Research Paper about Teens and the Media

Teens and the Media

One prominent theory, Erik Erikson’s Theory of Human Psychological Development breaks the entire human life cycle into stages. Each unique stage represents a generalized approach between the individual and the world, running from infancy to geriatric behavior. Even spanning time and culture, within each of these stages, a developmental period exhibits universal patterns (Weiten, 1995)the life-span developmental framework has, in fact, been utilized by social scientists for decades. The power of the combination of Erikson and Life-Span Development is that they uniquely focus on biological, cultural, socio-historical, and non-normative influences to provide us with a framework with which to understand and explain the particular stage a specific issue might have — in my case, teenage years and the resultant angst, rebellion, and search for self (Rankin, 2000). From a sociological perspective, the 5th Psychosocial Stage — Identity vs. Confusion is one of the more fascinating since it is both so problematical for the child and family, and so very crucial in the developmental cycle of maturation. For Erikson (Aquilino, 1997), this stage manifests itself in four major issues:

A Psychosocial Crisis — Identity and Role Confusion

The search for “Who Am I?”

Ego and Fidelity

How do I relate to society?

Within the timeframe of this developmental stage, teens face a huge number of confusing messages — about violence, sexuality, relationships, self-image, and more. For instance, for decades, researchers have been trying to answer the question on whether TV has harmful effects on young viewers. On the one hand, media and the Internet present huge opportunities for youth: learning about the world, humanity, and touching global issues like never before — both the positive and negative. Media has been under attack on the grounds that it is heavily loaded with violence and sadism and that it encourages and stimulates aggressive behavior in the child and adolescent audience. This problem exists because children tend to imitate what they see and finally, and they have limited knowledge to evaluate, distinguish or understand what is good and what is evil (Potera, 2009).

Culture in the modern age is characterized by more complexity than ever before; particularly after the mass use of the Internet. Each particular ethnicity and culture must adapt into the culture as a hole, yet the way the Internet has changed the way humans act with each other has no precedent in history — not even the telephone changed culture this dramatically (Storey, 2009). Less than two decades ago, primarily academics and scientists used the Internet. Today, it is a major contributor to increased global communication, data access, research, personal communication, social networking, and recreation. As Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft commented, “The main advantage of any new technology is that it amplifies human potential,” clearly the Internet falls into that category (Gates, 2000). However, this mass use of technology — computers, the Internet, Smart phones, hyper gaming, and online communities has changed the way that individuals interact and learn. Since teen years are so vulnerable and complex anyway, the addition of greater technological stressors compounds the socio-cultural template even more. Teenagers use all these technologies to learn, explore, play and interact — and now they can do so globally within the confines of their room. Research results show that youth gravitate towards social media sites because they can “be themselves,” in fact “be anything they wish to be,” largely without parental supervision (Ahn, 2011). The central question, from a sociological perspective, centers around the effect that the combination of media (Internet, television, social networks, etc.) have on a population that is already somewhat vulnerable? In our case, we would hypothesize that the more a teenager views television or movies, or plays video games, or spends time in social networks, the more disconnected and vulnerable they feel.

Literature Review

Until the teen years, development is dependent upon life experiences, nurturing vs. conflict, etc. Going forward, development primarily focuses on what the individual actual does for themselves and how they react with society. During this stage, an adolescent must continually struggle to discover and attempt to find some sort of identity. This occurs while still negotiating and struggling with what society expects the teen to be; with social interactions, with fitting in culturally, and with the tremendous changes in physical and intellectual processes. Many times, too, teens try to run from their entrance into adulthood, withdraw from responsibilities, and shut off the messages that attempt to mold them into responsible human beings. Those teens who are not successful with this stage experience even more angst, confusion, and feels of persecution and panic than control groups. Still, most begin to develop a strong affiliation and devotion to ideals, causes, and friends (Erikson,1968; Marcia, 1966).

The angst the most teens manifest is a result of their concern about who they are inside and how they appear to society (peers, social groups, etc.). Their identity is in question since they have not really established their major personality, interests, or views on crucial cultural issues (Barkley and Robin, 2008). Hormones are raging and there is both a sense of awe in the changes puberty brings, but also a fear of sexual and emotional confusion. Add to this the modern trends of media bombardment, the half-life of technology, and increase pressures in school (violence, substance abuse, pressure to get into a good college, peer pressure, sexual and gender identity, and disease) and it becomes a whirling mass of uncertainty and volatility (Nichols and Good, 2004).

Because of the individual’s unique ability to learn and develop, combined with the literally infinite number of characteristics that this stage takes on, it is difficult, if not impossible to define or predict teen behavior. Since the gradual process of puberty varies among individuals, it is not practical to set exact age or chronological limits in defining the adolescent period, other than to say in modern times and in the developed world, it occurs earlier and earlier. Teenagers are constantly fluctuation in mood — highs to lows and everything in between, occurring rapidly and not having a tangible or easily identified causality (Edgette, 2002; Barkley and Robin).

One behavior, however, that seems generalized over most adolescents is their desire to “test the limits.” This is the parental balance that comes with temperament and experience — how to set limits and guidelines while, at the same time, allowing the teen to make their own mistakes and constructively learn from those errors in judgement. There seems no adequate way to prepare for the role of parenting a teen — the emotional storms require patience, listening, and unconditional acceptance of the need to grow and explore- and to become their own person. One example is the idea of weblogs — and the manner in which they can be used to document behavior online (Anderson-Butcher, D.,, 2010). This idea of “testing” limits is actually quite important from a sociological and cultural perspective. The emotional instability and erratic behavior that characterizes this age period, possibly the result of conflicting hormonal messages, also allows the adolescent the time and experience to find the boundaries of acculturation within their particular group. This might be based on views towards religion, spirituality, class structure, ethnicity, and sexuality. The teen cannot, nor is expected to, make up their mind about lifelong views on these subjects, but may experiment and use the testing period to find a comfortable balance from what they have been told vs. what they can experience for themselves (Sternheimer, 2010).

From a sociological perspective, the episodic growth and development within adolescence is best dealt with by being consistent in messages. Empathy and understanding of the physical and mental changes, coupled with clear messages about the various “agents of socialization,” and how those agents can often seem contradictory and dichotomous will help the teen understand and cope with the myriad of mixed messages they receive. This must be coupled with decreasing supervision and guidance from adults in order to guide towards adult responsibilities. One might think that in an advanced technological society, moving from childhood to adulthood would be far easier. Consistently, children must “grow up” earlier based on the images to which they are exposed. The technological improvements, in fact, seem to shrink childhood and adolescence; all the while acknowledging that physically there are clear developments; but mentally and emotionally pushing those boundaries. Defining self, in fact, has never been more difficult, and requires even more patience, information, and time (Brym and Lie, 2007: Kaplan, 2007).

One of the larger trends brought about by the use of the Internet is the virtual community — a social network of individuals who interact with each other without the constraints of geography, time zones, political or economic situations, weather, or demography — all that matters is that they are able to come together to form a culture in which they share mutual interests or values. Typically this type of culture occurs through social networking and online communities, both of which have provided the “tipping point” and changed the world. The extreme power of this new cultural tool is the very nature — it depends on nothing but an electronic connection. it, like many things in the modern world, is instantaneous, satisfying the 21st century need to have both dependence and independence based on our own decision or whim. Therein lies the confusion for many — just how real is an electronic friendship that can exist without really “knowing” the person physically? How robust are virtual relationships except in the mind of those participating? and, how do we know with whom we are actually chatting or forming a bond — could the mother of three living in Scotland be something quite different on the Internet? and, specifically, what impact might these social networks from a psychological perspective? (Gross, 2004).

Besides community, technology has changed entertainment for teens. Violence in the entertainment genre is not something that is new to the 20th century. If we think back on history, examples are rife regarding different societies and their use of violence, all which were available for children. However, over the past century or so, the entire culture of media has changed so dramatically that heavier exposure to violence is available to teens and children on a regular and daily basis (Bushman and Anderson, 2001). There is almost an urban myth, though, that blames the corruption of youth in each succeeding generation with violence in mass media — from the dime novels of the early 20th century to the 1930s Jimmy Cagney Gangster Films, to the 1950s horror/crime genre, and even into the repost war and ultra-realism movies since (Springhall, 1999).

Theoretical Assumptions

Thus, based on the literature, it appears that teens today face cognitive dissonance and a certain level of desensitization in both a psychological and sociological paradigm due to the impact of media violence and emotional separation from intensive social media focus. From a psychological perspective, particularly when dealing with younger people, there are two major theories that impact the manner in which Cyberspace and Social Networking impact adolescent society: functionalism and social/symbolic interaction. The term functionalism in psychology refers to a mode of thinking that considers mental life and behavior more in terms of the manner in which it adapts to the individual’s environment. It is the basis, in many ways, for developing psychological theories that are not as easily testable within the controlled experiment model. It is the social structure of the organization, or the way society is organized that is more important than the individual. For this theory, individuals are born into society, then become products of the social influences that surround them as soon as they are properly socialized by family, education, media and religion (culture) (Miller, F.,, 2009). Social networks, then, play the role of an extended society within this view. The role of the network is to create an alternative for society, and the individual to participate and allow that institute to grow as a system. Thus, as social networks grow and adapt, individuals evolve and adapt with them.

Symbolic interaction refers to the manner in which communication, interpretation and adjustment of messages occur between individuals, groups, and then society. This interaction refers to both verbal and nonverbal signals that are delivered and the expectations of how those listening and/or participating, will react. In a sense, it is like a continually evolving game of charades — conversation is communication moving from message to message, from sender to receiver, and even to those who are passively participating. For instance, reality is a social interaction and development of that interaction between others. Physical reality does exist for the individual, and that forms reality for them. Individuals do not then respond to reality, but to their own social understanding of reality — a physical reality, and social reality, and then a uniquely individualized reality. All realities are created through social interaction, and thus morph into one another in an ongoing manner (Herman-Kinney and Reynolds, 2003).

Using symbolic interaction theory on social networks is an interesting premise because of the nature of reality. For the individual, the reality of their world is structured and set — but when they log into a social network, that reality may change. They can essentially be whomever they want, and the conversations, banter, and interaction may change depending on their mood and spirit (e.g. one day a 45-year-old surgeon, the next a 25-year-old new mother, etc.). People can have multiple conversations as multiple people in real time as well; a graduate student from India to one friend and an airline attendant for British Airways for another. In addition, while social networking provides connection and interaction, it is far easier to walk away from a computer conversation or social meeting than it is a real person. The danger, for social interactionism and social networks, is that the physical reality will fade away and individuals will become more a part of their artificial realities, particularly for teens who are psychologically vulnerable anyway (Singer, 2002).

Traditionally, sociologists have defined community with a geographic bent — more out of necessity than other factors. Individuals grew up in areas, sometimes isolated, but had the focus of their formative years based on the traditions, morals, and cultural values of the area they lived. Virtual communities, however, are not at all geographically dependent, nor are they such that they encompass the entire chronology of one’s life from birth to death. if, however, one broadens the definition of community to one in which boundaries exist by members of that community and belonging is based on other criteria, then virtual communities are indeed a real and viable manner of linking like-minded individuals for an exchange of information and mutual satisfaction (Anderson, 1999). The robustness and veracity of these groups is not the point. Instead, virtual communities that are used for a number of social and professional purposes form between individuals with sufficient commonalities of feeling and interest to enhance and hold the communication during the chat or email conversation, but may remain relative strangers at most other times. Communication through virtual communities in email and text tend to change the meaning of words, particularly with young people, to the point that the way of looking at the world (internal and external) is changed. Psychologists worry that after many years of exposure to social networks, if newer generations will become quite different humans. This could empower, or it could regress the individual’s experience (Rheingold, 2000).

In terms of media, most sociologists and psychologists agree that television and the resultant video gaming industry is a school of violence. Youth psychiatrists argue that crime programs have very damaging effects on youth. Their mind is colored by so much violence like killing, shooting, cheating, raping, etc., that they grow up without understanding and misunderstanding what is wrong and what is right. Clearly, what is shown on television and gaming and what is reality are different — when a young person sees someone being killed in a movie, there are typically no aftereffects, but when seen from the news; a fire, scenes of war, plane crash, etc., the images transcend and become part of reality (Potera). Modes of cause and effect between media consumption and behavior however, are more difficult to prove. Television and video images, especially are encoded in the cognitive maps of viewers, and continued and regularly viewing helps to maintain aggressive ideas, thoughts and behaviors (Wartella and Jennings, 2002).

Young people, who naturally have a limited knowledge about a complex society are curious, and may misinterpret the images seen on the media. They also tend to imitate behaviors they see on the media, acting out scenes, etc., whether as play in children or as patterns of behavior as adolescents. Others move into a mode in which certain images remain in their memory, but are extrapolated into normal household events (e.g. The booting of a computer or the LED lights on appliances signal a robot, alien, or transformer in the room). Because of this vast exposure — more time watching media than any other activity, the types of at risk behaviors and frightful images to which youth are exposed have increased (Gross; Funk, 2003). It is not just the television and movies, though that exposes children to violence. The most recent type of media violence that is not as monitored as television or motion pictures is the violent video game genre. Indeed, there is sufficient research to conclude that violent video game exposure can cause increases in aggressive behavior and that repeated exposure to violent video games has been linked to “acting out” behaviors that are increasingly violent (Anderson & Dill, 2000).

Everyone is an individual; therefore they have quite different reactions to media violence, depending on temperament, age, maturity level, and feelings of safety and security within the family or social structure. Some signs of internalizing the trauma are similar to that when a young person has been physically or psychologically abused: sleeping issues, regressive behavior, changes in typical behavior, lack of social skills, imitation of the trauma through artwork or play, becoming withdrawn, or even physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches. The key to monitoring is careful observation of any behaviors. If the youth is typically gregarious and suddenly becomes shy or withdrawn, there is an issue with which to deal. Similarly, if one observes a dramatic shift in behavior within a group setting, something has happened. Careful monitoring is important so that the issues of trauma and discomfort may be dealt with in a timelier manner, thus ensuring adequate support and therapy (Potera).

The Research Approach

It would be impossible to adequately tackle this entire topic in a single research study. To robustly cover the topic, one would need to look at a number of variables in a longitudinal manner (race, ethnicity, demographics, psychographics, economics, politics, geography, culture, tradition, etc.). However, in general in order to cover issues that are as diverse as media and teens one would first need to delineate the question down to a specific issue rather than a combination. We can infer, of course, that the more media the more effects we might notice, but can also look for a specific correlation in a specific population, and then suggest more research or data. In deciding about our approach, we define quantitative research as research in which we use numeric data to analyze and identify/interpret relationships. Qualitative research is research done based on interpretation of data that may be subjective. A mixed method approach is one that allows for both qualitative and quantitative to be used based on the data sets required. In our case, we might focus on social networks, for instance. We could begin with a focus group of teens and get a generalized view of their behavior, types of networks, quantity, time spent, purpose, feelings, etc. Then we use that data, based on 10-12 participants to construct a quantitative survey of the material and distribute to a population, then tabulate the data for analysis. We will not be able to view a large population, or do longitudinal research; based primarily on time and budgetary constraints. Instead, the approach will give us a brief glimpse into verifying the literature and findings of other academic sources (Babbie, 2008).


The problem of media violence is globally endemic. Movies and Video Games now must have ratings so that parents can make better decisions about youth’s exposure to the media in question. Aggression models abound on ways that youth internalize, and then covertly sublimate violent tendencies based on media exposure — and certainly all to not explode into hysteria or deviant behavior (Bushman & Anderson). At the same time, scholars have been able to show that reducing exposure to violent media and changing attitudes and understandings of media violence significantly reduces the possibility of future aggression (Robinson, 2001).

In terms of social networks, anyone can create whatever it is they desire and put it on the Internet — from a sonnet to a political pamphlet, textbook to pseudo-art, and anyone can quote, cite or paraphrase anything else. Document links abound, there is no order, but a chaotic world of sources, opinions, facts, interpretations, and interrelated data. The key is synthesis and interpretation of this data, and, in a very similar manner, the same holds true with social netorks and virtual communities. There are a number of other cultural permutations that social networks have for the 21st century. In the modern digital age, there is online rhetoric that seeks to persuade, some that wishes to inform, and a great deal that simply wants to entertain (Gross, p. 647).

Digital rhetoric, in fact, has become the new model of communication — the verbal and visual culture of information, in opposition to simply knowledge. Facebook, for instance, is primarily geared for reception. It is a way for people to connect, reconnect, and interconnect using a single platform that can be personalized — a hub for ingoing and outgoing networking. The source for Facebook rhetoric is, of course, anyone the individual has invited, or other friends and acquaintances that are accepted, from all over the world. It is a bit like the game involving Kevin Bacon — 7 Degrees of Separation; if my friend X has a friend Y, friend Y might invite me to be on his or her Facebook, then my universe of friends has dramatically increased. The message for Facebook is usually less serious and lighter than email correspondence — short blurbs about comments made by others, songs, or photos that have been uploaded. The message is more of a way to keep in distant contact — more on that in a bit. Time on Facebook is open-ended; some are addicted to posting several times per day, other check in weekly, and still others have no real reason to manage their account on a regular basis. The timeframe of the comments, however, are fluid, too. Finally, space for Facebook is also fluid, like time. It is universal, and that is the real power and appeal it seems for most people; one can have global Facebook friends, multiple accounts, and different types and levels of friends. In fact, one of the criticisms of Facebook is that it changes friendship dynamics so that one can have many “friends” but really nothing substantial is discussed, and what some know about each other amounts to a brief biography like: age, gender, favorite songs, sexual orientation, dating status, and likes and dislikes (Urbanski, 2010). For certain, we are in a culture in which young people have very different challenges. We do not know how technology will affect the next few generations — whether violence will become unreal and movie-like, or whether relationships will seem virtual. We also do not know the level of cognitive dissonance, desensitization, and relationship issues these issues will engender. We do know that additional longitudinal research will be necessary to uncover medium and long-term effects of these technological changes. “Clearly there is much to learn, especially as these media become more frequently used and central within adolescents’ daily lives today” (Anderson-Butcher,, p. 75).


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