Impact Of Mass Media On Adolescent Health: ''the Dark Side''

Dr. Purushothaman
November 29, 2013

The period of transition from childhood to adulthood is called Adolescent with accelerated physical, biochemical and emotional development. It is a unique period of dynamic change which may be referred to as "Growing up". Adolescence is the time period that begins with the onset of puberty and lasts nearly a decade i.e., from the age of 12-13 to around 20 years of age. It is a period of rapid growth and maturation in human development. It is this period that the final growth spurt occurs. If the growth of a teenager is not as good as it should be, it is going to affect his/her future health as an adult.

Now HEALTH according to WHO "is a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely an absence of disease or infirmity." Nevertheless, adolescents and young adults engage in a range of behaviors that can affect the quality of their health and the probability of their survival in the short terms as well as affect their lifetime health and survival. If we look only at disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) for the adolescent age group, adolescents appear to be relatively healthy. Nonetheless, more than 33% of the disease burden and almost 60% of premature deaths among adults can be associated with behaviors or conditions that began or occurred during adolescence—for example, tobacco and alcohol use, poor eating habits, sexual abuse, and risky sex (WHO 2002).

Mass media (television, radio, magazines, newspaper, pamphlets, internet etc.) plays a paramount role in today's society. Mass media are tools for the transfer of information, concepts, and ideas to both general and specific audiences. Communicating about health through mass media is complex, however, and challenges professionals in diverse disciplines. Mass media caters to a diverse audience, ranging from children, to adolescents, to adults. Amongst said audiences, "Adolescents are vigorous users of the information broadcasted in media" (Werner-Wilson, Morrissey & Fitzharris, 2004). Because this time period of adolescent is so crucial to the development of a child's body and brain, any negative influences can have lifelong health effects. Impact of mass media on Adolescents is particularly vulnerable because this is the age when they are more easily influenced by negative aspect of everything. They are now not mature and many times lead a life of fantasy. This is why young adolescents can not accept the good things presented by mass media tools, rather attracted by illusionary and faulty commercial advertisings, mainly health related aspects.

Sophisticated societies are dependent on mass media to deliver health information. The value of health news is related to what gets reported and how it gets reported. Today most prevention practitioners and researchers, as well as concerned teachers and parents, recognize that many of the messages we get from the media are risk factors for numerous public health problems. From the time we wake up to the radio alarm clock to the time we fall asleep with the TV on, we live in a media culture. We cannot escape the media's influence on either our healthy or unhealthy behaviors. Some positive aspects of mass media is acknowledged, but predominantly came down on the side of television having long term negative impacts. Numerous studies over the past five decades have examined the impact of media on adolescent children, with regard to such risky behaviors as violence; alcohol, tobacco, and other drug abuse; poor body image and eating disorders; precocious, unsafe sexual activity; and teen age pregnancy. A brief review of each topic will offer some insight into the influence of mass media on the health of young adolescents. More importantly, the discussion will address how the concept of media literacy can be used to reduce the negative influences mass media are believed to have on young people's health-related attitudes and behaviors.


Proper nutrition is especially important for adolescents because of their accelerated body growth. In addition, their early dietary decisions can have lifelong health implications, e.g., obesity, poor nutrition, inadequate female reproductive development (Davies, 1993). Unfortunately, adolescents are susceptible to POOR NUTRITIONAL HABITS. They often eat with peers, rather than family. Because they are growing physically they eat snacks a lot, but the snacks are usually high in fat and calories. Adolescents also are very busy, and they argue they do not have the time to eat properly (Davies, 1993).The media perpetuate poor diet decisions. One study estimated that early adolescents contributed $82.4 billion in food and beverage purchases in 1990 (McNeal, 1992). This figure is alarming when studies show most of the advertised foods contain little nutritional content (Dwyer, 1982; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1982).

Even more alarming is the issue of BODY IMAGE. Young adolescents are led to believe that the media-created image of the ideal body is how their bodies should look (Davies, 1993). This leads to girls trying to look like Cindy famous models and actresses. The major downfall of these magazines is their fixation with quick-fix diet advice. When Glamour magazine surveyed its readers in 1984, among a sample of college women, 40 percent felt overweight when only 12 percent actually were too heavy. A recent Wall Street Journal survey of students in four Chicago-area schools found that more than half the fourth-grade girls were dieting and three-quarters felt they were overweight. One student said, "We don't expect boys to be that handsome. We take them as they are." Another added, "But boys expect girls to be perfect and beautiful." In their attempt to have the perfect body, girls often end up adopting fad diets that may lead to more serious eating disorders (Davies, 1993). Boys are susceptible to media body images because they want to build muscles like many actors and sports heroes. This desire to "bulk up" often leads to poor diet and possibly the use of steroids.

Television viewing is associated with increased consumption of snacks, which leads to OBESITY among adolescent. A decrease in physical activity is also linked to an increased risk for obesity and some chronic diseases


Mass media also provide formal and informal messages about sexuality. The greatest concern about the sexual information disseminated by the mass media is that it is value-laden (Davies, 1993). Glasser (1990/91) points out that all television shows answer the question, "What is ethical behavior?" Adolescents are adopting norms for their behavior based on what they see and hear in the media. Liebert and Sprafkin (1988) concluded that adolescents who watch a lot of sexual content on TV are less satisfied with their sexuality and develop misconceptions. Although sexuality is a difficult topic to discuss with youngsters, parents, teachers need to create media literate students who can evaluate the sexual information provided by the mass media. Adolescent can also compare the interactions of the characters in the commercials with real life behaviors (Considine & Haley, 1992). It should become evident to children that putting on cologne or perfume each morning will not result in an instant sexual experience. Through these exercises children will be more aware of how sex is used to sell a product, even though it has little to do with the actual product.

A leading media influence activist Jean Kilbourne says ironically that young boys often tell her that the media don't influence them. Youth consistently underestimate the media's influence on them. A May 2002 survey on teens, sex and TV shows that nearly three out of four(72%) teens think sex on TV influences the sexual behaviors of kids their age "somewhat" or "a lot"; but just one in four (22%) think it influences their own behavior.


A study of ninth graders in San Jose, California, found that increased television and music video viewing are risk factors for the onset of alcohol use in adolescents. Sex is often associated with alcohol in the media. Gorgeous, sexy female models are a constant in beer and wine advertisements that target males. Television shows often portray alcohol as a means to sex. In addition, alcohol is associated with success, excitement, and good times. For younger media consumers, media depictions of alcohol are tantalizing and alluring. A 1991 report, Youth and Alcohol: A National Survey, said that 35 percent of all wine coolers in the United States are consumed by high school juniors and seniors. The report also revealed that these upperclassmen drink 1.1 billion cans of beer and half of the 20.7 million seventh through twelfth graders drink (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1991).

Like alcohol, cigarettes are marketed to young people, although both the alcohol and tobacco industries challenge such a claim. The high volume of alcohol and tobacco advertisements makes media literacy training a must for young people.


The impact of the mass media on early adolescents has been studied extensively. One of the most intensive areas of research has been violence in the media. Although there was a battle for a number of years over whether or not televised violence leads to subsequent aggressive behaviors, most researchers contend there is a connection (Murray, Rubinstein, & Comstock; 1972; Pearl, Bouthilet, & Lazar, 1982). Because adolescents watch about 20 hours of television a week (Nielsen Media Research, 1990) there is serious concern about the impact violent portrayals have on their behavior. Media executives, parents, teachers, and communities cannot dismiss violent programming as pure entertainment because the media have the power to model attitudes and behavior (Considine & Haley, 1992). With more and more adolescents becoming victims of crime as well as committing the crimes (Davies, 1993), the aforementioned groups need to reexamine how they can help combat this growing trend.


Another area of concern is the amount of stress indirectly caused by the mass media (Davies, 1993). Because early adolescence is a stressful period in life (Hamburg, 1974; Elkind, 1986), younger media consumers are more susceptible to additional stress created by the media. Educator Neil Postman (1982) argues that television exposes young viewers to adult knowledge before they are prepared to handle it; television essentially blurs the boundaries between childhood and adulthood. Kids who try to imitate behaviors they see on television, e.g., sexual situations, often experience confusion and dejection because they are unable to reproduce the behaviors in the same manner (Chlubna, 1991). In essence, the media messages children receive are pushing them to be adults before it is time (Elkind, 1981). This pressure to act like an adult causes undue stress, which can lead to unnecessary health problems or cause adolescents to cope with stress in ways similar to those portrayed in the media, e.g., drinking, smoking (Davies, 1993).

There have been some changes in the images of girl and women. Indeed, a "new women" has emerged in commercials in recent years. She is generally presented as super girl , who manages to do all the study work, part-time job (with the help of a product, of course, not of her parents or siblings or friends), or as the liberated teen-girl, who owes her independence and self-esteem to the products she uses. These new images do not represent any real progress but rather create a myth of progress, an illusion that reduces complex sociopolitical problems to mundane personal ones among the adolescent girls.

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable because they are new and inexperienced consumers and are the prime targets of many advertisements. They are in the process of learning their values and roles and developing their self-concepts. Most teenagers are sensitive to peer pressure and find it difficult to resist or even question the dominant cultural messages perpetuated and reinforced by the media. Mass communication has made possible a kind of national peer pressure that erodes private and individual values and standards.

The knowledge about Media literacy allows youth to reflect on important life choices and make decisions about their health behaviors. It allows young people to control the influences of media messages, instead of being controlled by them. Media literacy helps children and adolescents gain skills to intelligently navigate the media and filter the hundreds of messages they receive every day. Simply put, media literacy is the ability to "ask questions about what you watch, see and read." Media literacy can help youth understand how media are developed, the approaches used to increase persuasion, the commercial sources and beneficiaries of advertising, and the ideology of messages contained in commercial and news media. When they recognize how media messages influence them, students can develop the skills they need to carefully reflect on the messages that portray risky lifestyle choices like smoking as glamorous, rebellious, or "cool."


Parents must be media literate to help children to be media literate

Teachers and parents must become media literate themselves so they can guide the development of media literacy in their students and children.

Familiarize yourself with youth media and culture

Listen to their music, look at the websites they frequent, watch what they are watching on TV, and go to a teen movie once in a while will help parents keep up with the rapidly changing world of youth media and culture and will give them credibility when they talk to kids about media and media literacy. They can also learn a lot about the media from youngsters.

Parents can help children in understanding the TV content

By choosing appropriate programs, magazines, articles, and watching TV with their children, and discussing what they see or read together they can help their children not to bias by the media content.


Parents are role models for their children - sharing their reviews of TV programs, magazine articles etc. is a significant message for the child. Parents should know what their children watch, read.

Talk with Children

Help child appreciate the differences between reality and fantasy on TV programming.

Express Views

Parents should communicate their views of offensive programs with station managers. Don't call or write just to complain - be specific.

Resist Commercials

The volume of ads for snack foods, toys, and candy are often "brainwashing" children. They should not let TV, advertisements make decisions for them.

Give youth the power to make healthy decisions

Not all kids are influenced by media messages in the same way. Nor are they passive dupes who are victimised by the media. Children bring different backgrounds to their experiences with the media, and they construct their own values and beliefs in active negotiation with these messages. It is the duty and responsibility of the parents and elder family members to realize their power to accept healthy media messages, challenge unhealthy messages, and make good decisions for them.

In summary, television-viewing has a significant impact on child development and behavior. The need for providing quality-oriented programming for children and adolescents is obvious. It is the responsibility of healthcare providers to be aware of the ‘hazards' and to promote the benefits. TV-viewing does not require censorship of the industry, but, judicious control of its use by parents is essential. In the short term, we believe that media knowledge and literacy skills will better enable youth to make healthy choices, even in the face of the barrage of unhealthy messages they receive from the media. In the long term, those in the media literacy movement in the United States believe that if we become a media-literate population and thus change the way we respond to the media, the media will also change for the better.

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