It’s normal to be worried about the influence of media on your child.
Media influence on teenagers can be deliberate – for example, advertising is often directed at children and teenagers. This means that children and teenagers are increasingly conscious of brands and images. You’re not alone if your child has pestered you to buy the next ‘in’ thing!
Media influence can also be more indirect. An example of this might be the increasing sexualisation of content in advertising, magazines, television shows and music videos. These media products often show ‘sexy’ women with unrealistic body types. Other kinds of media feature violent imagery and coarse language – for example, video games and song lyrics.
These indirect media influences can suggest to teenagers that these are ‘normal’ ways to look and behave.
But being exposed to media influence, images and messages doesn’t automatically mean your child is at risk. Teenagers don’t just take on board everything the media – or anybody else – tells them. They can be savvy consumers of media messages.
Media influence and risky teenage behavior
There are some links between media content and negative teenage behavior.
Media influence on body image
Your child’s body image is influenced by many factors. These include family environment, ability or disability, peer attitudes, the fashion industry, cultural background – and mainstream media, social media and advertising.
If teenagers see unrealistic ‘thin’ or ‘muscly’ body types often enough, it can have an impact on their body image and dieting behavior. This is especially true when there’s no-one to disagree with messages like ‘thin is beautiful’.
Body image ideals in the media have increased teenagers’ desire for plastic surgery. For example, some teenage girls now want breast implants and laser hair removal, and some boys want soft tissue fillers (muscle enhancers).
Media influence and violence
Seeing violent media content often enough can make it more likely that someone will behave in an aggressive or violent way, be less understanding of other people’s needs and feelings, or feel more afraid of their environment.
This kind of content doesn’t always – or even often – show what would happen if people behaved violently in real life. It can mean that teenagers don’t get a realistic understanding of what happens when you’re violent in real life.
Media influence and other unhealthy behavior
Media can also influence other unhealthy or risky behavior, including smoking, drinking alcohol and taking other drugs. But it’s worth remembering that media is just one of several influences on this kind of behavior. Other more powerful influences include family and friends.
Media influence and positive teenage behavior
Here’s the good news: the media can be a positive influence for teenagers.
For example, teenagers who are exposed to and take an interest in the news are more likely to be interested in major social and political issues. This can help educate them and encourage them to become more involved as citizens in their communities.
Teenagers can also pick up important health promotion messages from the media – for example, messages aimed at preventing youth depression and suicide, encouraging healthy eating and lifestyle habits, and promoting positive, respectful relationships.
How media celebrities influence teenagers
Celebrities often get into the media for bad behavior. But celebrity role models aren’t always bad influences.
Media influence can be powerful if a celebrity role model says a particular lifestyle, product or behavior is good. There are lots of examples of celebrities whose lifestyles, values and behavior provide positive examples. The hard work and success of these role models can be inspirational.
Children and teenagers do need to be aware that some celebrities are paid to advertise the products they endorse.
Helping your child handle media influence
Exposure to media messages is a part of modern life, but you can help your child work out what’s worth paying attention to.
Checking and monitoring media
You can start by checking out the music, TV shows, movies, video games, YouTube videos and celebrities your child likes. When you know what he’s interested in – for example, which video games, fan fiction or social media – you might be able to spot the images and messages your child is most likely to be influenced by.
You won’t always know what your child is watching or listening to because teenagers watch content like YouTube videos on mobile phones. But you can monitor what your child watches by keeping an eye on what she’s watching on TV or at the cinema and negotiating some rules and limits.
Talking about media messages
The best way to help your child navigate media influence is to talk about the messages. For example, if your child loves Pretty Little Liars, you could talk together about female friendships, sexuality and bullying.
Or if your child is into a computer game like Grand Theft Auto, you could talk about the violence, exploitation of women and the criminal activity. You could also talk about how your child would handle these situations in real life.
When you’re talking about media with your child, you can encourage your child to interpret media by suggesting some questions he could ask about it. Pick out a magazine or TV ad and ask your child: who’s behind it? What’s their motivation? What do they want from you? Whose voice is missing? How does the ad make you feel? Do they want you to feel that way? Why?
You can do the same for celebrity role models. Encourage your child to ask herself: why do I like these people? Are they being presented in a realistic way? Are they like this in real life? What values does this person portray? How do they make me feel about myself?
What about banning media?
Monitoring your child’s media choices doesn’t mean banning him from watching or playing. It just means getting him to be more aware of the messages he’s taking in. It’s best to talk about these messages regularly, not just once. And it’s a good idea to limit how much your child plays or watches.
It might also help to know that if your child is exposed to a range of content, it’s less likely that a particular program, game or app will have too much influence over her. It can help to encourage your child to use a range of media and technologies rather than focusing on just one.
On the other hand, you might choose to ban certain games, apps or shows. If you do this, you’ll need to explain why to your child. If appropriate, you might need to negotiate the issue with him.
Helping teenagers balance media influence
A wide range of activities is important for children’s development. These include physical and creative activities and anything that involves relationships and interactions with real people.
You can also introduce your child to real-life, positive role models. Ways to do this could be joining local community groups, sporting clubs or mentoring programs.