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Media’s Nasty Impact on Youth

Themes of Sex and Violence Take Their Toll

CHICAGO, AUG. 19, 2006 ( Recent studies confirm long-standing concerns about how the media influence children and adolescents. The Aug. 2 issue of the journal Pediatrics, published by the Illinois-based American Academy of Pediatrics, contained two articles on the topic.

One of them, entitled “Exposure to Degrading Versus Nondegrading Music Lyrics and Sexual Behavior Among Youth,” was based on telephone interviews with 1,461 teens aged 12 to 17. The group was interviewed three times: in 2001, 2002 and 2004. The average youth, according to the article, listens to music 1.5 to 2.5 hours per day, not counting music videos. Sexual themes are common in much of this music and range from romantic and playful to degrading and hostile.

The authors started by observing that there is strong theoretical justification for the notion that listening to sexual lyrics may influence adolescents’ sexual behavior. Their study confirmed the theory, finding that “Teens who spent more time listening to music were more likely than those who spent less to initiate intercourse.”

The article did point out that the correlation between the two factors is not definitive proof of a causal relationship. Nevertheless, the results showed that the more teens listened to degrading sexual music content, the more likely they were to subsequently initiate intercourse. By contrast, exposure to non-degrading sexual music did not lead to changes in sexual behavior.

“Reducing the amount of degrading sexual content in popular music or reducing young people’s exposure to music with this type of content could help delay the onset of sexual behavior,” concluded the article.

A second study, “The Relationship Between Watching Professional Wrestling on Television and Engaging in Date Fighting Among High School Students,” examined the question of violence.

The study, based on a random sample of 2,485 students from North Carolina, found that there were significant correlations between frequency of watching wrestling on television during the previous two weeks and engaging in date fighting, fighting in general, and weapon carrying for both males and females. The relationship between viewing wrestling and violent behavior was stronger among females than among males.

The authors commented that there are many factors associated with the use of violence among adolescents. Yet they added that “numerous studies have revealed a consistent association between adolescents’ exposure to violence and victimization and their risk of carrying weapons, having attitudes accepting the use of violence or aggressive behaviors to resolve conflict or achieve goals, and actually using violence.”

The article concluded by recommending: “Reducing children’s and adolescents’ exposure to violence from media sources should be an important component of any violence-prevention strategy.”

Links with aggression

Violence and the media was the subject of an almost 500-page collection of articles published last December. One of the chapters in the “Handbook of Children, Culture, and Violence” (Sage Publications) looked at violent music and youth.

The authors, Barbara Wilson and Nicole Martins, noted that genres such as gangsta rap contain high levels of violence, and that a significant number of music videos also feature frequent acts of violence.

They observe that several studies found a relationship between preference for violent music and aggressive behavior. In relation to the question of causality, controlled studies on college-age students show that listening to violent music encourages violent thoughts.

The number of studies is limited, however, and Wilson and Martins conclude that “a modest amount of evidence links exposure to violent music with aggression.” In addition, some studies point to negative effects related to depression, risk taking and racial stereotyping.

Another chapter in the book deals with TV violence. There, Dale Kunkel and Lara Zwarun state: “It is well established by a compelling body of scientific evidence that television violence is harmful to children.”

The harmful effects include: the learning of aggressive behaviors; desensitization toward victims of violence; and increased fear of being victimized by violence. The article notes that literally hundreds of studies support the conclusion that viewing televised violence leads to increases in subsequent aggression.

The chances of encountering violent content on TV are high. One three-year study found that 60% of all shows sampled contained some form of violence. Moreover, much of the violence appears “sanitized” and fails to show realistic harm to victims. In addition, often the violence is committed by attractive characters who suffer no remorse or criticism for their behavior. Sanitized or glamorous violence, note Kunkel and Zwarun, increases the risks of harmful effects on children.

Quantity concerns

Worries over these negative effects are compounded by data showing how much time children spend exposed to media. On May 24 the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study showing that many busy parents encourage television use among their children.

The report, “Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Their Parents,” was based on a national survey of 1,051 parents with children aged 6 months to 6 years old and a series of focus groups across the United States.

According to the study, in a typical day 83% of children under the age of 6 use screen media (TV, videos, computer), averaging almost two hours a day. In many homes the TV is a nearly constant presence, from the living room to the dining room and the bedroom. One-third of the children surveyed have a TV in their bedrooms.

The report did point out that well-designed educational programs can be beneficial for children. As well, many parents reported being satisfied with the television programs their children watch. At the same time many parents expressed guilt about their children’s media use, believing that they should be spending more time with their kids. Some expressed concerns that they may have set in motion something they soon won’t be able to control: that today’s educational shows will give way to violent video games.

The study also found that many children are exposed to television when their parents are watching adult shows. In fact, a third of children live in homes where parents simply leave the TV on most of the day, period.

Constant exposure to the media is a fact of life in other countries too. Recent data in Britain showed that a third of children aged 8 to 11 said that they mainly watched television on their own, the Guardian newspaper reported May 3.

The information came from a study conducted by the Office of Communications, a governmental regulatory body. In addition, more than seven in 10 parents in households with cable or satellite TV admitted they had not set any controls to limit the channels their children can watch. Four in 10 parents of 12- to 15-year-olds said there were no house rules about watching television.

Meanwhile, in Spain the national newspaper El País reported May 24 that around 800,000 children watch television after 10 p.m., which is when controls over content designed to protect them cease. The article observed that children aged 4 to 12 average 864 hours a year in front of the TV screen, compared with 960 going to school.

The potential for good, but also the need for vigilance, regarding media usage was dealt with by Benedict XVI in his message for the 40th World Communications Day. In the text the Pope called upon the media to be a protagonist of truth and promoter of peace, and to avoid the distortions that occur when “the media industry becomes self-serving or solely profit-driven, losing the sense of accountability to the common good” (No. 3).

Benedict XVI also noted the importance of forming people to help them use the media intelligently and appropriately. Secular research seems to indicate that that task is more necessary than ever.

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