The mass media can influence people's attitudes towards various societal issues, towards one another, and even towards themselves. How television, film, books and magazines, music and advertisements portray gender roles, ethnicity, sex, violence, and health and environmental risks may ultimately impact how society deals with these issues.
Some of the more common concerns of media portrayals relate to the shaping of young people's attitudes towards body image, stereotypes and violence.
It is not difficult to run into TV programmes, movies, magazines and even games promoting a certain type of look or body image. Usually, it is the skinny but buxomy women and well-chiseled, muscled men who are glamourised. Further, the proliferation of digital software like Photoshop has made photo-editing and manipulations commonplace in the fashion, publishing and advertising industries. Heavily touched-up photos of men and women models and celebrities in magazines and publications are a concern. As youths are sensitive to the issues of identity and body image, some organizations such as the American Medical Association1 have argued that such manipulations in the media have negative effects on young people's self-esteem and self-image, and have urged governments and industry bodies to stop the practice of retouching models.
Stereotypes often relate to the portrayals of gender roles and minority groups in media. Minority groups can run the gamut from ethnic groups to the elderly to the physically disadvantaged or economic underclass. How the media portrays masculinity and femininity, sex and relationships can often shape society's views and cultural values of what it means to be the ideal man or woman, and what their role and station in life should be. Likewise, if the media constantly portrays certain ethnic groups or occupations or the elderly negatively, then that might influence society's perceptions of these groups.
The issue of violence in media — movies, music, TV programmes, video games — have been studied by researchers for a long time. These studies have been inconclusive about the effect of violence on consumers and young people. While there appears to be no direct causal relationship between violence in TV programmes and violent behaviour in youths, what is shown is that violent games and programmes do desensitize the player or audience, and thus may make it seem acceptable for young people to display aggression as a response to everyday conflicts. It should be remembered that different people are affected differently, and what may have an impact on one person may have no impact at all on another. Emotional maturity, development issues and the state of relationships with family members play a more significant role in determining if a child is at risk for violent behaviour.
In conclusion, the effects of media are usually indirect, long-term and multi-faceted. It is often difficult to gauge whether we are under-reacting or over-reacting to them. Research can provide guidance, but is rarely conclusive. As individuals and families, it may be wise to err on the side of caution, especially with regards to children.
1AMA Adopts New Policies at Annual Meeting" (press release). American Medical Association, June 21, 2011.
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