Media's Influence on Social Norms and Identity Development of Youth

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We are often bombarded with news stories showing the horrors of how media is shaping today's youth.  Violence, gender-stereotyping, and even increased sexual promiscuity have been cited as ills of modern media outlets.  With debates over media's influence often polarized, it becomes difficult to decipher what is the true influence of media.  

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It is often suggested that media has potentially profound effects on the social identity formation of young people. However, understanding how media outlets affect the identity of adolescents takes understanding what "identity" entails.


So what is identity? For starters, we technically are not born with identity; it is a socially constructed attribute.  The self-concept, which is the knowledge of who we are, combines with self awareness to develop a cognitive representation of the self, called identity (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010, p.118).  In other words, who we are is controlled by internal and external factors that combine to make us who we become. Add in new media outlets, such as the internet, and media is now considered an "extension of everyday life and a tool of cultural change" (Singh, 2010).  Thus, identity formation, as a social concept, is being transformed in new and even more global ways.


How does this transformation of media affect youth, today?  On average, American adolescents spend "6 ½ hours per day" engaging in some form of media, (Arnett, 2010, p. 338). This is a substantial amount of time spent interacting with these different forms of entertainment. This interaction not only becomes a way to entertain oneself, but also becomes an external force for comparative research. How so?  Part of identity formation is thinking about the type of person you want to be (Arnett, 2010, p. 340). By providing young people a resource that gives a seemingly constant flow of information, adolescents can use this information as a guide for social comparison. With a constant bombardment of information, deciding what type of person you want to be can become a challenge for some. Ideas, can either be enforced, or even corrupted, by a false sense of what the world actually is. Although this information may not be fully reliable, it still provides ideas as to how to act and form one's identity.


One of the strongest routes by which media appears to influence attitude-change is through persuasion. Eisend & Möller (2007) discuss how media can have an immediate effect on one's perceptions of social reality. By viewing beautiful models in advertising campaigns, women reported lower body satisfaction, a temporary rise in comparison standards toward physical attractiveness, and an enhanced belief regarding the importance of attractiveness (Eisend & Möller, 2007). The constant persuasion of what is "reality" plays a pivotal role in young girl's development of negative self-image. Many girls are taught, through stereotypical portrayal, that women are nothing more than sexual objects; and, that intelligence is something to be ashamed of and hidden. In a recent film, an organization called Miss Representation highlights this unfortunate ideology promulgated by today's media sources (YouTube, 2011).



Another interesting fact is that, whether consciously aware of what is being displayed or not, media plays a substantial role in influencing consumption patterns and lifestyle. Researchers noted television's power to influence even people who are illiterate. Smith-Speck and Roy (2008) explained that even individuals who cannot read or write can be highly influenced by advertising to purchase certain products, or develop certain lifestyle values. It is this media picture that portrays, and actually molds, our society's value system. In essence, media is conveying what we should buy, who we should be, or who we should become, in order to be "happy". Unfortunately, whether young or old, this seems to be working.


Again, identity is a social concept.  When we engage any media, no matter what form it may take, we are in essence receiving the ideas from those authors.  Simply, it is a different format by which we now exchange ideas.  Hence, it is no different than having the creators, writers, entertainers and advertisers with us in our living room.  As far as advertisers are concerned, they are banking on this fact.  Why?  If we talk with one another, write a letter to one another, or text or tweet a message, we are conveying our thoughts to another person.  We are socializing.  It makes no difference if this is in person or electronic.  The effects are still the same. 





Arnett, J. J. (2010).  Adolescence and emerging adulthood:  A cultural approach   

        (4th edition).Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Pearson-Prentice Hall.


Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., & Akert, R. M. (2010). Social Psychology (7th ed.)

       Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall


Eisend, M., & Jana Möller. (2007). The influence of TV viewing on consumers'

         body images and related consumption behavior. Marketing Letters,

      18(1-2), 101-116. doi:10.1007/s11002-006-9004-8

Liberman, M. (2008). Texting efficiency [photograph cartoon]. University of

       Pennsylvania. Retrieved from



Singh, C. (2010). New Media and Cultural Identity. China Media Research, 6(1),



Smith-Speck, S., & Roy, A. (2008). The interrelationships between television

       viewing, values and perceived well-being: A global perspective. 

       Journal of International Business Studies, 39(7), 1197-1219.



YouTube (2011). "Miss Representation": Official Trailer. Retrieved from


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1 Comment

Sabrina, your blog brought up some good points regarding identity. I was reading your last paragraph and I made the connection between television and modeling. It seems like an obvious one now that I think about it. I mean what is a better example of observational learning than watching others on television. Obviously, we have studied the effects of violence on television (Pennsylvania State University, 2011). But what about the other concepts that children learn from television? My son was watching Sprout (a sister channel to PBS) and saw one of the characters sharing with his sister. It wasn’t seconds later that my son handed his sister a fire truck that he was playing with.
Yes, there is a lot of negative media out there that our children can model their behavior after. However, it is our job as parents (or future parents) to monitor what are children are watching. I am not saying that we should let our televisions act as parents or babysitters. However, I find educational value in watching Sesame Street with my children. For us, watching television is an interactive experience. When a character is sad, we will talk about it. It has been a great way to teach my younger children that is it ok to talk about how they feel. Unfortunately, they don’t always see that kind of behavior modeled at school.
Pennsylvania State University. (2011). Albert Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory. Retrieved December 6, 2011, from Psychology 238: Introduction to Personality Psychology:

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