Impact of Mass Media on Children

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Chapter 12: Impact of Media On Children

Too much media attention focuses on the impact of sex and violence on children. The assumption seems to be that if the media stopped showing sex and violence on television and in films--and now video games are the culprit--the world would be a better place. Sometimes the argument goes further. If the media instead presented quality family and religious programming, children would grow up to be moral people.

Both of these ifs are based on the premise that the media makes us do things that we don't want to do. The scenario in the 1950s played out like this:

We have two good teenagers;

They listen to Rock 'N Roll music;

The music stimulates their animal instincts;

They have sex. They didn't want to; the music made them.

Today the scenario goes like this:

The boy is good;

The boy plays video games;

The boy becomes a crack shot;

The boy goes to school and shoots his classmates;

He didn't want to; violent video games made him.

I agree that the video games and the music have an impact on children. From the video games...and television...and films, the child learns the signifiers of violence. Similarly, the media teaches us the signifiers of sexuality. Once those signifiers become signifieds stored in our memories, that learning can't be unlearned this side of suffering a brain injury. However, no single signifier stands alone. Individuals interpret each signifier as part of a mental schema.

The final influence for a given individual to choose antisocial behavior may be the video game or the music. Or it might be the chocolate doughnut. With billions of people in the world, somebody somewhere is likely to be motivated to action by just about anything.

To blame the media for individual behavior is missing the point and simplifies the issues. Just getting the "bad" messages out of the media is not going to create a "good" society.

The media is an influence

The media does have an influence on children; the same impact it has on all of us: 1. The media teaches us the signifiers of the culture and what they mean.

2. The media sets an agenda which directs our attention to the issues that the media managers think are important.

3. The media teaches us ideology by offering us solutions to binary oppositions.

Let us look at each of these points separately and see what the impact could be on children.

Here are two typical sets of signifiers found in our culture.

The images of Jennifer Anniston from Seventeen (August 2000) teach the signifiers of sexuality, feministic and gender. Whether those signifiers have a positive or negative impact on a given individual depends on individual past experience. One person may read her images as cultural definitions of "cute." A victim of sexual abuse may interpret the signifiers as an invitation to arouse notice. A person who knows the signifiers of pornography may read the images as indicating availability.

The CD cover to the right teaches the signifiers of gender and masculinity. The images create an association of masculinity with violence and weapons.

Both images put signifiers into the culture, set an agenda and offer solutions to binary oppositions to the children to whom they are targeted.

Teaches signifiers. From watching violent films, television, and playing violent video games, we all learn how to be violent. Similarly, we learn the signifiers of sexuality and what those signifiers mean. How we interpret those signifiers is going to depend on our own past experiences. Children who are sexually abused are going to read sexual signifiers differently than children whose parents demonstrate a loving, caring relationship and explain sexual behaviors to their children. Similarly, children who were physically abused or who live in violent neighborhoods also will bring their past experiences to any media experience. In short, the...
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