Lucious Lyon, from the popular FOX TV show “Empire,” is often associated with gun violence, alcohol abuse, and unsafe sex. The music mogul’s conduct has something in common with many teenagers: Their risky behaviors tend to happen in clusters.
Whether movies and TV shows have a direct impact on real-life risky acts—specifically the co-occurring ones in youth—is a main topic of interest for Amy Bleakley, a senior research scientist at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, and Morgan Ellithorpe, a postdoctoral fellow.
“A lot of work has been done looking at sex in the media and its effect on sex behavior, or violence in the media and its effect on aggression,” explains Bleakley. “We’re delving a little deeper and looking at how these risk behaviors are portrayed together in the media adolescents are exposed to, and whether that has an effect on the combinations of risk behaviors in real life.”
Since last year, Bleakley and Ellithorpe have been engaged in a study of 2,000 American teenagers and how media content influences their behaviors.
“When it comes to media, most of its content, especially if we’re talking about sex, there’s no depiction of what we call risk and responsibility,” says Bleakley. “You don’t see condoms on screen, you don’t see kids getting STDs or pregnant from unsafe sex, or the emotional fallout that comes with early sexual initiation. They are seeing rewards characters get for engaging in these risky behaviors, and after a while, that becomes reinforced.”
Bleakley and Ellithorpe are also studying the susceptibility of different youth groups, particularly the differences between white and African-American adolescents.
“It seems that although African-American youth tend to spend more time with media—almost double what whites watch—it doesn’t seem to have such large behavioral effects,” Bleakley says. “We’re trying to figure out why.”
In a study published in January, “Wanting to See People Like Me? Racial and Gender Diversity in Popular Adolescent Television,” Bleakley and Ellithorpe explain how analyzing only the effect of mainstream shows on youth may not be sufficient in investigations.
“Black youth are watching mainstream content, but importantly also are exposing themselves to content with more racial diversity,” the study says.
That’s why Bleakley and Ellithorpe are being sure to include what they are calling “Black-oriented media,” which are movies that have mostly African-American casts and TV shows that are rated high among specifically black adolescents, in their studies.
“There’s a lot more racial diversity in what black adolescents are seeing on TV, in what they’re exposed to on TV, and in their media tastes or preferences,” Bleakley says. “They are part of the audience for these mainstream shows, but then they watch a lot of other content, and those other things that they’re exposed to need to be taken into account when we’re trying to figure out how media influences their behaviors.”
Bleakley and Ellithorpe are also looking at a group of adolescents who are considered “sensation seekers.”
“Some kids during adolescence are more apt to take risks,” says Bleakley. “It’s developmentally appropriate, but we’re looking to see if kids who are higher sensation seekers and who are more impulsive are more vulnerable to seeing risky behaviors in their media exposure.”
To conduct the study, which is supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Bleakley and Ellithorpe, with their collaborators at the Coding of Health and Media Project from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, ran a content analysis of top grossing films from 2014-15, as well as black-oriented films from 2014-15. They also looked at Nielsen’s Top 30 TV shows for adolescents.
“That created a database telling us which risk behaviors characters in the media are portraying, and therefore what adolescents are being exposed to,” says Bleakley.
They use that information to administer a longitudinal survey of 14- to 17-year-old adolescents online.
“We ask them all about their media use, and how much they watched particular media titles,” says Bleakley. “We are able to determine the extent to which they are exposed to these risky behaviors using a combination of their reports and the content analysis. Then we ask about their behavior, how much they drink and have sex, for example, and then we try to link it all together.”
Bleakley, who has a background in public health, says the results from this ongoing study are important to inform policies and, at least, recommendations.
“Policy changes could include improvements to the rating system,” she says. “From a public health perspective, maybe it will introduce family-based interventions, where parents could be encouraged to adjust their home media environment and talk about certain kinds of content.”