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Emerging Adults in America, p.



CHAPTER TWELVE


Emerging Adults in a Media-Saturated World


Jane D. Brown, Ph.D.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Young people growing up in the early part of the 21st century likely could become known as the new media generation. They are the first cohort to have grown up learning their ABCs on a keyboard in front of a computer screen, playing games in virtual environments rather than their backyards or neighborhood streets, making friends with people they have never and may never meet through internet chat rooms, and creating custom CDs for themselves and their friends. This new media environment is dramatically different from the one in which their parents grew up because it is more accessible, more interactive and more under their control than any other ever known before. We might wonder if such unprecedented access to and use of media have affected who these young people are now and in the future.

Although a great deal of research has focused on the effects of mass media on children and adolescents over the past 50 years, little research has considered 18- to 25-year-olds, or “emerging adults” as Arnett (2001) refers to them, as in a developmental period worthy of study in its own right. College students in this age group have been included in some psychological studies using media as stimuli, albeit primarily because they were accessible participants from departmental subject pools and they could be considered cognitively mature enough to represent adult patterns of cognition and behavior. Therefore, relatively little thought has been given to how emerging adults might be using media in a way peculiar to this life stage. Most research has also focused on television as the dominant medium, although it is clear that young people today use a wide range of different kinds of media, including music, movies, magazines, newspapers and, increasingly, the Internet for entertainment and information — and have since they were very young.

In this chapter I consider what conclusions we might draw from existing research on this age group and extrapolate from findings with younger adolescents. I use the Media Practice Model that my students and I have been working with as an organizing tool for studying the process of media uses and effects (see Figure 1). One of the most important trends in mass communication research over the past couple of decades has been a turn away from what has been called the linear effects model to a model that sees individuals not as passive receivers of media messages but as more active initiators of media use. The Media Practice Model posits that a young person’s sense of who they are and where they fit in the world (Identity) influences the media they attend to (Selection), how they experience and make sense of that media (Interaction), and the ways they incorporate or resist media messages (Application) in their everyday lives (Brown, 2000; Steele, 1999).

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The model assumes that the ways in which a person uses the media in his or her daily life is embedded in other contexts of their lives, and what they already know and are seeking to know and feel. The media are only one of the contexts in which young people live, and an individual’s use of media and the effects of what they read, see, and hear is influenced not only by personal characteristics but also by other important contexts, including families, friends, school, and work. The media also can be seen as permeating all the other contexts of an emerging adult’s life -- what was seen on television last night becomes the topic of conversation at work or school -- going to the movies, listening to music, and communicating via instant messaging or in chat rooms are major forms of social activity; parents and/or roommates fight over the remote control or which movie they will rent. We refer to these other factors and contexts “lived experience” based on the perspective developed by Russian psychologist Vygotsky and other “practice” theorists, who see human development as a continual and interactive process that occurs within everyday life (Valsiner, 1991). The use of the mass media does not occur in a vacuum. Emerging adults come to mass media with different needs, different prior knowledge and understanding of themselves and their worlds, some of which was acquired through prior use of the media. This lived experience will affect how current media are selected, attended to and incorporated in their lives.

Let’s look at each phase of the media practice model and consider what previous research tells us about how this process may work for emerging adults.

Identity: Who am I?

Identity is at the top of the model because developing a sense of self is such an important aspect of what adolescents and emerging adults do. Arnett defines identity as a “conception of one’s values, abilities, and hopes for the future” (Arnett, 2001, p. 370). The media may be seen as virtual tool kits of possibilities on most of the dimensions of identity work, including work, love, and ideology. The media provide a wide array of information and models from which emerging adults may draw as they continue to develop a sense of themselves in the context of the larger world. We know that for many adolescents, and, we expect, for emerging adults, too, the kind of music they listen to, the movies they view, the television shows they watch, the magazines they read, and the Internet sites they visit are markers of who they are and/or who they aspire to be. Adolescent development theorists have suggested that each young person is learning in what ways he or she is like all other people, like some others, and like no others (Gallatin, 1975; Harter, 1990). One of the key motivations influencing how emerging adults make media choices may be their desire to affiliate with similar people while simultaneously distinguishing themselves from others.

Some identities are clearly marked by media use. Skateboarders, for example, are mostly White middle-class boys and young men who spend hours each day perfecting their moves on skateboards. They listen to a particular kind of rap music, rent videos of other skateboarders skating, videotape themselves and their friends skateboarding with their own video cameras, and read magazines about skateboarding. In the early 2000s, some African American girls adopted the identity of “ghetto girls,” based on images depicted in popular rappers’ songs and videos. “Ghetto girls” listened to a similar style of rap music, watched music videos of Black rappers on the Black Entertainment Television cable channel and Internet site, and practiced dance moves together.

Some emerging adults may be existing in what Watters (2003) called “urban tribes” —groups of single emerging adults on college campuses and in cities who cluster loosely together to socialize and provide a sense of community and connectedness between the time they leave their original families and begin their own, which for some is 20 years or longer. The hit television shows “Seinfield” and “Friends” of the late 1990s were emblematic of the nature of these group identities. On some college campuses groups of friends congregated regularly to watch these shows together in a kind of ritual of self-recognition. MTV’s path-breaking reality show “The Real World,” which threw groups of emerging adults together to live under the camera’s eye, provided a distorted but compelling look at the social identity work of this age cohort.

As these examples illustrate, the media can serve both as sources of the kinds of people worthy of emulation, as well as provide the symbolic trappings of specific identities. We might think of these as two kinds of media identification – identification by the kinds of media attended to and identification with different media characters. The latter type, identification with, is one of the main predictions of Cognitive Social Learning theory, a theory often used by media researchers to help explain the process of media effects. The theory predicts that the more a person identifies with a particular media character, the more likely he or she will be to imitate the behavior of that character (Bandura, 1986). Research has substantiated this basic idea, especially among younger children, and increasing evidence suggests that older children and emerging adults are influenced through identification with media characters as well.

Many college students identify with media celebrities, and a surprisingly large proportion has changed their behavior to be more like their media idols. MTV capitalized on some emerging adults’ obsessions with their idols by creating a show called, “I Want a Famous Face” that followed young men and women as they had plastic surgery to look more like their celebrity idol. Almost all (90%) of the Canadian undergraduates participating in one study reported that they had been attracted to a “celebrity idol” at some point in their lives, and many (70%) had a celebrity idol at the time they completed the survey. The majority of favorite idols were movie stars and musicians (Boon & Lomore, 2001). More than one quarter of the students said they had engaged in efforts to change aspects of their personality to bring it more in line with that of their favorite idol and more than half reported that their idols had influenced their attitudes and personal values, often in positive directions. As one student in a similar study in the United States said, “I think I have tried to be more literate ever since Oprah has done her Book Club thing. I try to read and respond differently” (Shuh, 2000, p. 134).

Selection: I Get to Choose

Such identifications affect which media and media content are chosen. Technological developments such as satellite transmission, fiber-optic cable, and the World Wide Web have provided the infrastructure for a huge array of media choices. While it used to be that the average American media consumer had three television networks, a local newspaper and a radio station, this generation of emerging adults can choose from more than 500 television channels, scores of magazines and newspapers, an almost infinite number of websites, and new movies, CDs, and video games coming out weekly.

In the near future it is expected that the delivery systems we have known will converge into an increasingly accessible stream of visual, verbal, and print information and entertainment. As one media futurist predicted, “By the year 2020 more than 90 percent of the words, images, sounds, videos, and three-dimensional (3D) worlds produced will be located somewhere on the Internet, and much of it will be accessible for free or for some small fee” (Biocca, 2000, p. 23).

Patterns of Media Use

Young people typically are spending more of their waking hours with some form of media than in any other activity. A nationally representative survey of 8- to 18-year-olds in the United States found that the average adolescent was using some form of media six to seven hours a day, often more than one simultaneously (Rideout, Roberts & Foehr, 2005). These are the adults of the future—they have grown up surrounded by media, often in the privacy of their own bedroom, with little parental intervention or supervision of what media content they are attending to. By the turn of the last century, adolescents’ bedrooms had become mini-media centers (Roberts & Foehr, 2004). Almost all U.S. adolescents had an audio system in their bedroom (CD/ tape player and/or radio) and two-thirds had a television. More than one-half had their own videocassette recorder or DVD player, and more than one-third had TVs hooked up to cable or satellite reception. Almost half, primarily boys, had a video game system, and one-third of all the 8- to 18-year-olds had a computer in their bedroom (one-fifth were hooked up to the internet). The majority of teens reported spending most of their time with media either alone or with siblings and friends, almost never with parents or other adults (Rideout, Roberts & Foehr, 2005).

Although some young people are deprived access to this ocean of information and entertainment, trends suggest that the digital divide may not last long or be as wide as originally feared, especially among emerging adults who have claimed the Internet as their medium of choice. By 2003, more than 80% of 18- to 29-year-olds were online, on average one half hour a day, emailing, chatting, downloading and listening to music, playing games, checking sports scores and looking for information about products, services, or school work (85% of college students in 2003 had their own computer). Hispanic, White, and Asian American young people were equally likely to have access to and be using the Internet, while African Americans lagged slightly behind in interest and use (“America’s online pursuits,” 2003; “The Internet goes to college,” 2002).

Another important aspect of the new media environment is that it provides more immediate and individualized feedback than older media systems. As media become increasingly interactive, emerging adults are able to try on (and discard) whole new identities in relative safety, with less fear of embarrassment if they don’t get it quite right (Turkle, 1997). Although early research on the impact of Internet usage suggested that prolonged use of the Internet may contribute to increased feelings of loneliness among adolescents and decreased quality of communication with family members (Kraut, et al., 1998; Sanders, Field, Diego, & Kaplan, 2000), subsequent studies have shown that establishing relationships via the Internet may contribute to more intimate and longer-lasting real-life relationships and may be a boon to shy, socially anxious, or physically less attractive people who can communicate initially only by text. About one in five college students in one study said they had formed a relationship on-line before meeting in person (“The Internet goes to college,” 2003). The Internet may provide a kind of “stranger on the plane” situation in which people are willing to disclose more personal information faster than they normally would because they are anonymous. Such personal disclosure can lead to greater intimacy if the relationship moves off-line. Chat rooms also allow like-minded people to find each other, and, typically, similar interests and activities sustain relationships (Hellenga, 2002; McKenna, Green, & Gleason, 2002; Merkle & Richardson, 2000). Some sites, such as www.friendster.com and www.tribenet.com have been designed to promote social networks.

In the future it is expected that computer-mediated communication will become more “embodied” and interactive as it becomes less text-driven, more voice-activated, and capable of providing instant feedback. To what extent these technological developments will enhance or undermine adult development and relationships is an important new question.

Gender and Race Differences: It’s about me

Coupled with the drive for profits that compels all media institutions in the United States and an increasing number around the world, this vast array of media has already become highly specialized, designed to appeal and sell advertised products to different audience segments. It is clear that even basic social identities such as gender and race motivate different patterns of media use. Males and females, in general, live in very different media worlds at most life stages. In both the United States and in Europe, studies of children and adolescents have found that males watch more television, spend more time playing video games, and use computers more than females. Females read more and listen to music more than young men. Content preferences tend to follow gender stereotypes: females typically prefer softer music and more relationship-oriented television fare, while males seek action and adventure and sports programming (Livingstone, 2002; Roe, 1998; Zollo, 1995). Although we have fewer studies of the overall media use patterns of emerging adults, it is reasonable to expect that such gender differences are maintained into adulthood.

Media use patterns typically differ by race and ethnicity as well. In the United States, African American and Hispanic adolescents watch more television and movies and spend more time playing video games than their White counterparts. Some, but not all, of these differences may be related to socioeconomic status, as most studies show that time spent with screen media (television, movies, videotapes) decrease as parental education and time spent with print media and computers increase. However, studies also have consistently shown that African American youth, regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status, are more screen-oriented and less print-oriented than White Americans (Comstock & Scharrer, 1999). In the Roberts and Foehr (2004) national study, African American adolescents watched one more hour of television per day than Hispanics, who, in turn, watched almost one hour more than Whites.

Black and white adolescents also prefer different television shows. In a survey of more than 3,000 middle school students, Brown and Pardun (in press) found that although there are many fewer programs on television that feature African American actors, the majority of both male and female African American adolescents watched those shows regularly, while few of the Whites did (See Table 1). Only 4 of 150 television shows listed on the survey were watched regularly by more than one-third of all the adolescents, regardless of race or gender.

Such viewing differences call into question the presumption that there is a common youth culture that all adolescents or emerging adults are attending to similar aspects of popular culture. Such fragmentation of cultural exposure has implications for current and future racial and gender understanding and interaction. If Black and White, male and female youth are growing up in highly gendered, highly racially distinct media worlds, are they learning what they will need to know to live peacefully and respectfully with each other in an increasingly multicultural world?

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Emotion Regulation: How do I feel?

Some young people choose different kinds of media and different genres in deliberate attempts to regulate their moods and emotions. Adolescents have reported that listening to music and watching TV are things they do to cope with being angry, anxious, or unhappy (Kurdeck, 1987). Arnett (1996) found, for example, that heavy-metal fans used words like “intense,” “fast,” and “powerful” to describe why they liked the music.

Whether using media is ultimately a healthy or unhealthy way to deal with often confusing and powerful emotions is an open and important question. Larson (1995) found in time use studies that when teens are feeling lonely and depressed, they may retreat to the privacy of their rooms and find solace in music that speaks to what they are experiencing. In our studies with adolescent girls, some have reported using music to increase negative feelings. One girl, for example, said when she had “real problems” she liked to turn on her stereo and “just wallow in it.” Another said, “When I’m sad, I tend to listen to sad music, which doesn’t exactly help in cheering me up. I listen to it much louder when I’m happy” (Steele & Brown, 1995).

Such intensification of feeling or rumination about whatever caused the sadness may not be the best way to cope with negative feelings. Although Arnett’s heavy metal fans reported that listening to the fast, loud music helped them vent their anger, most studies of the effects of violent media have not found evidence of emotional catharsis, but rather increased tendencies to behave aggressively. Studies of rumination among adults have found that the occurrence of repetitive, unwanted thoughts is related to unhappiness and depression (McIntosh & Martin, 1992; Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987).

More recent research points to the intriguing possibility that writing about the topic rather than only thinking about it may be beneficial because writing requires that the thoughts be put into words rather than remaining as vague images (King & Pennebaker, 1996). Thus, as Stern (2002) found in her study of girls’ web pages, those who used their web sites to write daily journals of their confusion, sadness, and anger may be engaged in an effective coping strategy. But such strategies may not always work, especially if it is done without guidance and if it is the only strategy the young person has. Stern learned that one of the girls whose website she was studying had committed suicide shortly after posting new pages of her diary.

The media and suicide.

Many studies in a number of countries have now documented a relationship between media coverage and suicide. According to Gould, Jamieson, & Romer’s overview (2003, p. 1,271): “The magnitude of the increase in suicides following a suicide story is proportional to the amount, duration, and prominence of media coverage.” A number of studies have found not only an increase in suicides, especially among older adolescents, but also an increase in attempts using the same method in the suicide reported by the media or depicted in fictional accounts in television or in the movies (Stack, 2000). Adolescents and emerging adults are the primary audience for movies either at home or in theaters, and nearly one in ten American films now depicts a suicide or suicide attempt. Although guidelines for news accounts of suicides have been shown to reduce “copycat” suicide attempts, guidelines for fictional accounts have not yet been developed (Gould, Jamieson, & Romer, 2003).

Given the increasing ability of young people to choose and create media that may reflect and affect their moods and mental states, it is important to learn more about this process, and to help the media understand that some depictions may be especially harmful. Some questions to consider: Under what circumstances, with which emerging adults are media helpful or harmful in coping with emotions and recurring thoughts? Could adolescents and emerging adults be guided to choose media content and activities that enhance rather than exacerbate negative moods and emotions?

Interaction: What Does It Mean?

All emerging adults will not interpret the same media content in the same way. Young people come to the media with different backgrounds, motives, and identifications, and these will influence what sense they make of what is heard or seen. Scholars from both psychological and humanistic perspectives have noted the extent to which readers of the same text can extract different meaning. One striking example of differing interpretations of popular media was the study of one of Madonna’s early music videos “Papa Don’t Preach.” When first released in 1986, columnist Ellen Goodman called it “a commercial for teenage pregnancy,” while the religious right said it was a stand against abortion. College students who saw the video differed in their “reading” of the video, too. Although most White females thought the video was about a teen girl deciding to keep her unborn child (“baby”), Black males were more likely to think the girl (Madonna) in the video was singing about wanting to keep her boyfriend “baby.” Because the young men apparently were identifying primarily with the dilemma of the boyfriend in the video, they were less likely than the female viewers to see or hear the cues that suggested pregnancy (Brown & Schulze, 1990).

In a program of research designed to understand gender differences in responses to sexual content on television, Ward and her colleagues also have shown that college-age males and females respond differently to segments of popular television shows (e.g., “Martin” and “Roseanne”) (Ward, Gorvine & Cutron, 2002). They’ve found that the female viewers are more likely than the males to think the sexual scenes they see are realistic, are more approving of behaviors that are relationship-maintaining (e.g., a jealous husband protecting his wife) and less approving of relationship threats (e.g., a man contemplating cheating).

Ward uses a composite theory called cognitive information-processing that integrates both social learning theory and script theory to explain why males and females may be processing the same content so differently. Script theory suggests that young people observe social behavior (either in the media or in real life), then create and store “scripts” in their memories that will guide their subsequent behavior. They may also learn causal schemata and normative beliefs that basically suggest who should do what to whom in what circumstances and with what results. From social learning theory we would expect that the most salient scripts will be those with desirable consequences and attractive models. Thus, the theory would predict that females would pay more attention to the female script in the media and be less positive about scripts that jeopardize their status and security.

Increased access to sexually explicit images via the Internet and on television and cable channels has raised concern that young people may be learning an unhealthy set of sexual norms and developing unrealistic expectations about bodies and sexual performance from the media. Earlier studies with college students have found that exposure to pornography can shift expectations about the seriousness of rape and the frequency of unusual sexual behavior such as bestiality and group sex (Zillmann, 2000). Books have been written and websites created to counsel the estimated 10% of users who become addicted to “cybersex” (e.g., www.cybersexualaddiction.com).

Given the vast array of media materials now available, it is important that we learn more about how young people are actually making sense of what they see, read, and listen to in the media. We should know more about the attributes of the most salient and most consistent scripts in the media and to what extent they are being adopted by emerging adults. Are the media’s scripts of appropriate behavior reinforcing or undermining what emerging adults are learning in other contexts? What is the cumulative effect of being exposed to a relatively consistent set of media scripts about male – female relationships since puberty? What do emerging adults do when they have been taught one set of scripts in one context (e.g., parents and schools encourage delaying and practicing safe sex) and another script in the media (e.g., unprotected sexual intercourse is an important and typical part of young peoples’ relationships)?

Application: How does this fit in my life?

Finally, the Media Practice Model predicts that some of what people are exposed to in the media will influence their beliefs and behaviors in the real world. This is the point in the process where most attention has been focused in the past -- what are the effects of the media on young people’s lives? Given that the impact of the media is an often subtle, conditional, and bi-directional process, it is a difficult task to identify which young people, under what circumstances are influenced by the media in which domains of their lives. Nevertheless, the effects of the media on a number of kinds of attitudes and behaviors relevant to emerging adulthood, including fear and aggression, body image and obesity, occupational choice, and political ideology have been investigated.

Fear and Aggression

Since the advent of television into most homes in the United States, researchers have been concerned about and have examined the effects of frequent exposure to depictions of violence on television. Content analyses show that violence on television is frequent and glamorized, sanitized, and trivialized. One of the most comprehensive content analyses found over a three-year period in the late 1990s that a consistent 60% of television programming contained at least six violent incidents per hour, violent perpetrators were often the heroes of the stories, and victims rarely suffered pain (Center for Communication and Social Policy, 1998). Research has shown that this persistent presence of violent acts without negative consequences on television programs is related to increased fear and aggressive behavior among children. Six major health associations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, are so convinced of the evidence of a causal link between TV violence and aggressive behavior among young viewers that they issued a joint statement in 2000 on the hazards of exposing children to on-screen violence (“Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children,” 2000).

An often overlooked outcome of viewing on average more than 1,000 murders, rapes and aggravated assaults per year on television is fear for personal safety in the real world. In a program of research that included retrospective case studies as well as surveys and laboratory experiments, Joanne Cantor and others have found that children and adolescents frequently develop long-term fears of specific kinds of people and places from seeing just one movie or television scene that frightened them (Cantor, 1998). College students have reported being afraid to live alone after seeing “stalker movies” when they were adolescents. Boys probably are more likely than girls to suppress such fears which may in turn cause anxiety and increased aggression (Sonesson, 1998). George Gerbner and his colleagues speculate that the fear generated at least in part by the ubiquity of violent acts on television may contribute to Americans’ reluctance to relinquish their handguns, and their support for the building of more prisons and harsher penalties for criminals (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994).

Some experimental work and a few longitudinal studies also suggest that early exposure to televised violence and identification with violent characters is related to increased aggressive behavior in emerging adulthood (Anderson, Huston, Schmitt, Linebarger, & Wright, 2001; Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski, & Eron, 2003). Cantor’s (1998) retrospective research with college students has shown that children’s exposure to violence and scary scenes and characters on television and in the movies, such as the shark in the movie “Jaws” or the murder in the shower in “Psycho” can generate long-standing fears and influence decisions about lifestyles (e.g., don’t go swimming in the ocean, always have a see-through shower curtain).

Some of the newer forms of media may contribute to continued effects of media violence in later adolescence and early adulthood as well. Although we might think video games are for middle school boys, recent surveys by the gaming industry claim that the average age of the gamer is 29 years old, and 40% of video game players are 18 to 35 years old (Greenspan, 2003). Although all video games are not violent, a number of the most popular ones, such as “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” in which the player finds and kills prostitutes, are. The games that most concern critics are what are called “first-person shooter” games in which the player becomes the perpetrator, holding, pointing, and shooting the gun and being rewarded with extra points and encouraging words for the more lethal upper body shots. Some of these games, such as the early version of “Doom,” have been found so effective in reducing inhibitions for killing through classic operant conditioning, that they have been used as training tools by the military (Grossman & DeGaetano, 1999).

It will be important to take into account patterns of selection and interaction in studies designed to see how this plays out for emerging adults, given the extent to which they can choose which media they want to attend to. Black and Bevan’s (1992) study of the effects of violent movies is a good example of the kind of research that is needed. Researchers went to a multi-screen movie theatre and had patrons fill out a hostility inventory before or after they viewed their self-selected movie. They found that both male and female viewers who had chosen a violent movie were initially more hostile than viewers who had selected a nonviolent movie. After viewing the movie of their choice, hostility levels were higher among those who had viewed the violent movie but remained at the same initial low level among those who viewed the nonviolent movie. Such evidence suggests that media effects, such as hostility, are bi-directional and that initial choice plays an important role in the effect.

Physical Attractiveness

Although physical attractiveness has always been an important component of emerging adulthood and mate selection, the media have contributed to what is now often an obsession with having the perfect body and face. In 2004, more than four million emerging adults posted a photograph of themselves on Internet rating sites inviting others to rate their physical appearance (Rivlin, 2004).

The media promote the idea that good looks are paramount and simultaneously present an unrealistic body ideal. Women who appear in the media are substantially thinner than the average American woman (Fouts & Burggraf, 1999; Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, & Kelly, 1986), and young women who identify with the typical ultra-thin media stars are at risk of developing unhealthy perceptions of their own bodies and may engage in unnecessary dieting and disordered eating (e.g., Hofschire & Greenberg, 2002). Some television shows have been designed to exploit such obsessions with the perfect body. Premiering in 2004, “The Swan” was billed as transforming ugly duckling women into beauties through plastic surgery. After contestants spent four months under the knife, they competed in a beauty pageant to see which one had been most successful. The media now promote an equally unattainable ideal image for men. In comparing the male centerfold models in Playgirl magazine from 1973 to 1997, Leit, Pope and Gray (2001) found that over time the men were significantly more muscular.

Paradoxically, the media also are contributing to an epidemic of obesity among young people. As models and characters promote an unattainable standard of beauty, advertising promotes snack food high in sugar and fat, and the sheer amount of time spent sitting in front of television and computer screens reduces calorie expenditure. Following dramatic increases in obesity in the 1980s and 1990s, about one in three children and teens in the United States are either overweight or at risk of becoming overweight (Ogden, Flegal, Carroll, & Johnson, 2002). Children who are overweight tend to remain overweight which can have significant and long-term negative health consequences including diabetes and heart disease (Cook, Weitzman, Auinger, Nguyen, & Dietz, 2003; Pinhas-Hamiel et al., 1996). We are only just beginning to see the implications of these trends for emerging adults. Will they remain and/or become couch potatoes?

Occupational Choice and Adult Roles

Exposure to and identification with media characters can also influence expectations about occupations and other adult roles. In the entertainment media, occupations are primarily the backdrops for dramatic storytelling. In the TV world, employed people are doctors, lawyers and entertainers, the “more prestigious, glamorous, adventurous, and exciting occupations” (Signorielli & Kahlenberg, 2001, p. 18). The majority of the U.S. population that works in white- and blue-collar jobs (e.g., bank tellers, shopkeepers, sales people, and factory workers) is dramatically underrepresented, except for law enforcement, which is significantly over-represented. In the U.S. labor force, only 3% of men work in law enforcement, but on television, one-fourth of non-White men and 16% of White men are portrayed as police officers or detectives (Signorielli & Kahlenberg, 2001).

Although a number of studies have shown that the world of work on television is demographically unrealistic, only a few studies have directly explored whether these portrayals are related to young people’s own occupational expectations and aspirations (e.g., DeFleur, 1964; Wroblewski & Huston, 1987). The more recent research has found that high school seniors who watched more hours of television each day were more likely than those viewing less frequently to aspire to prestigious jobs that included little supervision and lots of leisure time (Signorielli, 1993).

We’ve seen in focus groups with early adolescents (12- to 14-year-olds) in central North Carolina that more frequent media users are more likely to have occupational aspirations based on television portrayals. In one group of six African American teens, three said they wanted to have occupations based on television shows they were currently watching. One girl said she wanted to be a forensic scientist because of the popular television program “CSI” (“Crime Scene Investigation”), and another said she had changed her career aspiration from veterinarian to obstetrician after watching the reality shows “Maternity Ward” and “Birthday,” which feature real women having babies.

Although it is good to have high expectations and we might hope that these dreams will come true, these are not easily attained occupations. In a nationally representative study of middle school and high school students’ occupational aspirations, Csikszentmihalyi and Schneider (2000) found even though high school seniors’ expectations were more realistic than middle schoolers’, significant proportions still overestimated their chances of becoming athletes, fashion models, doctors, and lawyers. The media may play an important role in fueling unrealistic expectations by providing only a limited variety of occupations that are rewarding in various ways and by failing to emphasize the kinds of commitments required to attain such goals.

The media can also be helpful in portraying other kinds of adult roles and transitions. During the era of reality shows, “The Apprentice” provided a fascinating look at the need for teamwork and leadership in the corporate world, and “The Wedding Story” and “The Baby Story” debunked some of the myths surrounding two important transitions in emerging adulthood.

Political Ideology

The media are also important agents of political socialization (McLeod, 2000). Traditionally, it has been thought that young people developed their ideas and loyalties about politics and the political system primarily from learning and modeling their parents’ political behavior and affiliations. A small body of research suggested that attention to political news in the media, especially newspapers, increased political knowledge and participation. Recently, however, scholars have begun to notice that emerging adults are paying less attention to traditional sources of political news (newspaper reading among 18- to 35- year olds is the lowest ever) and more attention to news on blogs and webzines and political humor shows such as “The Daily Show,” late night talk shows, and ideologically slanted radio talk shows. One study found that 47% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 obtained at least some of their political information from late night entertainment shows, such as “Jay Leno” (“The tough job of communicating,” 2000).

Although some critics argue that the concomitant increase in political cynicism and low levels of voting in this cohort is a reasonable response to the current state of politics (Buckingham, 1997), others are suggesting that coming of age politically in a communication environment that ridicules and makes fun of most politicians and their policies does not bode well for the future of a participatory democracy. After listening to Rush Limbaugh in one experiment, participants, regardless of race, gender, or prior political orientation, were significantly more likely to make policy judgments using the values most highly praised and endorsed by the conservative political commentator, emphasizing individualism over egalitarianism (Barker, 2002). The hit television show, “The West Wing,” which features a strong yet humble U.S. president, has been found in experimental studies with college students to prime positive thoughts about the office of the president (Holbert, et al., 2003).

In sum, emerging adults may apply content from the mass media in a number of areas of their lives and may use the mass media as reference points in resolving developmental tasks and transitions. The mass media may have an influence on emerging adults’ trust in the world, fear, and aggressive behavior. Images of beauty may compel emerging adults to diet, exercise, and even undergo plastic surgery to achieve an ideal look while the sheer amount of time spent using the media may counteract efforts to be thin and/or muscular. Emerging adults may aspire to glamorous occupations because of what they’ve seen portrayed in the media, and may learn more about life transitions such as marriage and children. Developing political ideologies and expectations of the government may be affected by media portrayals.

Given that much of what we know now about media effects and application is based on studies with younger children and adolescents, it will be valuable to look more closely at how this works for emerging adults who typically have more resources, may be more discriminating and more able than children and adolescents to act on what they see, hear and read. We should continue to ask, as the relatively few previous studies have, if emerging adults use the media as part of their process of constructing who they will be as adults? Are they choosing and applying aspects of the media that are relevant to who they are and/or want to be?

The Future: What Could/Should Be Done?

Given that the media world is becoming simultaneously increasingly ubiquitous, interactive and personal, emerging adults will have to be become even more selective in what they attend to. Some fear that such selectivity will lead to increasing narrowness of vision and ideology because young people will tend to choose only those voices and images that reinforce their existing worldviews (Brown & Pardun, 2004). A few approaches may help young people develop the skills to negotiate more productively in this cacophony of media choices.

Media Literacy

One of the most promising strategies is what is called “media literacy,” or the ability to ask questions about what is watched, seen or read. The idea is beginning to gain a foothold in the United States after a number of years of popularity in other countries, including England, Canada and Australia (Brown, 1991). A number of grassroots and professional groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Education Association, have begun promoting the introduction of media literacy curricula in public schools, educating pediatricians about the importance of media in their patients’ lives, and even stressing the need for anti-drug programs to include media literacy components (Helping youth navigate the information age, 2001). The basic idea is that some of the deleterious effects of media consumption can be reduced if youth are more aware of 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 (Singer & Singer, 1998).

Unfortunately, little research has been conducted to evaluate the efficacy of media literacy interventions, but a few studies suggest that teaching youth media literacy skills can be productive. For example, evaluations of media literacy curricula focused on alcohol and tobacco advertising found increased attitudes critical of the alcohol and tobacco industries’ advertising techniques and decreased intentions to drink alcohol among elementary and middle school students (Austin & Johnson, 1997; Graham & Hernandez, 1993). If media literacy education were begun early, emerging adults might be entering adulthood with a more realistic world view, and might be more capable of selecting and interpreting media in the most beneficial way.
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