The Effect of Visual Media on the Social Behavior of Children

By Sharon Secor
Visual media is taking over public spaces, like it took over homes, and television seems to be everywhere.
Visual media is taking over public spaces, like it took over homes, and television seems to be everywhere.

Visual media has become omnipresent in many children's lives. Homes often have multiple televisions. In 35 percent of homes with children, the television is always on, whether actively watched or not, according to the PBS Parents website. Children's exposure doesn't stop there. Visual media has become a common automotive feature and is in waiting rooms and public spaces of all varieties. It can even be found in grocery stores. Pediatricians, teachers and researchers are among the many concerned about the effects of visual media on children. Studies indicate that it can have an effect on the social behavior of children in a variety of ways.

Sexually Active Sooner

According to “Sex Sells: An Analysis of Sexual Content on Prime Time TV over the Past 50 Years,” 70 percent of the 20 highest-rated teen television programs have sexual content, with just under half featuring sexual behavior. Seventy-seven percent of all programming had sexual content, averaging about six sex scenes hourly. These high rates can create a misconception regarding the frequency or normalcy of sexual behaviors, fostering a belief that everybody is doing it. That concept probably was at work in the results of studies detailed in “Watching Sex on Television Predicts Adolescent Initiation of Sexual Behavior,” published in Pediatrics. Findings indicated adolescents viewing more sexual content became sexually active almost two times sooner than peers watching less sex. Researchers also found sexual activity probability could be accurately predicted by the amount of sexual content viewed.

Higher Rate of Violence

Media violence was specifically defined as a public health threat in “The Role of Media Violence in Violent Behavior," published in the Annual Review of Public Health. The American Academy of Pediatrics points to over 1,000 studies showing “a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior." Media violence is connected to short-term and long-term violence increase, according to “The Influence of Media Violence on Youth," published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. The short-term increase is associated with kids excited by or imitating media violence. The long-term increase comes from established cognitive patterns and desensitization to violence, pain and emotion in self and others.

Increased Risk Taking

According to a 2011 report, “The Effects of Risk-Glorifying Media Exposure on Risk-Positive Cognitions, Emotions, and Behaviors: A Meta-Analytic Review,” published in the Psychological Bulletin, in-depth research has revealed a significant connection between visual media and risk-taking behavior. Risk-taking encompasses many behaviors, including reckless or drunk driving, daredevil stunts, not using a condom, smoking cigarettes and using drugs. High exposure to media that glorifies risk can translate into taking more risks in real life. This type of media exposure can be particularly dangerous for children and teenagers, as they lack the cognitive capacity to accurately assess risk. That level of cognitive development isn't typically achieved until after adolescence, during young adulthood. Researchers found active visual media, like video games, had stronger associations with increased risk-taking than did passive types, like movies or television.

More Accepting of Gender Stereotypes

Experts with the University of Michigan Health System website state that “the gender-biased and gender-stereotyped behaviors and attitudes that kids see on television” do impact their perceptions of the roles of men and women. Gender stereotypes are often deliberately used in ad campaigns targeting children, serving as a sort of cultural shorthand, according to “Sex Stereotypes in Commercials Targeted Toward Children: A Content Analysis.” Adolescents build understanding of male and female from media. It also shapes their own expectations of self, according to “Adolescent Sexuality and the Media: A Review of Current Knowledge and Implications,” published in the Western Journal of Medicine. Reviewing current knowledge reveals male and female teens with high visual media exposure “are more likely to accept stereotypes of sex roles on television as realistic.”

About the Author

Sharon Secor began writing professionally in 1999, while attending Empire State University. Secor specializes primarily in personal finance and economics, and writes on a broad range of subjects. She is published in numerous online and print publications, including Freedom's Phoenix, the ObscentiyCrimes and the American Chronicle.