In April 1999, two high school students in Columbine embarked on one of the deadliest school massacres the USA had ever seen. In amongst the hand-wringing that followed, concerns were raised about a possible link with violent video games. Several parents went so far as to file lawsuits against the games they believed had “desensitised” their children’s killers.
The impact of media on youth has long been a contentious issue, and, as Steven J Kirsch’s textbook makes clear, there have been scares for as long as parents have worried. Aside from violent games and films, we might cite the belief that magazine spreads encourage anorexia, that passive TV consumption encourages obesity, that social networking sites discourage real-life friendships, that predators lurk in internet chatrooms and children’s academic potential is stymied by all those screens.
Kirsch’s objective is neither to create nor dispel such fears. Rather, he provides a clear-headed and admirably comprehensive survey of the available evidence, discussing how youth consume media and how it seems to affect them as they grow up.
His book is nothing if not well-researched. With 12 succinct chapters, and a good 40 pages of endnotes, Kirsch addresses topics as diverse as ‘Media and Stereotyping’; ‘Advertising, Consumer Behaviour and Youth’; ‘Media and the Sexualization and Sexual Socialization of Youth’; ‘The Role of Media in Alcohol, Tobacco and Drug Use’, and two chapters on ‘Violent Media’. Throughout, he takes a developmental perspective and gives readers a grounding in theory and findings alike, making sure to point out any gaps he encounters along the way.
Media and Youth is an American book focussing on American youth, and as such it might seem to have limited application to the British. This is not to mention the fact that any discussion of media risks looking dated very fast. Nonetheless, Kirsch makes his vast and labyrinthine subject remarkably navigable, with a lucid writing style, clearly structured chapters and a slew of rather endearing personal anecdotes.
The book is an interesting resource even if you wish simply to mine it for facts. Did you know, for example, that 75% of adolescents use IM when online, that ten-year-olds are better able to recognise the Budweiser frogs than Tony the Tiger, or (most gallingly) that 96% of comic strip characters are white? Things get more interesting, however, if you view these findings and others in context, thus getting a sense of the sometimes surprising bigger picture.
Towards the end of the book, a survey of meta-analyses reveals that the areas most influenced by media are not necessarily what one might think. When it comes to body satisfaction, for example, just 3% of the variance amongst youth can be accounted for by media, along with a minuscule 1% of the variance in body weight. Altruism, on the other hand, seems to be fairly heavily affected, with media responsible for 14% of the variance, and so-called ‘prosocial’ media possibly constituting a somewhat overlooked good.
As for those violent video games, the evidence is typically mixed. ‘There are nearly as many studies that fail to find significant associations between violent video game play and aggressive behaviour,’ writes Kirsch, ‘as there are those that do’. Across the board, 7% of the variance in aggression levels would appear to be attributable to video games, although any reader will by now be fully primed to question whether this is correlation or cause.
A fascinating, even-handed and nuanced exploration of its subject, Media and Youth: A Developmental Perspective has much to bring readers both inside and outside an academic context.
An abridged version of this review appears in the May 2011 edition of The Psychologist