aggression. Aggressors who are physically attractive and have a sympathetic reason for violence (that is, those who engage in justified violence) are more likely to be imitated than are unattractive characters who engage in senseless aggressive acts. In addition, children are more likely to copy violence that is rewarded or paired with humor. Classic cartoons typically contain many of these elements. As a result, classic cartoons are considered to be the most problematic type of content for children’s learning of aggressive attitudes and behaviors.
There is a growing body of research that has found a relationship between video game use and increased aggressive behaviors among children. Video games are seen as a particularly worrisome form of entertainment because players are active participants, assuming the roles of perpetrators of violence and actually committing the virtual violence.
Although not as plentiful as the work on media violence, there is some work on the effects of viewing pro-social or positive portrayals on children’s interpersonal behaviors. This work shows that viewing of pro-social content, including programs that teach sharing or helping behaviors or emphasize being generous, is related to pro-social outcomes in children. In fact, the effect of viewing pro-social television is twice as strong as the effect of viewing antisocial television. This could be because pro-social behaviors are condoned and encouraged by society and therefore are more likely to be imitated.
Research also has studied the relationship between television viewing and youngsters’ attitudes toward and initiation of intimate relationships. Most of this work has focused on adolescents. Research in this area has found that heavy television viewing is associated with more permissive attitudes about sex, including the belief that premarital sex is acceptable, normal, and desirable. In addition, adolescents who view more television are more likely to engage in sexual activity than are adolescents who view less television.
In the case of sexual attitudes and behaviors, television has the potential to have a very strong effect on adolescents. In fact, television could become a primary agent of socialization for teenagers. Because of the subject matter and the embarrassment that surrounds it, parents often are reluctant to discuss sex with their children; and because of the central role that intimacy and sexual relations play during adolescence, teenagers actively seek whatever information they can about the subject. The mass media, and television in particular, are readily available and full of strong messages about sex. As a result, teenagers can easily acquire information about sex from television, and in the absence of parental communication about sex, they are apt to grant a lot of credibility to that information. In addition, the Internet is a popular source of information about sex for teenagers. Given that the Internet is becoming more accessible to teenagers, it too can have a very strong influence on their attitudes and behaviors.
Effects On Children’s Political Socialization
Finally, media use can play an important role in children’s or adolescents’ political socialization. That is, exposure to media can shape youngsters’ knowledge about politics and the likelihood that they have an opinion about political issues and will participate in political processes. The political socialization research focuses on a variety of media as potential influences, including television, newspapers, and the Internet. In this sense, it is distinct from the other lines of research that have studied children’s socialization by media. Adolescents are particularly prone to the political socializing effect of media because, cognitively, they are advanced enough to think about abstract ideas like politics. Research has shown that teenagers who are exposed to news media are more likely to be knowledgeable about politics and have a stronger motivation to participate in political activities.
Future research on the socialization by media should expand to include a focus on the role of newer technologies, such as the Internet. To date, the majority of research in this area has studied television. Although television is still the most frequently used medium among children, the Internet is quickly becoming a popular alternative. Children and adolescents are spending more and more time with the Internet, using it to learn about a range of topics and sometimes relying on it as a means of communicating with friends and family, and yet we know very little about the effect of Internet use on this vulnerable population. Research on the socializing effect of the Internet will continue to be an important topic for communication scholars in the years to come.
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