One of the things that I hear quite often when I talk about why media matters is the idea that children and adolescents understand that media does not depict reality. Adults tend to think that children and adolescents understand media in the same ways that we do. And yet, Cultivation Theory tells us that even adults may have their perception of reality changed based upon depictions that they see in media. Social comparison theory and related research has shown us that adolescents are particularly vulnerable to using celebrities and media depictions as social models.
So why does this matter? It matters because children and adolescents are in the process of constructing their identity, and media is one of the forces in their lives that they use to help them figure out who they are, who they want to be, and who they think they should be. We have to remember when we talk about children and adolescents that they process in the world in a different way than adults do. For adults, it may be easy to say, “That’s just a doll/t-shirt/silly show,” but when children and adolescents see, from a very young age, a predictable pattern in the media they consume of females being objectified, it does impact them. In fact, research suggests that even pre-school aged girls begin to internalize media messages about their bodies (Harriger, Calogero, Wihterington, & Smith, 2010; Dohnt & Tiggemann, 2006). And a growing body of evidence has shown that, for women, sexually objectifying media is linked to body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal, and disordered eating attitudes and beliefs (Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008).
In a study conducted by Grabe & Hyde (2009), researchers looked at consumption of MTV and self-objectification in adolescent girls. Based on previous research, they thought that watching more MTV would be linked to self-objectification in girls, which tends to be linked to difficulties in emotional well-being. Sure enough, they found that the more girls consumed MTV’s music videos, the more they objectified themselves and the more difficulties they had with body esteem, dieting behaviors, anxiety, and confidence in math ability.
Math confidence, you may wonder, why measure that? Well, these researchers thought that for adolescent girls, exposure to the sexualized and objectified images and narratives in music videos might lead to a stronger focus on themselves as objects of others’ viewing pleasure. Previous research has shown that when girls self-objectify, they tend to also lose confidence in male-dominated fields, such as math. And guess, what, this research confirmed that.
Not only does exposure to objectifying media lead girls to think of themselves as objects for others’ pleasure, it also leads to negative emotional consequences and even influences their vision for themselves academically. Remember, media is a tool. It can be used to promote both positive and negative messages to children and adolescents. Sexualized media can lead to negative outcomes, but media messages that challenge stereotypes and promote complex views of people can open up avenues for great conversations with kids. Recently I was watching Disney’s Mulan with my 7-year-old daughter. With no prompting, she started comparing the way that girls are depicted through Mulan and the way they’re depicted through other Disney Princess movies, such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. She said, “You know, I really like Mulan better than those others, because it shows that girls can do things to make the world better too, not just boys.” Now, I’ve talked with her about thee types of messages before and I like to promote more complex views of both boys and girls. But, this comparison was just her thinking out loud, just a little girl noticing something about what the world was telling her she could be and do through the characters in different media. Think media doesn’t matter? You better think again.
Dohnt, H. & Tiggeman, M. (2006). The contribution of peer and media influences to the development of body satisfaction and self-esteem in young girls: A prospective study. Developmental Psychology, 42, 929-936.
Grabe, S., Hyed, J.S. (2009). Body objectification, MTV, and psychological outcomes among female adolescents. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39, 2840-2858.
Grabe, S., Ward, L.M., & Hyde, J.S. (2008). The role of the media in body image concerns among women: A meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 460-476.
Harriger, J.A., Calogero, R.M., Witherington, D.C., & Smith J.E. (2010). Body size stereotyping and internalization of the thin-ideal in preschool-age girls. Sex Roles, 63, 609-620.