Media and the Consumer Culture (page 3)
Development is affected by the dynamic interaction between the individual and various other forces that extend beyond the friendship circle, the family, and the school. Peer networks, families, and schools operate, as Bronfenbrenner (1979) pointed out, within an even larger context called the exosystem, or the level of the culture. The culture’s values, laws, politics, customs, and so on directly and indirectly contribute elements and experiences that the adolescent uses to construct a map of the world. Clearly, this influence process is reciprocal and multidirectional. For example, changes in the workplace because of economic forces may put excess demands on parents already suffering from a time deficit. Because they cannot be available to supervise, these parents may then adopt practices that encourage relatively high levels of independent behavior from their adolescents. The economic market may move in to provide goods and services, such as structured tutoring or television programming attractive to teens, to fill their time. Teen preferences and interests then influence the advertising and marketing of goods. Recent large scale studies of children up to age 6 as well as older children and adolescents from 8 to 18 indicate increasing use of electronic media. For example, one third of all 6-years-olds in America have a television in their bedrooms, and children ages 6 and under spend approximately two hours a day watching either videos, television, or a computer screen (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003). Among 8- to 18-year-olds, total electronic media use a day has reached 6 hours and 21 minutes (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005).
It is important for mental health professionals to concern themselves with the effects of cultural forces on adolescent development if they are to take a position that promotes healthy growth and functioning. Jessor (1993) noted that the distal effects of the larger cultural context are rarely taken into consideration when studying development, although “understanding contextual change is as important as understanding individual change” (p. 120). Perhaps the major question to be addressed is: How adolescent-friendly is the society we live in? If family, peers, and teachers are fellow players in the unfolding drama of adolescent identity formation, the culture with its values and broader institutions provides the stage upon which that drama is acted out.
Many writers from diverse fields of study have noted a general loss of community and a focus on individualism and material success evident in American culture at this point in its history (Barber, 1992; Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985; Hewlett & West, 1998; Lasch, 1991). In their discussion of a culture they call “poisonous,” Hewlett and West describe punitive economic forces that undermine family stability and negative media forces that shape attitudes and beliefs. Few adults would deny that the exposure to the realities of the adult world that teens have today has been ratcheted up several levels compared to even recent generations. For example, media exposure to violent, sexualized, and commercial messages occurs at a more intense level and starts at earlier ages.
But how does this kind of media exposure affect children and adolescents and how much of a threat is it? The link between viewing televised violence and behaving aggressively for certain individuals has been well researched and is generally accepted (see Comstock & Scharrer, 1999). Modeling processes are presumed to account for much of this relationship. Recent interest in the role of media (TV, movies, music, and Internet exposure) as a socializer of values expands upon social learning principles to include constructivist conceptions of how individuals make sense of their environments. In other words, people use what they perceive as raw material from which to construct ideas, beliefs, and guiding principles.
One area of particular concern for adolescents is the learning of sexual messages and attitudes. Studies using correlational methods have found relationships between frequent viewing of televised portrayals of sexuality with more distorted cognitions, more liberal attitudes about sex, and more tolerance for sexual harassment (Strouse, Goodwin, & Roscoe, 1994). Frequent consumption of sexualized media has also been linked to increased sexual behavior—that is, more sexual partners and earlier sexual initiation than for individuals without such media exposure (Brown et al., 2002). This may have something to do with the perception that “everybody’s doing it.” Researchers have found that people’s expectations or constructions about what is normative influence what they choose to do. Adolescents who believe that teens in general have frequent sexual experiences engage in riskier and more frequent sexual activity themselves (Whitaker & Miller, 2000).
A recent study by Ward (2002) employed both correlational and experimental methods to study whether television’s messages influenced attitudes about sexuality in a multiethnic sample of older adolescents. This study confirmed that the three beliefs investigated in this study—that men are driven by sex, that women are sex objects, and that dating is a recreational sport—were very strongly related to heavy TV viewing and to personal involvement with TV. High personal involvement was measured by individuals’ goals for TV (entertainment and a way to learn about the world), discussions about TV shows with others, and identification with TV characters, among other things. Outcomes of the experimental part of the study revealed that females more strongly endorsed the stereotypical beliefs after viewing sexual TV clips than did women who saw nonsexual episodes.
Interestingly, this pattern was not the same for males. Males’ agreement with the three stereotypes was already much higher than women’s, so it may not have been realistic to expect this experimental manipulation to generate higher rates of agreement. Another possibility is that males’ attitudes might be differentially influenced by exposure to other types of media, such as music videos.
Certainly not all media use is associated with negative outcomes. Yet it is important to consider the impact of repeated exposure to the violent, sexual, and materialistic images in much of the media adolescents consume. Media messages can provide elements for the construction of identity via the processes we have described in this chapter. Moreover, media images serve as standards for social comparison, molding expectations for normative behavior and amplifying values that may be at odds with those of families and communities. As the report from the Carnegie Council of Adolescent Development (1996) points out, adolescents are careening down the information superhighway, and electronic conduits (TV, videos, cable, computers, movies, and popular music) “have become strong competitors to the traditional societal institutions in shaping young people’s attitudes and values” (p. 41).
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