What Teens Learn from Watching Television: Part 1

Hold on tight, folks, because I’m gonna get a little theoretical today. Many people tend to get nervous when talking about research, but it is SO important to know about it, especially when it comes to understanding the effects of media on teens and young adults. To put it simply, social theories try to help explain why people behave the way they do. In terms of media, social learning theory tends to work best.

Social learning theory states that people learn new things through modeling, or watching others and imitating them (Bandura, 1977). So, for example, we all learned how to make sandwiches because we saw someone make one and copied them. We are also more likely to learn/copy a behavior if we know we’ll receive a reward for it, like money or compliments (Bandura, 1977).

When it comes to watching media, the conversation gets a bit difficult. While it would be amazing to find direct evidence as to whether or not we actually copy behaviors we see on TV, it is very hard to do such research, mainly because it is possible that other factors are affecting our behavior besides the media itself. So, just because I yell at my little sister right after watching Love and Hip Hop, doesn’t necessarily mean that reality show is affecting my behavior. I could have been already angry before watching the show, or my sister could have said something to annoy me (sorry, sis). Do you see the dilemma here?

What we can more accurately measure, however, are the effects of media on young people’s attitudes. There is research evidence out there that suggests that the more sexualized content teens watch on TV, the more permissive (liberal) their sexual attitudes are. There is also evidence of a connection between TV and sexual behavior, but as I mentioned before, it is hard to say exactly if other factors are affecting behavior besides TV (Ward, Epstein, Caruthers, & Merriwether, 2011; Ward & Friedman, 2006; Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999).

Interestingly enough, the more young people believe what they see on TV to be true (“I really believe that everything on Keeping Up with the Kardashians is real”), the more permissive their sexual attitudes are compared to those who do not believe the content to be real (“The Kardashians are paid actors on a reality TV show”) (Baams et al., 2015; Chock, 2011; Taylor, 2005).

So, in other words, if you watch a lot of shows on TV that have highly sexualized content, and you believe what you see in those shows to be real, the more permissive your attitudes will be about sex compared to other people who fall outside these categories. Fascinating, right?

So what does it all mean? Are teens and young adults in trouble? Not likely. Stay tuned for Part 2 to find out why…



Baams, L., Overbeek, G., Dubas, J., Doornwaard, S., Rommes, E., & Aken, M. (2015). Perceived realism moderates the relation between sexualized media consumption and permissive sexual attitudes in Dutch adolescents. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(3), 743-754. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0443-7

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Chock, T. M. (2011). Is it seeing or believing: Exposure, perceived realism, and emerging adults’  perceptions of their own and others’ attitudes about relationships. Media Psychology, 14(4), 355-386. doi:10.1080/15213269.2011.620537

Taylor, L. D. (2005). Effects of visual and verbal sexual television content and perceived realism  on attitudes and beliefs. Journal of Sex Research, 42(2), 130-137.

Ward, L. M., Epstein, M., Caruthers, A., & Merriwether, A. (2011). Men’s media use, sexual cognitions, and sexual risk behavior: Testing a mediational model. Developmental     Psychology, 47(2), 592-602. doi:10.1037/a0022669

Ward, L. M., & Friedman, K. (2006). Using TV as a guide: Associations between television viewing and adolescents’ sexual attitudes and behavior. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 16(1), 133-156.

Ward, L. M., & Rivadeneyra, R. (1999). Contributions of entertainment television to      adolescents’ sexual attitudes and expectations: The role of viewing amount versus viewer involvement. Journal of Sex Research, 36(3), 237-249.



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