How does social media and other media influence pre-teens and teenagers?
Pre-teens and teenagers can be smart consumers of media messages. They don’t just take in everything they see and hear on social media or in other media. You can help them develop the skills they need to handle media influence.
Media influence on pre-teens and teenagers can be deliberate and direct. For example, advertising is often directed at children of all ages. This means that children, pre-teens and teenagers are increasingly conscious of brands and images.
Media influence can also be indirect. For example, this might include sexualised images and content on Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube. It might also include violent imagery and coarse language in news media, documentaries, video games and some song lyrics. This kind of media influence can suggest to pre-teens and teenagers that certain ways of behaving and looking are ‘normal’.
Positive social media and other media influences on pre-teens and teenagers
Social media and other media can be positive influences on pre-teen and teenage behaviour and attitudes.
Pre-teens and teenagers who are exposed to and take an interest in news media are more likely to be interested in major social and political issues like climate change. Media can encourage them to become more involved as citizens in their communities.
Health and lifestyle
Pre-teens and teenagers can also pick up important health promotion messages from social media and other media. This might include messages aimed at preventing youth depression and suicide, promoting positive, respectful relationships, or encouraging healthy eating and lifestyle habits.
Good-quality stories in television shows and movies can help pre-teens and teenagers explore aspects of identity like sexuality, relationships, gender or ethics – for example, the treatment of sexuality in a movie like Bohemian Rhapsody, or gender in Ride Like a Girl, or ethics in a TV show like The Good Place. Watching these shows with your child is a great opportunity for discussion.
It’s always worth remembering that media – good and bad – is just one of several influences on pre-teen and teenage behaviour and attitudes. Other influences include family, friends and peers, cultural background and more. Often these influences can be more powerful than media influence.
Negative social media and other media influences on pre-teens and teenagers
Media messages can have a negative or unhealthy influence on pre-teen and teenage behaviour and attitudes in certain areas, including self-image, body image, health and citizenship.
Self-image and body image
Your child’s self-image and body image can be influenced by social media, other media and advertising. For example, if your child regularly sees staged and filtered images on social media, they might feel they’re not good enough. Or if your child sees unrealistic ‘thin’ or ‘muscly’ body types often enough, it can affect their body image and eating behaviour. These images can be even more powerful when there’s no-one to disagree with messages like ‘thin is beautiful’.
Health and lifestyle
Social media and other media can influence the decisions that pre-teens and teenagers make about their health and lifestyle. For example, media messages and content can make it look ‘normal’, cool or grown-up to eat junk food, smoke, vape, drink alcohol and take other drugs.
To be responsible citizens, pre-teens and teenagers need reliable and good-quality information. But social media and other media are sometimes used in negative ways during elections and at other times. For example, fake news or deep fakes might influence your child to believe misinformation about a politician, public figure or celebrity. Or online forums might promote biased or hateful attitudes towards groups of people.
Experts don’t agree on whether violence in video games leads to aggression or violence in pre-teens and teenagers in real life. But they do agree that the best way to deal with the issue of violence in video games is by talking with your child about it and sharing your own family values.
How media celebrities and influencers influence pre-teens and teenagers
Celebrities and influencers can be powerful influences on pre-teens and teenagers.
In particular, pre-teens and teenagers can be attracted to lifestyles, products or behaviour that celebrities and influencers promote on social media. This can sometimes be a negative influence – for example, YouTuber Logan Paul’s risky behaviour. But there are many celebrities whose lifestyles, values and behaviour provide positive examples – for example, YouTuber Elise Ecklund.
Pre-teens and teenagers need to be aware that influencers and some celebrities are paid to advertise the products they endorse.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between influencers and regular people – or even celebrities – posting videos and other content for fun. Influencers are meant to say whether they’ve been paid by using hashtags like #ad or #sponsored or words like ‘ad’ or ‘sponsored’ in their posts. You and your child could look out for these signs.
Helping pre-teens and teenagers handle media influence
Exposure to media messages is a part of modern life, but you can help your child work out what’s worth paying attention to.
Talking about media messages
The best way to help your child navigate the influence of social media and other media is to talk about media messages. For example, if your child likes watching beauty channels on YouTube, you could talk about product advertising and sponsorship.
Or if your child is into a computer game like Grand Theft Auto, you could talk about the violence, exploitation of women and criminal activity. You could also talk about how your child would handle these situations in real life.
Encouraging a questioning attitude
When you’re talking about media with your child, you can encourage them to ask questions too. This can help your child sort facts from opinion, identify advertising and fake news, understand bias and be aware of the misuse of statistics.
For example, you could choose one of the YouTube channels or Instagram accounts your child follows. Ask your child:
- Who’s behind it?
- What’s their motivation?
- What do they want from you?
- How does it make you feel?
- Do they want you to feel that way? Why?
You can do the same for celebrities and influencers. Encourage your child to ask themselves:
- Why do I like these people?
- Are they presented in a realistic way?
- Are they like this in real life?
- What values does this person portray?
- How does this person make me feel about myself?
- Why is this person telling me about this product or activity?
- Are there signs that this person is an influencer?
During an election campaign, you and your child could look at political news and memes together. Encourage your child to ask:
- What ideas are being promoted in this news story or meme?
- Who wrote this story or made this meme and why?
- How might this meme influence voters during the election?
- What does ABC Fact Check or RMIT University FactLab say about this information?
You can help to limit the influence of advertising on your child by talking about how advertising sells ideas as well as products. For example, you could encourage your child to ask:
- Does this advertisement link the product with a particular kind of lifestyle?
- How does that make you feel about the product?
- What messages does this advertisement send about what people should look like, wear, do, eat and drink?
Participating in online forums
If your child spends a lot of time on online forums, it’s OK to get your child thinking about questions like these:
- What do people talk about on the forum?
- What are the forum’s attitudes towards race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality? Are any of these attitudes biased or even hateful?
- Does the forum make you feel safe and happy, or uncomfortable?
Children and teenagers sometimes need help to get out of negative forums and find forums that match their values. For example, if the negative forum is in a game, you could suggest that your child takes a break from the game while you help them find a different game to play. Or you could suggest that your child plays the game at a time when they might meet other people in the game’s forum.
Helping teenagers balance the influence of social media and other media
When your child balances media use with other activities like physical and creative activities and face-to-face socialising, your child comes into contact with a wide range of influences. These include peers, community mentors and family, as well as the media.
You can also introduce your child to real-life, positive role models. Ways to do this could be joining local community groups, sporting clubs or mentoring programs.
You’re still your child’s most important role model. By being an informed and questioning consumer, you show your child how to handle powerful media influences. Part of this might be ignoring advertisements for the latest and greatest new gadget, or talking with your child about why you follow certain people on Twitter or Instagram.