ComArtSci Professor Researches Media’s Influence on Teens

Morgan Ellithorpe, assistant professor of Advertising and Public Relations at ComArtSci, partnered with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania to study how risky behaviors portrayed in the media, such as alcohol and tobacco use, sex and violence, are repeated by teenagers.

Take for example, shows like Empire, Narcos and Game of Thrones. Ellithorpe said teenagers see their favorite characters drinking alcohol, doing drugs and/or being violent in multiple episodes and come to think that this is normal behavior.

“My job is to figure out which adolescents are more likely to repeat the risky behaviors they see in the media, what kinds of media are more or less likely to influence behavior and what we can do to decrease the likelihood that these kinds of things will transfer from media to adolescent behavior,” Ellithorpe said.

Media Consumption Differences Across Racial and Ethnic Lines

Ellithorpe and her colleagues have published several research papers on the issue and she presented on the topic at the 67th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association (ICA). Ellithorpe said their research has shown that there are racial and ethnic differences in media consumption.

“We know that black, Hispanic and white adolescents watch different kinds and amounts of media, and the media they watch portrays different risk behaviors to different extents,” Ellithorpe said.

For example, Ellithorpe and her colleagues have found that black youth watch more media than their Hispanic or white counterparts and the shows they watch are more likely to include black characters, who are more likely to be involved in sex and alcohol use than white characters. Despite these facts, the team has found that black teenagers seem to be less influenced by media than white teenagers.

Ellithorpe said that, in the past, similar studies did not include media that was relevant to black teenagers, such as television shows with black characters. However, even with the inclusion of this type of media, she has found that black teenagers still show lower levels of media influence than white teenagers. Ellithorpe challenges future research to confirm these findings and help solve the puzzle.

Research Findings Consistent with the CDC

The researchers have also found that drinking alcohol before or during sexual intercourse is common among adolescents and young adults, which is consistent with similar findings by the CDC.

“The combination of alcohol use and sexual behavior is the most common behavioral risk combination in television and movies,” Ellithorpe said. “We know that drinking alcohol before sexual behavior increases sexual risk taking and susceptibility to accidental pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, so it is really important to understand the who, when and why of this behavior.”

Hope for the Future

Ellithorpe hopes that her research will positively impact the lives of young people.

“I hope that stakeholders in adolescent health and wellbeing — from policy-makers to health organizations to physicians and parents — will be able to use this information gleaned from our research to reduce the negative impacts of mediated risk on adolescent behavior,” Ellithorpe said.

In the future, Ellithorpe hopes to explore the role of social media on influencing adolescent behavior.

“Adolescents and young adults are very often posting on social media about television content and we are exploring the possibility that this social media posting could be a way to intervene in the negative influence of television risk behavior,” Ellithorpe said.

Additionally, Ellithorpe hopes to see more research in the area of media targeted at specific racial and ethnic groups, such as Spanish-language programming.

“This is a growing area of scholarship that really needs more research to understand how this media is different from mainstream media, who is watching these kinds of media and the influence exposure to this kind of media has on cognition and behavior,” Ellithorpe said.

By Rianna N. Middleton