The media can also have a positive influence on young people. Many psychologists believe pro-social or helping behaviour can be encouraged and taught by television. There are several explanations as to why this might be.
Explanations for media influences on pro-social behaviour
The first thing to identify when studying the positive effects of television, is how frequently is pro-social behaviour shown. Greenberg (1980) found an equal amount of pro-social behaviour to ant-social behaviour. This shows that pro-social behaviour is commonly shown on children’s television, so children are exposed to it.
Most psychologists agree that the most valid explanation of how children acquire pro-social behaviour is Bandura’s ‘social learning theory’. This theory says that children learn through watching things around them, and then copying that behaviour. So a child could watch pro-social behaviour on television and then copy this in real life. This theory could also work in conjunction with the theory of operant condition. This theory suggests that we learn through reward and punishment, so if a child watches a pro-social behaviour on the television and sees that the character is rewarded then operant conditioning would reinforce the learning of pro-social behaviour.
Factors that affect the influence of the media on pro-social behaviour
Research by Rice (1990) found that the pro-social messages broadcast by Sesame Street had greater influence if a child watched the programme with a parent, and then talked about it afterwards. Rosenkoetter said this is because the child won’t necessarily understand the pro-social message if the parent doesn’t explain it.
Age has a big effect on how much influence the media has on pro-social behaviour. Eisenberg said we learn the skills needed to carry out pro-social behaviour throughout childhood and adolescence, however older children develop these skills to a greater extent, so older children might be more affected by pro-social portrayals than younger children.
However, Mares (1996) found that the media has a greater effect on younger children than adolescents, this could be because adolescents already have set ideas about topics that the television talks about, so the pro-social messages might not change these set ideas and beliefs.
What sort of pro-social behaviour does the media teach?
Mares (1996) carried out a meta-analysis of a wide variety of research looking into the pro-social effects of the media and found television can teach pro-social behaviour in 4 ways; positive interaction, altruism, self-control, and anti-stereotyping.
Frederick and Stein found that children who had watched a pro-social programme behaviour more positively towards each other than those who had watched a neutral programme, suggesting that pro-social television can increase positive interactions amongst children.
Altruism is the act of doing something good for the sake of it, not necessarily for a reward. Poulos et al. found that children who watched a television programme where a child rescues a dog were more likely to help a distressed dog than those who watched a neutral or anti-social programme. This suggests that television can increase altruism.
Friedrich and Stein found that, after watching Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood for 4 weeks, 4 year olds showed a better level of persistence and resistance to temptation than those who watched aggressive cartoons such as Batman.
Johnston and Ettema conducted a study with several thousand 9-12 year olds who were asked to watch Freestyle, a show which aims to reduce gender-role stereotyping, over a 13 week period. There were moderate improvements in anti-stereotyping, with most children making less stereotypes about gender roles.
Pro-social versus anti-social effects of television
It is clear that pro-social television can have a positive effect, increasing pro-social behaviour and reducing anti-social behaviour. However, this research assumes that children watch only pro-social television, but of course this isn’t true. At the very minimum there is the same level of anti-social television broadcast, if not more. Many psychologists believe that this means that overall any pro-social behaviour learnt will be nullified by the anti-social behaviour learnt from other programmes.
However, Lovelace and Huston (1983) suggest that this can be overcome if the anti-social acts are set against the pro-social goals in the same programme. For example, if the evil character acts anti-socially, but eventually loses to the good, pro-social character then children are going to learn pro-social behaviour more than anti-social.