Originally created 08/22/06

Media madness



Violent video games with cool graphics.

Sex-laced music with crunk beats.

WWE with sweaty men and scantily clad women.

It's just entertainment, right?

But maybe it isn't.

For decades, science has been making connections between what people see and do, but drawing the line between what is a diversion for teens and what is detrimental is hard.

Media have been scrutinized and blamed for everything from short attention spans to violence.

In the August edition of Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, two sets of research into the media's influence on teens were published.

One study, conducted by the nonprofit RAND group, found that adolescents who listen to music with degrading sexual lyrics have sex sooner. Another study, put together by a team at Wake Forest University's Baptist Medical Center, reported a relationship between teens who watch professional wrestling on television and dating violence.

That doesn't mean that listening to sexy music will make a teen have sex earlier or that watching Smackdown will make you abuse your partner, but the studies raise the debate over just what the media and its message mean for teens.

Junk in/junk out?

"In general, my impression of teens is that they think this doesn't have an effect on you," said Robert H. DuRant, a professor of pediatrics and professor of social science and health policy at Wake Forest, who led the study on teens and wrestling. "They may not think that it does, but it does."

Dr. DuRant said there is no doubting the media's influence on teens.

"There is a wealth of very, very good, sound research to support the fact that it does," he said in a telephone interview. "Really, it's not rocket science to assume if they are getting a steady diet of these messages what can happen."

Johnny Whitaker, 17, a senior at Augusta Christian Schools, is in agreement that media can influence every aspect of a teen's life. He says music, TV, movies and even literature affect youth culture.

His classmate, Katie Piggott, 17, has similar views.

"It (the media) desensitizes us to sex, etc. What the movie stars wear, we tend to copy. Most of our lingo comes from the movies, too," she said.

It wouldn't be that much of a stretch to think a star's message about sex or violence might be picked up, too, she said.

With so much celebrity worship and comments about sex in songs, Tonya Faircloth, 14, a freshman at Hephzibah High School said she's not at all surprised at what the RAND study found.

"The songs make them want to experience it," she said.

Or at least experiment with it, said Chris Biggar, 17, a senior at Augusta Christian.

"Whatever you nourish your spirit with is what your spirit is going to mature on," he said.

If that is music that talks about sex or television that promotes violence or disrespect, then there's bound to be some sex and violence that seeps through, just like what happens when you eat unhealthful food, he said.

That might be a good analogy, but plenty of teens aren't buying it.

Hype?

Teens such as JeRon Phillipps, 16, contend that saying teens have no self-control or maturity to distinguish the media's message from their own moral compasses is just short of insulting.

"I think everybody has a mind of their own," the Lucy C. Laney High School sophomore said. "They're going to do what they want to do no matter what anybody tells them to do or not do."

If a teen wants to have sex or is inclined to be violent, he or she will act that out, he said. No amount of music or TV can change that.

Caitlin McCormack, 16, a junior at Aquinas High School, agreed that it comes down to the person, not the exposure.

"I listen to so called 'sex-laced' music, but I definitely plan on waiting for sex," she said, adding that though some music, such as rap, is great for getting her pumped up, it does little else to her. "Personally, my morals are still strong enough for some lyrics not to change them."

Carol Skenes, 17, a senior at Lakeside High School, shared the view that the media might be powerful, but it isn't unbeatable.

"Of course the media is an influence on kids. But it depends on the kid, too," she said. "If you go to the media searching for answers, it will be a big influence. If you're already secure with yourself, it won't be."

Dr. DuRant said many factors go into socialization and how teens interact sexually or physically with each other, but that doesn't take the weight off years of research showing that the media plays an integral role in what teens find socially acceptable or normal.

"The media is one of many sources," he said. "(Adolescents) are learning it at home, in the playground, in the street, in the hallways, but they are also seeing it on TV, the Internet and video games. We have more research to support these (media influence) hypotheses than to support some cancer treatments. There is stronger research for this than some clinical trials for chemotherapies."

It's still a hard sell.

Something to consider

Neither the RAND study on sex-laced music lyrics nor the Wake Forest study on dating violence and its supposed link with watching televised wrestling call for censorship. They each ask parents and, in effect, students, to monitor their media intake.

"Part of being an adult is learning where to say no to things that may not be good for you," Dr. DuRant said. "During your adolescent years, how do you want to program your brain?"

Just as teens have to make choices about their friends, sex, alcohol, drugs and cigarettes, they also have to start treating their media intake the same way, Dr. DuRant concluded.

"Teenagers need to know that this is one of the choices that they have to make. They need to make the same sort of decisions that they make with sex and drugs with their media diet," he said. "Is it going to be a good choice?"

Teen Board members Maple Dyan, Ashley Evans, Jabal Moss and Timothy Van Vliet contributed to this report.

Reach Kamille Bostick at (706) 823-3223 or kamille.bostick@augustachronicle.com.