Youth and media: Help youth see through negative messages

Adults have a role in helping kids make sense of negative images and behaviors that are present in many media sources.

For many young people, moving into the summer months may mean an increase in their daily media diet; the quantity of time that some kids spend with various forms of media may be surprising to many adults. According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, youth ages eight to 18 spend more than 7.5 hours a day – seven days a week – with various forms of recreational media use via television, music, computers, video games, print and movies. When considering that young people often use more than one of these at a time, the study found that youth are packing in 10 hours and 45 minutes of media use each day. And these figures don’t include time spent on the phone talking, sending text messages or sharing images!

More than we know, messages from these media can influence how we construct a “reality” about the world around us. These messages can affect how we feel about ourselves, how we interact with others, and our beliefs and values about what we consider to be “true,” “right,” “beautiful” or “normal.” Throughout most of human history, people learned these kinds of beliefs and values from within their local communities – family members, educational systems, faith-based groups and other cultural groups. The growth of media has changed this significantly over the past several generations.

While we continue to learn much from those in our inner and community circles who have something to tell us, some scholars suggest that we are more than ever learning our beliefs and values – and ultimately behaviors – from media conglomerates that have something to sell us. Lots of research over the past several years has shown that the images, behaviors and messages that are broadcast through various forms of media can lead to negative outcomes.

Research such as that highlighted in the American Psychological Association report on the sexualization of girls stresses how negative and narrow media representations of girls and women can affect multiple aspects of physical, cognitive and emotional health, resulting in outcomes such as eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.

Large numbers of studies have also established that exposure to media violence and the glorification of violence and abusive behaviors is related to increased fear, desensitization and aggressiveness among too many young media consumers. Despite these kinds of findings, popular entertainment and advertising media remains saturated with depictions of aggression and violence, narrow and unrealistic images of femininity and masculinity, and cultural stereotypes that diminish and devalue the richness of human diversity.

Many scholars stress that while we can’t turn off this media world, adults have a responsibility to help young people – and themselves – learn to read it well. This involves helping kids develop a critical consciousness that, even at young ages, helps them challenge hurtful, stereotypic and unhealthy media messages.

For more information on ways to help young people become critical consumer of media, visit the articles “Youth and media: Equip them to challenge unhealthy messages” and “Youth and media: Create ongoing dialog about its use.”

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