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Adolescents and the Mass Media: From "Leave It to Beaver" to "Beverly Hills 90210"


by Donald F. Roberts - 1993

Discusses the effect of the mass media, particularly the influence of violence and sex, on adolescents, noting the paucity of research on the subject. The article recommends a compromise between censorship and free expression. It examines how teachers and parents can help by discussing media messages with students. (Source:ERIC)

 

 “Rising to the Challenge,” a video produced by the Parents’ Music Resource Center to warn about dangers to adolescents inherent in violent and sexually explicit music videos, opens with excerpts from “Sesame Street.”[1] Images of muppets and preschoolers flash by as a narrator proclaims that “Sesame Street” has “proven” that music, words, and images are powerful teachers of children. Attention then switches to scenes from several relatively horrific, heavy-metal music videos that either suggest or explicitly portray sex, rape, violence, drug use, and other objectionable activities. A question that serves as a constant refrain throughout the video frames the juxtaposition of these two kinds of scenes: “At what age does a child cease to learn from music, words, and images?”

 

Obviously the question functions less as interrogatory than as rhetorical device. Learning from music, words, and images continues throughout life; survival of the species probably depends on it.

 

But the rhetorical question is instructive in its obvious presumption that exposure to “negative” media images is synonymous with negative audience effects. Similarly instructive is the pairing of the question with shots of children who have clearly fallen prey to such negative images. Leather-and-lace-clad, prepubescent Madonna-wannabees grin for the camera; sweaty, glassy-eyed, teenaged, rock-concert audiences strain maniacally to touch, perhaps embrace, equally maniacal heavy-metal musicians. The point, of course, is that children and adolescents are viewed as particularly likely to be influenced by mass media messages.

 

Both themes-  that “objectionable” media messages (be they visual images, sound bites, printed slogans, or rack lyrics) teach objectionable beliefs and behaviors and that young people are particularly vulnerable to such messages- have a long history. Steven Starker’s Evil Influences presents a fascinating catalogue of critical comment about the dangers to youth (and also to adults) of mediated messages of any kind, comment that predates even the introduction of movable type. [2] Unhappiness with the potential for each new communication technology to wreak havoc on youth begins at least as early as Plato’s banishing of storytellers in his Republic and progresses through various justifications for bowdlerizing such works as Grimm’s Fairy Tales and various eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels to more recent condemnations of film, radio, comic books, and television. Similarly, beginning with studies of motion pictures and youth sponsored by the Payne Fund in the 1930s, and continuing still, concern with negative effects on children, concern that mediated messages will teach them to be violent or prejudiced or materialistic, or to engage in casual sex or drug use, or to develop gender stereotypes, has motivated most scientific research in this area.[3]

 

But what has that research shown us, particularly about adolescents and the mass media? Given that it goes almost without saying that teenagers learn from mass media- as they did when they were children, and as they will when they are adults-what does the empirical evidence have to say about the degree to which mass media operate as a force for good or ill in adolescent lives? Particularly, given today’s concerns, what does the research say about the influence of violence and sex in the media on adolescents?

 

Such questions require confronting two commonly held, albeit questionable, public beliefs. One characterizes adolescence as a period of continuous storm and stress, persistent turmoil and conflict, which the average teenager is fortunate to survive. The other holds that mass media engender massive effects, immediately, directly, similarly-and usually negatively-influencing an audience’s knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. Such beliefs, of course, are the stuff of popular discourse. General-interest magazines, radio talk shows, television specials, parent-teacher discussions, all tend to promulgate views of turbulent teenage years and of manipulative, almost irresistible mass media. But if we turn from newspaper and magazine headlines or televised “special reports” to look at empirical research on either topic, neither characterization seems quite so clear-cut.

 

ON ADOLESCENCE

 

A long history of classical theorizing about adolescence, coupled with the news media’s taste for conflict and “bad news” (e.g., teen pregnancy, suicide, drug use), contributes to popular treatment of the teen years as a period of persistent turmoil and conflict-years of identity crises, generation gaps, anxiety, and difficult and persistent family strife. While it is true that many individuals do encounter major problems as they navigate the years between ten and twenty, and that almost all teenagers experience some difficulty with some of the tasks of adolescence, little of the research literature supports a Sturm and Drang characterization.

 

At the Threshold: The Developing Adolescent, Shirley Feldman and Glen Elliott’s recent collection of research reviews, suggests that although the dominant characteristic of adolescence is change-change in physical, social, emotional, and intellectual functioning- there is scant evidence of unrelenting family conflict and dramatic, debilitating crises.[4] Of course conflicts emerge, but these tend to concern less fundamental issues: dating, tidiness, punctuality, and leisure activities, including use of and apparent responses to the mass media. Generally, however, considerable intergenerational continuity exists between most parents and their adolescent children in fundamental values concerning morality, marriage and sex, race, and religious and political orientations.

 

Reification of “adolescent” (e.g., “the average adolescent,” “the typical teen,”) adds to the problem by leading to assumptions that all adolescents think, act, develop, and respond to mass media in the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth. Change may be the hallmark of adolescence, but it is change marked by great variety in form and outcome.

 

Most theories of adolescent development recognize a number of central issues or tasks that each youngster must address-forming an identity, developing a positive body image, acquiring and honing formal problem-solving capabilities and autonomous moral reasoning, more completely defining gender roles and cross-gender relationships, achieving independence from family and from other adults, establishing workable peer relations, preparing for future occupational, family, and civic roles, and so on. Although almost all adolescents deal with each of these issues, they do so in no particular order and at no particular time. Some work on cross-gender relationships before they confront issues of independence from adult authority, while others reverse the sequence; some confront cross-gender relationships as early as the end of primary school, while for others the issue emerges late in the high school or even college years.

 

It is also evident that whenever an adolescent faces a particular issue, it can almost “consume” him or her in the sense that it simultaneously creates a deep thirst for information about the task of the moment and a filter that influences interpretations of perceived events and messages. Consider, for example, a thirteen-year-old girl who has discovered boys and a sixteen-year-old boy working on establishing independence from parental authority. Each seeks information about his or her task from any available source, including the mass media; each is quite likely to respond differently to the same message depending on his or her concern. Thus, a television portrayal of a youth arguing with parents about dating may be about authority to the boy and about true love to the girl. Finally, adolescents confront these developmental tasks just as they begin to reason independently and just as parental and other adult controls on information seeking in general and media use in particular begin to weaken-increasing the media’s importance as an information source.   

 

ON MASS-MEDIA EFFECTS

 

The second popular notion holds that mass media exert powerful influences on masses of people. However, William McGuire, in an insightful paper entitled “The Myth of Massive Media Impact,” concludes that empirical research on media effects fails to support a massive impact model. [5] If we construe “massive” effect to mean that large numbers of people respond to a particular message (advertisement, program, editorial) all in the same way, then no research demonstrates massive impact. For example, relatively few in the electorate change their vote as a result of political pamphleteering, editorial endorsements, or television advertising. Similarly, most attempts to use mass media to engender social change are more-noted for their failures than their successes, and although most of our children view a great many portrayals of crime and violence, relatively few become criminals. And in spite of the folklore, very few people fled the Martian invaders Orson Welles brought to earth in 1938.

 

This is not to say that mass media engender no effects. Clearly they do, and sometimes they are important and dramatic. Mass media do influence some people to change their vote or to give up smoking or to imitate agression- and some obviously did flee the Martians. Typically, however, only a small portion of any audience responds in the same way. Rather, a given message influences relatively small audience subgroups in a variety of different ways. Massive effects in the sense of similar reactions from most of the audience seldom occur.

 

McGuire posits several reasons that the massive-effects notion survives in spite of contrary evidence. First, it seems so commonsensical. After all, the reasoning goes, such massive amounts of viewing/listening/reading must engender massive effects. After all, smart people would not expend so much effort to get on television or in the newspaper if it were not important. After all, advertisers and politicians would not spend all that money on advertising if it did not work. Second, maintaining the myth serves the interests of media friends and media foes alike. Buyers and sellers of media time are unlikely to admit to little or no payoff; media critics hesitate to admit to tilting at windmills. A third reason can be added: People tend to notice figure, not ground- change, not stability. That is, we note and remember "consequences” that do occur, not what does not happen. Thus, we attend to the relatively few youngsters who adopt leather and lace in imitation of Madonna, but not to the many who stick with skirts and sweaters; we remember the hundreds who fled Welles’s Martians, but forget the millions who sat back and enjoyed the show; we discuss, dissect, and condemn the few who reenacted the Rodney King beating on a hapless truck driver in South Central Los Angeles, but ignore the tens of thousands who engaged in no beating, no looting, no taking to the streets. In short, we focus on “obvious consequences ,” regardless of their magnitude, and we ignore "nonconsequences," regardless of their magnitude.

 

Ultimately, it is unproductive to search for massive media effects. First, such a focus confuses massive with “important.” Large numbers need not be implicated to make an effect important, as when a few voters change the outcome of an election. More crucial, particularly when focusing on adolescents, a focus on massive effects ignores differences among audience members, differences that are key to understanding how and why mass media affect people.

 

CONDITIONAL EFFECTS

 

Much current media research conceptualizes individual interpretations of, hence responses to, media and messages as essentially constructivist acts. Media supply material out of which individuals construct meanings. Effects depend at least as much on the receiver’s attributes as on the form and content of media messages per se. Individuals interpret and respond to messages differently depending on abilities, interests, social relationships, immediate and long-term needs, and expectations about message intent. Thus, rather than examining large, undifferentiated samples of the mass audience and basing inferences about effects on changes in some small portion of the total (e.g., what proportion of viewers used a “hot-line” number to respond to a Planned Parenthood public service announcement broadcast on network television?), recent work attempts to specify sets of attributes or conditions that define theoretically important subgroups, groups that should be particularly responsive to a given medium or message (e.g., what proportion of sexually active teenagers, currently engaged in establishing independence from parental authority, responded to a particular kind of Planned Parenthood PSA broadcast on MTV?).

 

This conditional approach, with its assumption that individuals respond to messages in terms of a variety of social, psychological, and physical factors, is particularly appropriate in the examination of adolescents and media. [6] If what individuals take from mass media depends significantly on the perspectives, needs, concerns, and abilities each brings to the media, then the evidence of numerous patterns in which different youngsters negotiate adolescent developmental tasks, combined with the way in which each task seems to capture adolescent information seeking and processing, points to the importance of looking for mass-media effects on subgroups of adolescents. The challenge of such a conditional approach is to identify, a priori, theoretically interesting conditions and attributes that will locate differential responses within important adolescent subpopulations. [7] Clearly, one important defining dimension of those subgroups consists of the particular developmental task individual youngsters face at any given time.

 

AN EXAMPLE

 

Information relevant to most adolescent tasks is readily available in the mass media, often within a single message-small wonder that media engender a multitude of effects, but usually no single, overriding outcome. Several examples, both hypothetical and empirical, illustrate how the needs, concerns, and experiences of different subgroups of adolescents lead them to respond quite differently to the same media message.

 

Consider Beverly Hills 90210, currently one of the most popular television shows among U.S. teens. The central plot of a recent episode focuses on an evolving romantic relationship between a high school boy and girl and their struggle with the girl’s parents, who have forbidden them to see each other. Subplots include portrayals of various peer interactions (How do peers relate? Should friends lie for each other?), examination of what holding a job entails, and at least one discussion of the implications and ramifications of the Los Angeles riots. In other words, the episode touches on such adolescent issues as developing cross-gender relationships, establishing independence from parents, peer relationships, occupational roles, civic roles, and more. It is not difficult to imagine how the program can affect different teenagers quite differently, depending on, among other things, the developmental task the viewer currently faces. Adolescents in the throes of establishing independence from parents might interpret the episode in terms of the portrayed parent-child interactions. Others, more involved in exploring cross-gender relationships and perhaps their own sexuality, will respond primarily in terms of how to behave with the opposite sex. Still others may use the program for its advice on how to establish and maintain peer relationships. Clearly, the overall meaning of the show, or the scenes and themes deemed most important, or both, depend on concerns adolescent viewers bring to the screen.

 

Examinations of responses to Madonna’s controversial video “Papa Don’t Preach” illustrate similar subgroup differences responses to a media message. The video portrays a young girl’s love affair resulting in pregnancy, and her consequent difficulties telling her father that she plans to keep the baby. “Adult” interpretations range from Ellen Goodman’s “a commercial for teenage pregnancy” to a pro-life group’s characterization of it as “advocating alternatives to abortion.” White college students saw the video as being about the difficulties of teenage pregnancy. African-American students, however, especially females, interpreted “Papa Don’t Preach” as primarily concerning male-female and father-daughter relationships, the “focus of-the Black viewers . . . on the boy/girl and father/daughter relationships [possibly reflecting] the currently more problematic nature of establishing cross-sex relationships in Black society.”[8]

 

With high school students, the video had-more impact among females. Both the nature of their family relationships and their prior pregnancy experiences located clear subgroup differences in responses. Girls whose fathers stressed social harmony in interpersonal relations made significantly more personal connections between the narrative and themselves than did girls whose fathers stressed the importance of exploring ideas at the possible expense of social harmony. Girls who reported they had been pregnant, had experienced a pregnancy scare, or had a friend who had been pregnant were more likely than others to connect the narrative to their own lives. [9]

 

The issue, then, is not whether mass-media messages affect adolescents. Of course they do. But quite clearly, different adolescents focus on different message elements, interpret messages differently, and ultimately respond in many different ways. Although we may argue about size and importance of any particular effects, the evidence demonstrates that most humans learn from-and sometimes base their behavior on information obtained from mass media. The appropriate questions, then, do not ask whether mass media affect adolescents; rather, they ask which messages (or parts of messages), under which conditions, affect which perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors among which adolescents.

 

CONCERN WITH SEX AND VIOLENCE

 

Although mass media present information relevant to most adolescent developmental tasks, many of which have received at least some research attention, most public concern focuses on the degree to which media messages contribute to negative or antisocial behaviors, particularly in the realms of sex and violence. Given a media system that daily reports or portrays seductions in the hundreds and body-counts in the thousands, and growing public awareness that a significant proportion of our adolescent population daily risks unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and bodily harm, such concern is not surprising.

 

There is some irony, however, in both the form and the substance of the ongoing debate about these two issues. In spite of four decades of research producing literally hundreds of empirical studies pointing to a link between media violence and aggressive behavior, scholars, politicians, and representatives of the mass media still debate whether there is any causal relation between the two. In spite of four decades of questions and debate about the influence of mass media on teenagers’ sexual behavior, fewer than a dozen empirical studies directly address the issue (excluding studies of responses to pornography, not generally considered typical media fare). It speaks volumes about American culture that we hesitate to accept indications of a causal linkage between media violence and adolescent aggression, and will not gather the data necessary to examine a linkage between media portrayals of sex and adolescent sexual behavior.

 

MEDIA AND VIOLENCE

 

Most media representatives and a few scholars criticize the research on media violence and aggressive behavior, contending that most studies are methodologically flawed in one way or another, and that no studies find that even a substantial plurality of youngsters engage in “real-life” aggression as a result of exposure to media violence. The contention that most studies of media violence suffer from methodological flaws is correct because it characterizes all behavioral research. The perfect behavioral study simply does not exist. However, research on effects of media violence is atypical in that there are so many studies using so many different approaches, designs, materials, measures, and even empirical paradigms. The result: The flaws in one study are usually corrected in another. Thus, we can safely say that methodological flaws are not generally replicated across the hundreds of extant studies but the finding that media violence contributes to adolescent aggressiveness replicates quite consistently. [10]

 

The second criticism, of course, assumes that massive effects must be demonstrated before causal claims are to be taken seriously. However, as we have seen, there exist good theoretical reasons not to expect most individuals within a given audience to respond similarly to any particular media content. Moreover, effects that implicate relatively few individuals can be very important. For example, if violence-viewing were shown to increase aggressive behavior in only .1 percent of the almost 30 million adolescents in the United States, we might call such an effect “small,” but few would deny its “importance.”

 

Comstock and Paik’s Television and the American Child examines thirty years of empirical research on the influence of television and film portrayals of violence on adolescent perceptions and behavior. [11] Their argument dovetails nicely with much of the preceding. First, they present evidence that mass media affect behavior by influencing the development of individuals’ cognitive scripts, scenario that roughly guide actions depending on cues operating in some subsequent situation. For example,-frequent viewing of police drama may help shape viewer conceptions of how to respond when approached by a real police officer, depending on available cues operating when one is approached. Second, they demonstrate that “susceptibility” to a given message varies dramatically as a function of individual interests, needs, concerns. Third, they document various message characteristics that affect individual interpretations, including the degree to which a behavior is portrayed as efficacious (e.g., is explicitly rewarded or punished), normative (e.g., is justified, congruent with accepted social norms), and pertinent (e.g., is familiar or useful, implicates conditions similar to those of the viewer, addresses issues important to the viewer). Any such message characteristic may influence the likelihood of learning and action depending, of course, on individual differences.  Finally, they also argue that effect size, in this case amount of aggressive and antisocial behavior, need not be large in order to qualify for social significance.

 

Comstock and Paik’s conclusions are both convincing and chilling. Taken together, the literally hundreds of relevant studies, with their different approaches, different weaknesses and strengths, and different findings, offer compelling evidence that viewing mass-media portrayals of violence is causally linked to a small but socially significant amount of adolescent aggression. Moreover, the causal linkage pertains at least as strongly to seriously delinquent behavior (e.g., violent assault) as to milder aggressive acts (e.g., verbal abuse, questionnaire responses). Finally, many characteristics of typical media portrayals, from the formulae of straight news reporting to the dramatic conventions by which good guys defeat bad guys in much narrative fiction, facilitate acquisition of precisely the kinds of antisocial behavior about which we are most concerned. In short, although media portrayals of violence are only one among many contributors to aggressive behavior among adolescents, there is solid evidence that for some adolescents under some conditions, viewing violence plays a significant causal role.

 

MEDIA AND SEX

 

Inferences about mass-media effects on adolescent sexual beliefs and behaviors require more caution simply because so few studies directly address the issue. Nevertheless, the conditional approach to media effects described above, plus the few studies that do exist and some of the work on young adults’ responses to pornography, point to a similar conclusion.

 

Evidence exists that mass media do influence adolescent and young adult beliefs about sex and sexual behavior. Some years ago, teenagers who lacked alternative sources of information reported turning to mass media for information about the norms of dating behavior, presumably to learn how to interact with the opposite sex.[12] More recent work demonstrates a relationship between exposure to typical television programming and beliefs and expectations concerning sexual behavior within the larger society. College students who frequently view soap operas (with their incessant sexual themes) give higher estimates of real-life love affairs, out-of-wedlock children, and divorces. [13] For some individuals, media messages may affect personal perceptions and expectations regarding their own sexual behavior. High school and college students attributing great sexual proficiency and satisfaction to television characters tended to report less satisfaction with their own first experiences of coitus than did students not making such attributions. [14] Finally, experimental research on pornography shows that viewing sexually explicit depictions portraying women as indiscriminately promiscuous and euphoric in response to any sexual stimulation increases callousness toward women among college males-and even some females. Consequences range from increased disrespect for women to the trivialization of reactions to rape.[15]

 

An additional condition operates when considering media influences on adolescent sexual beliefs in the United States. Information from the mass media about most developmental issues usually competes with information from many other powerful sources. Parents, teachers, churches, all have something to add to the ongoing discourse about adolescents’ independence, occupational and educational choices, racial and ethnic stereotypes, consumer behavior, body image, and so forth. When it comes to sexual socialization, however, the influence of many of the traditional “socializers” wanes. Although we may currently be more comfortable discussing some of the biological and health dimensions of sex than we were thirty years ago (adolescents do report learning about such things as the origins of babies and menstruation from parents and schools), parents and/or teachers play a lesser role informing teenagers about petting, masturbation, prostitution, intercourse, and so forth. Apparently such topics are too embarrassing, too difficult to address. The resulting absence of competing information (peers do talk, but often perpetuate ignorance) lends the mass media additional influence. To the extent that media operate as the dominant source of information (in some instances, perhaps the only source) about precisely those sexual issues that most interest adolescents, to that extent the likelihood that mass media affect sexual beliefs and behavior increases dramatically.

 

Ultimately, the same variations in individual susceptibility and in message characteristics that mediate responses to media violence also operate in relation to media portrayals of male/female interactions (and, for that matter, in relation to most other kinds of media content). The potential for media influence in this arena is somewhat increased, however, by virtue of the lack of competing messages on issues of sexual behavior. To reiterate, under some conditions, some adolescents model some sexual expectations and behaviors on their interpretations of media content. The degree to which this is of social concern, of course, depends on the nature of that content and the nature of what society is willing to label acceptable.[16]

 

THE PROBLEM OF CONTROLS

 

What does such a conditional approach to mass media effects imply about the current furor over “negative” media messages? Should we worry about the violent rap lyrics, or displays of sexuality common to many music videos, or violence and gore in films, or implicit worship of the trappings of wealth that have characterized so much of prime-time television from Leave It to Beaver to Beverly Hills 90210? Do parents, or schools, or governmental agencies need to step in? If so, how? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to such questions.

 

As noted above, the evidence indicates it is unlikely that particular media messages move large numbers of adolescents to become more aggressive, more sexually active, more likely to experiment with alcohol and drugs, or more obsessed with pursuing increased wealth. In spite of the thousands of hours of television and film violence most adolescents have consumed by the time they finish high school, far fewer of them have engaged assaultive behavior than have not. On the other hand, the evidence also indicates that mass media do affect smaller numbers of adolescents in important ways. Indeed, a given message may “cause” a multiplicity of different behaviors among different youngsters, including some of the negative actions that generate most public concern (e.g., the research tells us that viewing television violence has engendered greater aggressiveness among at least some adolescents).

 

Exactly what constitutes “socially significant negative effects” depends both on who is making the value judgement (e.g., one person’s friendly kiss is another’s seductive embrace) and on conditions external to particular media content. Several years ago Arnold Schwarzenegger, a powerful icon among adolescents, “terminated” policemen by the dozens in the highly popular and graphic Terminator films, but there was no public outcry for boycotts of the movie, and no one lectured the film industry. Currently, however, Ice-T raps: “I got my 12-gauge sawed off / I got my headlights turned off / I’m ‘bout to bust some shots off / I’m ‘bout to dust some cops off,” and law-enforcement organizations demonstrate, politicians pontificate, mass media present numerous “examinations” of the effect of rap music on teenagers, TimeWarner reconsiders its policies regarding record releases, and untold numbers of rock performers wallow in new-found devotion to the First Amendment (while Ice-T, no doubt, makes a few more trips to the bank). One suspects that such factors as temporal proximity to the Los Angeles riots, race of the performer, and the relatively recent development of music video (enabling adults to see what they previously had been unable to hear, which, in turn, gave rise to numerous calls for controls on popular music) all played a role in the outcry engendered by “Cop Killer,” independent of what the lyrics say.

 

From this perspective, the issue is not whether mass media affect adolescent perceptions, beliefs, behaviors. Rather, it is one of society’s judging how many adolescents need to be put at risk, in what way, before various corrective actions are viewed as necessary and justified. Such judgments tend to vary depending on who makes them. If mass media cause a few teenagers to increase the frequency with which they get into scuffles in the school yard, perhaps something like classroom instruction about media and violence is needed. If, on the other hand, media violence influences significant numbers to engage in criminal behavior, more draconian corrective strategies, up to and including possible legal controls on media content, might merit consideration. The problem, given the value Americans place on free expression and First Amendment guarantees, is obtaining agreement on what constitutes a “socially significant” number (and, to some extent, what constitutes criminal behavior). For some, very few violent incidents tied to media content are enough to warrant legislative controls; for others it requires numerous instances for which the connection between media and violence can be established; and for still others no amount of any kind of effect justifies legal constraints. Unfortunately, the sensitivity of the issues (violence, sex, drugs, suicide, and an understandable desire to protect youth at risk versus a presumed inalienable right to unfettered free expression) often leads to extreme positions, making the debate more notable for sound and slogan than substance and sense.

 

A MIDDLE GROUND

 

There is a middle ground. It entails compromises on the part of advocates both of censorship and of unfettered free expression. It requires recognition that a society in which significant numbers of adolescents are significantly at risk (of violence, crime, AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, drugs, depression, suicide, and more) is intolerable. It also requires recognition that a society that abrogates freedom of expression is equally intolerable. Clearly, all of our institutions-parents, churches, schools, social and professional organizations, government, and the mass media are responsible for addressing the problem.

 

In one of the more interesting attempts to explore the middle ground, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development has sponsored a series of “linkage seminars.” These are small gatherings at which one or two child advocates and behavioral researchers “link-up” with a dozen or so film and television writers and producers, people directly responsible for creating media messages, to discuss ways the media can help address some of the problems confronting adolescents. The seminars are designed to minimize defensiveness and facilitate sharing of information, concerns, doubts, and goals. Discussion avoids focusing on “what the media are-doing wrong.” (In the past, such gatherings often became confrontations, each side telling the other what not to do: for example, “Quit showing sex and violence!” met “Don’t trample my right to unfettered free expression!” and little was resolved.) Rather, the seminars, following the advice of even the most elementary texts on group dynamics, take a more positive approach. They assume that the same principles that operate to influence youngsters’ acquisition of negative beliefs and behavior from media messages can also engender positive beliefs and behaviors.

 

Typically, a seminar begins by presenting the real-life social dimensions of some adolescent realities (e.g., in 1989, 67 percent of all teen births occurred outside marriage; homicide is the second leading cause of death for all fifteen- to twenty-four-year-olds in the United States), [17] and considering the social implications of such facts. Participants are then asked to suggest ways in which the mass media might help. The ensuing discussion tends to be lively and exciting. When asked to assume the offensive rather than being put on the defensive, writers and producers have offered some strikingly creative ideas.

 

Although it is difficult to document empirically, some of the ideas and suggestions generated at these linkage seminars appear to have lodged in the thinking of at least some of the active producers in the industry. A few seem to have made their way into an occasional episode of one or another show. And it seems quite likely that some of them, under some conditions, have positively influenced at least some adolescent viewers.

 

WHAT IS A TEACHER TO DO?

 

Finally, teachers (and parents) can take direct action by discussing media messages with students. At first glance, such a suggestion may sound obvious and/or simplistic. However, such talk is far from the norm, particularly in schools particularly regarding television.

 

Guided discussion can lead students to more elaborated, thoughtful consideration of the meaning of media messages. Evidence indicates that verbal processing requires more such cognitive effort than does pictorial processing, and leads to more abstract, generic thinking, probably because it facilitates conceptual as opposed to perceptual elaboration of the message or model.[18] It follows that asking youngsters to discuss media messages in ways that encourage them to move beyond the perceptual surface of typical television portrayals can lead them to recognize implications and meanings that, typically, they seldom consider critically or deeply. For example, left to their own devices, adolescents probably think about something like Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” in terms of its specific concrete narrative (e.g., “Gee, it was nice the way her father finally hugged her”). But when asked to discuss the pregnant girl’s future, these same adolescents can be encouraged to confront more conceptual issues: child support, limiting future opportunities, the general problem of teenage pregnancy, and so forth. In short, the kind of guided discussion that teachers can encourage has tremendous potential to lead youngsters to develop new perspectives and/or insights about whatever media message serves as the stimulus for discussion.

 

Unfortunately, a norm against serious discussion of “entertainment” content exists in many, if not most, classrooms. Although a number of “critical viewing” curricula exist, most focus on the nature of the television medium rather than on content. [19] Moreover, they are more notable for their absence from the day-to-day context of most schools than for any significant role in training students how to bring critical faculties to bear on television. (Recall that less than a decade ago Senator William Proxmire gave a “Golden Fleece” award to the developers of such curricula, ridiculing the idea of teaching children how to watch television.) Of course, many teachers will protest that they do, in fact, talk with their students about television. More often than not, however, such discussion concerns a news or documentary program, or educational television, or a “docu-drama” with obvious “formal-curriculum” relevance (e.g., “Roots” or “JFK”). Seldom do situation comedies, primetime soaps, or music videos serve as a focus of classroom examination.

 

Several factors inhibit such classroom discussions. First, entertainment content is perceived to be irrelevant to formal schooling. A recent examination of television and children in Australia describes how teachers and students differ in attitudes toward and use of television, and how schools tend to enculturate children to equate school work with “not-television” and television with “not-schoolwork.” [20] It is as if teachers and students implicitly negotiate a position defining entertainment television as “nonserious,” therefore to be ignored, if not actively discouraged. Second, many teachers view just those television topics most in need of discussion as simply too hot to handle. That is, they believe (with some validity) that the people who so vocally attack the media for purveying objectionable messages to children and adolescents will be just as quick to criticize teachers for attempting to address such issues in the classroom, even though attempting to moderate media impact. Consider, for example, a recent episode of “Hollywood 90210” which concerned accusations (ultimately unfounded) of a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student. In most public high schools, it would require a brave teacher to use that program to discuss any of the several themes in the show (e-g., sex, teacher/student relationships, rumor, due process). Yet, given that particular program’s appeal and relevance to the adolescent audience, and most youngster’s eagerness to talk about their favorite programs, that particular episode might serve as the perfect starting point for serious discussion of any of those issues.

 

Discretion being the better part of valor, it is probably unwise for teachers concerned with moderating presumed negative impacts of media content to focus initial class discussions on issues such as sex or drugs. Nevertheless, teachers occupy a unique position and have a unique opportunity to make a difference in the way media content influences students’ conceptions of the world. They need to watch what their students watch (everything has its cost), then to initiate the kind of dialogue that will help reveal if they see what their students see. Simply the exchange of different interpretations of media messages can help both adolescents and adults develop deeper, more elaborated conceptions of any of the issues potentially prevent in media content.

 

Notes

 



[1] Vision Videos, Rising to the Challenge (Arlington, Va.: Parents Music Resource Center, 1988), video recording.

 

[2] Steven Starker, Evil Influences: Crusades against the Mass Media (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1989).

 

[3] For several general reviews of empirical research on the effects of mass media on children and adolescents, see Peter G. Christenson and Donald F. Roberts, “Popular Music in Early Adolescence” (Working paper for the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, Washington, D.C., January 1990); George Comstock et al., Television and Human Behavior (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978); George Comstock with Haejung Paik, Television and the American Child (San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1991); and Donald F. Roberts and Nathan Maccoby, “Effects of Mass Communication, ” in The Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. II, ed. Gardner Lindzey and Elliot Aronson (New York: Random House, 1985), pp. 53998.

 

[4] S. Shirley Feldman and Glen R. Elliott, eds., At the Threshold: The Developing Adolescent (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

 

[5] William J. McGuire, “The Myth of Massive Media Impact: Savagings and Salvagings,” in Public Communication and Behavior, Vol. I, ed. George Comstock (Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1986), pp. 178-207.   

 

[6] For more complete discussions of the conditional approach, see Jack M. McLeod and Byron Reeves, “On the Nature of Media Effects,” in Television and Social Behavior: Beyond Violence and Children, ed. Stephen B. Withey and Ronald P. Ables (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1980), pp. 17-54; and Roberts and Maccoby, “Effects of Mass Communication,” pp. 540-42.

 

[7] McLeod and Reeves, “On the Nature. of Media Effects,” pp. 19-24.

 

[8] Jane D. Brown and Laurie Schultz, “The Effects of Fandom, Race and Gender on Interpretations of Music Videos,” Journal of Communication 40 (Spring 1990): 88-102.

 

[9] Margaret Thompson et al., “Long-term Norms and Cognitive Structures as Shapers of Television Viewer Activity,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 35 (Summer 1991): 31934.

 

[10] See especially Comstock and Paik, Television and the American Child, pp. 234-85. See also Comstock et al., Television and Human Behavior, p. 250.

 

[11] Comstock and Paik, Television and the American Child, pp. 234-85.

 

[12] W. M. Gerson, “Mass Media and Socialization Behavior: Negro-White Differences,” Social Forces 45 (1966): 40-50.

 

[13] Nancy L. Buerkel-Rothfuss with Sandra Mayes, “Soap Opera Viewing: The Cuitivation Effect,” Journal of Communication 31 (Summer 1981): 108-15.

 

[14] 14 Stanley J. Baran, “How TV and Film Portrayals Affect Sexual Satisfaction in College Students,” Journalism Quarterly 53 (Autumn 1976): 468-73; and Stanley J. Baran, “Sex on TV and Adolescent Sexual Image,” Journal of Broadcasting 20 (Winter 1976): 61-88.

 

[15] For reviews of research on responses to pornographic films, see Neil M. Malamuth and Victoria Billings, “The Functions and Effects of Pornography: Sexual Communications versus the Feminist Model in Light of Research Findings, ” in Perspectives on Media Effects, ed. Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillman (Hillsdale, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986), pp. 83-108; and James Weaver, “Responding to Erotica: Perceptual Processes and Dispositional Implications,” in Responding to the Screen: Reception and Reaction Processes, ed. Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillman (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991), pp. 329-54.

 

[16] For a general discussion of the role of mass media in sexual socialization, see Kimberly K. Massey and Stanley J. Baran, “Mass Media and Sexual Socialization: A Tale of Scientific Neglect,” Journal of Communication and Media Arts 1 (Spring 1992): 17-34.

 

[17] Fred M. Hechinger, Fateful Choices: Healthy Youth for the 21st Century, Executive Summary (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, April 1992); and U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, “Youth and Violence: The Current-Crisis -A Fact Sheet” (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, n.d.).

 

[18] For a more complete summary of cognitive effort and message elaboration, see Albert Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1986), especially pp. 70-74. Also see Gavriel Salomon, Interaction of Media, Cognition, and Learning: An Exploration of How Symbolic Forms Cultivate Mental Skills and Affect Knowledge Acquisition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1979).

 

[19] James A. Brown, Television “Critical Viewing Skills” Education: Major Media Literacy Projects in the United States and Selected Countries (Hillsdale, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991).

 

[20] Bob Hodge and David Tripp, Children and Television Semiotic Approach (Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1986).



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 94 Number 3, 1993, p. 629-644
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 144, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 9:46:13 PM

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  • Donald Roberts
    Stanford University

 
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