“Monkey See, Monkey Do”: Protecting Kids from Negative Social Influence in the Media

By Andrew Scherbarth, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Clinical Child Psychologist

What exactly is social influence? Social influence is the effect of modeling – not runway models with their fancy clothes but the effects that happen when kids see how others behave. Social influence can be a good thing, such as when kids see good role models who make them want to work hard or be kind. However, social influence can be negative if kids see someone act out inappropriately, rudely or aggressively, followed by that person coming out ahead. This article will describe how social learning works, social rewards shown as a result of negative behavior in the media, the effects that happen when kids or teens observe negative social influences, as well as what can be done by parents to reduce the influence of negative social role models on our kids and teens.

Social influence can positively or negatively affect children, depending on the behavior being modeled.

Does social learning change behavior? It absolutely does.

In a classic experiment in 1960 by social learning theory theorist Albert Bandura et al, two groups of kids were separately shown a video. One group saw a child treating an inflatable child-sized clown blow-up doll with respect. The other group saw a child punching, kicking and knocking over the doll while laughing. After seeing the video, each group was put into a room with the exact replica of the doll in the video. In both groups, the kids treated the doll the way they saw the kids in the video treat the doll—either with respect or with aggression.

Negative social learning can happen as a result of a child viewing any type of media source—video games, television, movies, social media or even the news. What kind of incentives for negative social behavior does a child observe in the media?

Video gamesvideo-games-fan-893839-m like Grand Theft Auto show prostitution as being paid off with health and aggression/robbery with more items, cars and cash. Other video games give more money or more experience points for increased killing. TV shows or movies may depict criminal life and drug use with the characters receiving higher amounts of money, fame, respect, attention from romantic partners, the thrill of defeating those who are trying to bring them to justice, laughs and/or popularity.

In various countries, dictators or other leaders who are socially aggressive can be revered and described as being “great,” “powerful,” or “strong leaders.” Violent protesters can be seen as being “heroes” fighting for a just cause—even when they are actually causing people to get hurt or property to be destroyed. Ironically, even if these acts shown in the media ultimately push many people away from the behavior, the short-term positive results they portray can still influence kids or teens to do these behaviors. Social media, such as YouTube and Facebook, may show stories about aggressive, crude or reckless people which receive a high positive view rating.

Do kids and teens who view negative media engage in negative behaviors as a result? Yes

The effect is shown to be greater when someone develops a preference to choose violent/aggressive media, leading to further exposure to negative role models (Boxer et al, 2008). The effects were measured to determine both the impact on boys (direct physical aggression after playing violent video games for children with less empathy and social understanding, but even those with higher levels of social understanding demonstrated more social aggression—Wallenius, 2007) and also girls (aggressive television viewing leading to more bullying among girls in school settings—Martins, 2008). Even children on the spectrum appear to be impacted by the types of games they play, and it is associated with oppositional behavior (Mazurek, 2013). Clearly, kids are influenced by violent or aggressive media and engage in lower intensity aggressive acts (pushing, name calling, verbal disrespect), even if they never engage in some of the exact acts that were shown on social media (shooting guns, fist fighting, etc.).

What can parents do to prevent negative social influence from the media? Some suggestions are:

  1. Choose holiday gifts wisely. Consider video games with sports and/or that require strategy, such as dialog, social decision making and problem solving—but not graphic violence. Video games have ratings, just like movies do—M for Mature is a clue that it may be unwise to buy it.
  2. Choose carefully the movies and television shows that your child is allowed to watch. Limit exposure to those with negative or “adult” themes and encourage pro-social themes like achievement, respect or kindness.
  3. Consider internet and/or cable box filters for various sites and/or monitor online behavior.
  4. Limit exposure to graphic or extensive news about negative events or role models. As a parent, you want to stay informed, but consider whether your kids need to see or hear the news about terrorists and terror attacks or watch dictators or other leaders act aggressively. It might impact their sense of safety.
  5. For kids who are mature enough, describe in age-appropriate ways what is happening in relation to something that you both just viewed on TV. Explain the choices that were made and the negative result of those choices—even if the show only demonstrated the positive short-term result.
  6. Related to news, young adolescents often talk about current events in their classrooms or view news stories online and have a reaction. You may even want to talk with a younger child if they bring up something that another kids told them in school. While we cannot keep kids in a bubble and we know that they will encounter some of these things, we can limit exposure to negative influences and help them process what they’ve seen or heard about.
  7. Parents can also talk to their children about ways to behave that allow them to be positive role models for others, as well as how to deal with negative influences in real life. Further, by demonstrating at home how to put these positive strategies to work, parents can be a positive role model for their children.

Therapists at Keystone Behavioral Pediatrics, in Jacksonville, Fla., can help children learn positive behaviors and guide parents in how to avoid negative influences. Keystone works with all child behavior disorders and provides behavior therapy for autism and all other types of pediatric behavior, developmental, emotional and learning issues.

Parent Resources:

Simply Psychology: Bobo Doll Experiment

Rutgers Today: Rutgers Researcher’s Study Cites Media Violence as ‘Critical Risk Factor’ for Aggression

Disability Scoop: Autism Behavior Problems Linked To Video Game Play

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