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Does Popular Culture Lead to Bad Behavior in Young People?

Updated on April 10, 2016

Many parents worry about popular culture being a bad influence on their children. Some worry to the point they put Disney shows off limits until their kids reach a certain age. Or they forbid pop music. And it's probably understandable that parents worry. We do see younger children mimicking what they see or hear on TV. But overall are children negatively harmed by pop culture? Are fears about "monkey see, monkey do" overblown when it comes to the effects of media on youth behavior?

The Link Between TV Violence and Real Life Violence

Many studies have attempted to find a link between TV violence and violence in real life. Some studies have even claimed to find a link between increased TV watching and violent behavior. However, these studies have only ever shown a correlation and as the saying goes correlation doesn't always equal causation. There could be many reasons why children who watch a lot of TV are more violent including family neglect or less involved parents. Teenagers who watch a lot of TV may be poorer students with fewer prospects leading to a greater likelihood of turning to crime. Excess TV watching may simply be a symptom rather than a cause.

Most American teenagers watch violent movies like the popular Bourne series but few will ever commit a violent crime
Most American teenagers watch violent movies like the popular Bourne series but few will ever commit a violent crime

Correlation vs. Causality

According to the article Research: No Link Between Violent Media and Crime from the American University School of Public Affairs:

"While fellow researchers have claimed “thousands of studies” support the violent media-violent crime connection, Savage [Professor Joanne Savage, Department of Justice, Law and Society, American University] says that far fewer studies had been done than claimed, and most had serious methodological flaws. The researcher also points out that despite an “explosive growth in exposure to media violence” since the mid 1990s, the U.S. has seen record decreases in violent crime."

Children and teenagers are being exposed to increasing amounts of violence on TV, in movies, in video games and in rap music. Yet violent crime rates have been decreasing including violent juvenile crime. Violent crime hit a peak of 758.1 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1991. Violent crime has been decreasing ever since down to a rate of 386.3 in 2011. The massive crime drop likely has several factors including an aging population, longer prison terms, more social programs for at-risk youths, and government aid programs. However, increasing violence in the media doesn't seem to be counteracting these factors.

School violence is typically committed by the very young and even here we are seeing a drop:

"In schools, where public angst over shootings is often highest, the truth is actually more definitive: Deadly shootings are rare and getting rarer. School shootings have declined dramatically over the past few decades."
-- Stats: School shootings leave legacies, but not on the rise

According to the Forbes article As Video Game Sales Climb Year Over Year, Violent Crime Continues To Fall:

"So far, no study has conclusively linked violent video games to violent crime or youth violence, and a number have pointed to just the opposite.

Many social and behavioral researchers point out that violence in the home and poverty are better indicators of anti-social or violent behavior."

This doesn't mean that parents should be careless when it comes to violent media because it can cause fear and anxiety in some children. Even if violent content does not cause bad behavior, it may have other negative effects like making kids overly fearful.

Youth Sexual Behavior

Popular media also doesn't seem to be leading to increased irresponsible sexual behavior. Despite increasing amounts of sexual content on TV, in movies, in music and easy access to sexual content on the Internet, teen pregnancy rates have declined significantly across all racial groups. According to the Guttmacher Institute:

"In 2011, there were 31 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19; this rate marked a 50% decline from the peak rate of 62 reached in 1991."

"The rate of teen fatherhood declined 36% between 1991 and 2010, from 25 to 16 per 1,000 males aged 15–19."

Teenagers are also delaying sex.

"Teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did in the recent past. In 2006–2008, some 11% of never-married females aged 15–19 and 14% of never-married males in that age-group had had sex before age 15, compared with 19% and 21%, respectively, in 1995."

Many pop songs deal with drinking and sex

Teenage Drinking

Many famous popstars sing songs about getting drunk and partying. Some people think these singers are bad role models for kids. But many teenagers say the songs are just fun and aren't to be taken seriously. They scoff at the notion that they would blindly copy something they hear in a song. And if pop singers are seen as bad role models because they have some songs about drinking does that mean that the millions of responsible parents who have alcohol in the home and who drink at parties around their children are also bad role models? Are parents automatically bad role models if they sometimes get drunk when their kids are around?

Songs about drinking and partying are all over pop radio leading to a lot of hand wringing about negative messages and poor role models. However, teenage drinking has experienced a decline as well.

"Past-month alcohol use rates declined between 2002 and 2008 for those ages 12-13 (4.3% to 3.4%), 14 or 15 (16.6% to 13.1%), 16 or 17 (32.6% to 26.2%), and 18-20 (51.0% to 48.7%)."

While marijuana use among teenagers was climbing in recent years despite drops in drinking and smoking, it looks like usage of the drug may be starting to decline again.

The Forbidden Fruit Effect

According to the forbidden fruit effect, prohibitory laws often increase rather than decrease negative behaviors. Is it possible that the presentation of negative behaviors in the media actually makes them less desirable? Does listening to songs about drinking and sex or watching movies with violent content actually make these behaviors seem less illicit and forbidden and therefore lessen the desire young people may have to engage in them? Studies may back this up.

In the article Bad Appetite: The social, psychological, and biological drivers of appetite, Susan Carnell, Ph.D. a research psychologist at Columbia University says:

"Some psychology research suggests restricting junk food may have the paradoxical effect of making kids like it even more than they already do."

."..other studies have also shown that kids with parents who adopt a strict policy of restricting junk eat more of it when confronted with unlimited piles and given permission to cram in as much as they'd like."

I'm not aware of any studies that have looked at whether media content can actually lessen the forbidden fruit effect in young people but it would make for fascinating research. And the argument is often made that violent video games may serve as an safe outlet for aggression for otherwise angry and troubled young people.

Gerard Jones, author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence brings up the case of a friend, a college professor, who had a very troubled childhood that included being imprisoned at age 13. She used "angry punk, death metal, Goth style, violent horror movies" to get in touch with her feelings. She no longer felt alone in her anger when exposed to media content with characters expressing similar feelings of frustrations. She eventually went to college and got her life in order.

The biggest name in pop music Katy Perry is an example of the dangers of overly restrictive parenting. As a child, she was not allowed to listen to any secular music and most TV shows were off limits. She said when she left home at 17 she went wild wanting to try out everything she had been told was so wrong.

Kids raised in bubbles protected from bad influences often go wild as adults because they don't know how to handle their new-found freedom to do whatever they want. It may be that exposure to the inappropriate throughout childhood acts a little like a vaccine. When we finally get freedom as adults, we don't go too overboard because we haven't been completely protected from all the negative things in the world.

What does all this mean for parents? For me, I do put some media off limits but I am also very aware of the forbidden fruit effect and try to make sure that any limits are reasonable based on age. I don't worry about Disney shows or pop music. If I do see any imitation I don't like, I point out to my kids that just because they see it on TV it doesn't mean it's ok. And the imitation quickly stops. Ultimately, I set a good example and teach good values and trust that my kids like the vast majority of kids before them will turn out fine in the end.

© 2013 JoanCA

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