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Media Influence on Youth


  • Young girls are being deluged by media images of skinny models:

    Girls are becoming weight conscious as young as 8 years old
    80% of 9 year olds are on diets
    Eating disorders have grown 400% since 1970

  • In a recent survey by Teen People magazine, 27% of the girls felt that the media pressures them to have a perfect body.
  • A 1996 poll conducted by Saatchi and Saatchi found that ads made women fear being unattractive or old.
  • By the time a young person is 17 years old, they have received over 250,000 commercial messages through the media.
  • 69% of girls in one study said that magazine models influence their idea of a perfect body shape.
  • Many males are becoming insecure about their physical appearance as advertising and other media images raise the standard and idealize well-built men.
  • Researchers are seeing an alarming increase in obsessive weight training and the use of anabolic steroids & dietary supplements that promise bigger muscles and more stamina for lifting.
  • Studies are finding that boys, like girls, may turn to smoking to lose weight


  • Three out of four teens say ‘TV shows and movies make it seem normal for teenagers to have sex.’
  • Young teens (ages 13-15) rank entertainment media as the top source of information about sexuality and sexual health
  • Four out of ten teenagers say they have gotten ideas for how to talk to their boyfriends and girlfriends about sexual issues from the entertainment media.
  • The American Psychological Association estimates that teens are exposed to 14,000 sexual references & innuendos per year on TV.
  • A recent report from the Center for Media & Public Affairs found music videos to contain more sex per minute than any competing media genre.
  • A study of 4,294 network television commercials found that nearly one in 4 commercials includes some type of sexual attractiveness as a base for the message.
  • Young teens (13-15) indicate that a major source of sex education is from tv.


  • The Mediascope National Television Violence Study found that children are:

    learning aggressive attitudes and behaviors
    becoming desensitized to real world violence
    developing a fear of being victimized by violence

  • Many of the programs that children watch send the message that a conflict always involves a winner and a loser.
  • On television, perpetrators go unpunished 73% of the time. This gives the message that violence is a successful method of resolving conflicts.
  • 47% of all violent interactions on TV depict no harm to victims.
  • 58% show no pain
  • Only 16% of all broadcast programs show the long-term negative effects of violence.

Source: "The National Institute on Media & Family"

What’s the Problem? Facts about Girls, Women & the Media

When we started talking to and hearing from people across the country (and the globe) who had heard about the Girls, Women + Media Project, we kept hearing the same things over and over again about their frustrations with popular media.

These were things that we also noticed ourselves. For sure, not all women and girls have the same observations and feelings, so we can’t say "this is how ALL girls or women feel." And giving credit where it’s due, we also get emails and comments from men—some are really cool dads who care about their daughters (and their sons, too), others just concerned, conscientious men who care about women, about men and women getting along, and about quality and equality in our culture (…yeah!).

But if you’re reading this and thinking you’ve got complaints or suggestions for the media that are unique to you, chances are, there are a whole lot of other people thinking the same thing. So we took a look at the comments we get and hear all the time, divided them into some sort of fancy sounding categories, and did a little research. Here are a few things we found:

Unrealistic, unhealthy portrayals of female sexuality, sexual health, and gratuitous female sexuality and nudity:

  • S-e-x. It’s everywhere in the media. The average young TV viewer will see about 14,000 references to sex each year. Does it matter? According to teens, yes! Teens themselves say that TV, as well as movies and other media, are some of their leading sources of information about sex and sexuality. But, do these images give people realistic, healthy, equality-minded views of sex? And is overloading teens with portrayals of sex a responsible thing to do at all? Studies show that:
  • Of the roughly 14,0000 references to sex a teen will see on TV each year, only a small fraction (165) will include any reference to abstinence or delay of sex, birth control, risk of pregnancy, or sexually transmitted disease. Obviously girls bear the risk of pregnancy that boys don’t, but girls are also more likely to contract STDs than boys. (American Academy of Pediatrics, Sexuality, Contraception, and the Media, 2001)

Some studies show that repeated exposure to media with sexual content may influence teens to have sex earlier. But here’s the scary part: those same studies show that the younger a girl is when she has sex; the more likely she did it under pressure, or force. (AAP; see above)

What other messages do girls (and boys) get about sexuality from the media?

A lot of it comes from the music industry, especially through music videos.

  • MTV, the favorite TV of girls 11-19, regularly includes girls and women in the traditional role of sex object, as seen in features on the network (think Spring Break) and many music videos. Girls and women who are serious musicians (excluding singers) are rarely featured. Programs and videos show boys/men as sex objects much less frequently. (MTV Programming; and Media Use in America, 2000, Mediascope)
  • A study shows that when men are shown in the background of a video, they are most often fully clothed. But, when women are in the background, approximately half the time, they are dressed in ways that expose or focus on their breasts and rear ends. (ChildrenNow, Boys to Men: Media Messages About Masculinity, 1999)
  • A possibly related statistic: A study from the mid-1990’s shows that 90% of the top 100 music videos shown on MTV were directed by men. (Sut Jhally, Dreamworlds 2, Media Education Foundation, 1995)
  • A study of video games found that the few female characters in those games are often highly sexualized—wearing tight revealing clothing and having unrealistically large breasts and distorted small waists. (Girls and Gaming, Children Now; 2000)
  • Video games and other media sometimes use prostitutes as characters that are targets for the male hero. In a game from the Duke Nukem series, prostitutes are forced to strip and are then killed. In the number one selling video game for 2001, Grand Theft Auto III, the player can "clobber" a prostitute with a baseball bat, with a new game technique, that allows the player to feel he or she is really doing this. In other popular media, prostitutes and strippers are often included to add scenes of female breasts and rear-ends on camera. These "games" offer viewers images of women and female sexuality associated with exchanging sex for money, and sex with violence.
  • In advertising, women’s bodies are used sexually to sell products much more often than men’s. A 1997 advertising study showed that white women in roughly 62% of ads were "scantily clad," in bikinis, underwear, etc, while the same was true for 53% of black women. For men, the figure was only 25%. Women were also represented in stances of powerlessness more often, and black women were likely to be featured in animal prints, and in predatory poses. (Racial and Gender Biases in Magazine Advertising, S. Plous and D. Neptune, 1997, Psychology of Womens Quarterly)

Non-realistic and unhealthy body image:

  • The women seen most often in the media are fashion models, pop stars (singers) and actresses. (We don’t like the word "supermodel," ‘cause they really don’t do anything that super.) Many women seen often in the media, especially models and increasingly actresses, are seriously underweight, and many diet and smoke to keep their natural weight off. (A girl or woman who diets and is underweight can be undernourished, sometimes even losing her menstrual period. Prolonged loss of periods can lead to fertility problems---while constant or extreme dieting also carries health risks and can actually lead to long-term weight gain.) (Body Wars, by Margo Maine, 2000)
  • In a 1992 study of female students at Stanford University, 70% of women reported feeling worse about themselves and their bodies after looking at magazines. (A British study also had a similar finding.) Roughly 50% of teen girls in the U.S. read teen or adult fashion magazines. (Body Wars)
  • In movies, body doubles are often used to substitute for "imperfect" female movie stars (such as America’s favorite actress Julia Roberts, in one of America’s favorite movies, Pretty Woman). Eighty-five percent of these body doubles have breast implants. (Jean Kilbourne, Can't Buy My Love, 2001)
  • Scientific evidence suggests many women with breast implants have some adverse affects: pain, permanently deformed skin if implant is removed, loss of sensation in breast, interference with early detection of a tumor, and potential links with serious auto-immune disorders. (National Research Center for Women and Wash., D.C.)
  • Studies show that all plastic surgeries among teens increased by almost 50% from 1996-1998, mostly for girls. At the same time there have been more advertisements for breast implants and other surgeries, and more models, actresses, and singers as "advertisements" for the surgeries (think Cher, Pamela Anderson, Demi Moore, Mariah Carey, and some have suggested, Britney). (; 1/9/01)

Information and messages about health:

  • Many young women say they get a lot of their information on health from the media, including magazines and entertainment TV. (In Their Own Words: Adolescent Girls Discuss Health and Healthcare Issues, Commonwealth Fund, 1997)
  • However, editorial content in magazines can be influenced by what the magazines advertisers like, so it’s hard to know whether what’s written (or not written) about health is really in the best interests of girls and women, or whether it’s influenced by advertisers' profit motives. (New York Times, 5/4/98; Magazine Marketing Raises Questions of Editorial Independence, by Robin Pogrebin)
  • While teen girls account for a large part of smokers and new smokers, movies starring teen idols and aimed at teens often show "cool characters" smoking. For movies rated PG-13, 82% of movies show characters smoking. And it’s very rare that a movie will show any negative consequences for smoking. (Substance Abuse in Popular Movies and Music, Mediascope, 1999

Hate and violence directed at women:

  • Words expressing hate and disrespect toward girls and women are used frequently in popular media, and especially on TV and radio. Use of words derogatory to girls and women like "bitch," "slut," "whore," and "ho" can be heard on many TV and radio programs, especially those watched and listened to by kids, including WWF (wrestling) programs, That 70’s Show, and Boston Public, as well as on the radio.
  • Advertisements from some segments of the fashion industry use images of violence against a woman and try to make it fashionable or erotic. An ad for jeans in Elle shows three men physically attacking a woman; an Italian edition of Vogue shows an ad with a man pointing a gun at the face of a naked woman wrapped in plastic; from an American skateboard manufacturer, an ad aimed at young men shows a man pointing a gun at the head of a female, along with the slogan "bitch." (Jean Kilbourne, Can't Buy My Love, 2001)

Stereotypes and double standards, especially for age:

  • Stereotypes can be seen in many areas of TV, movies, videogames, and other media. Although the 80’s and 90’s saw more female characters, especially on TV, in tough action roles, before reserved for men (Buffy, Dark Angell, Witchblade, Lara Croft, Crouching Tiger: Hidden Dragon), the tough gal usually has to fit the stereotype of being gorgeous, young, and usually white. To be fair, a lot of male protagonists have to be gorgeous, too, with some exceptions …which leads us to…
  • Ageism: Male leading actors have longer careers than females; leading male actors over 40 are hired roughly 60% more than female actors over 40, according to the Screen Actors Guild, 2000. That’s a difference of about 7,000 jobs and millions of dollars a year. (Think Gene Hackman, 71, Sean Connery, 71, Jack Nicholson, 65, Robert Redford, 64, Danny DeVito, 57…and lots more. On their own series or features on TV, think Dick Van Dyke, 76, James Garner, 73, Regis Philbin, 68, or Dick Clark, 72. Quick; name a female action hero, host of a TV show, or series lead, over 60 years old . . . ??? . . . ).
  • In a study of prime time TV and daytime TV, roles for older men outnumbered those for older women, women are made older sooner, and an older woman who is cast is more likely than an older man to be stereotyped as bad, or "evil." (Casting the American Scene, 1998, Dr. George Gerbner, for Screen Actors Guild)
  • According to one study of video games, African American female characters are predominantly portrayed as victims of violence, rarely as heroic winning characters; a Latina character almost never exists, though Latinas/Latinos are now the largest ethnic minority group in the U.S. (Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Race in Videogames, ChildrenNow, 2001)

Some Things You Should Know About Media Violence and Media Literacy

  • Media violence can lead to aggressive behavior in children. Over 1,000 studies confirm this link.
  • By age 18, the average American child will have viewed about 200,000 acts of violence on television alone.
  • The level of violence during Saturday morning cartoons is higher than the level of violence during prime time. There are 3 to 5 violent acts per hour in prime time, versus 20 to 25 acts per hour on Saturday morning.
  • Media violence is especially damaging to young children (under age 8) because they cannot easily tell the difference between real life and fantasy. Violent images on television and in movies may seem real to young children. They can be traumatized by viewing these images.
  • Media violence affects children by:

    Increasing aggressiveness and anti-social behavior.
    Increasing their fear of becoming victims.
    Making them less sensitive to violence and to victims of violence.
    Increasing their appetite for more violence in entertainment and in real life.

  • Media violence often fails to show the consequences of violence. This is especially true of cartoons, toy commercials and music videos. As a result, children learn that there are few if any repercussions for committing violent acts.
  • Parents can reduce the effect media violence has on children by:

    Limiting the amount of television children watch to 1 to 2 hours a day.
    Monitoring the programs children watch and restricting children's viewing of violent programs.
    Monitoring the music videos and films children see, as well as the music children listen to, for violent themes.
    Teaching children alternatives to violence.

  • Parents can help children develop media literacy skills by:

    Helping children distinguish between fantasy and reality.
    Teaching them that real-life violence has consequences.
    Watching television with children and discussing the violent acts and images that are portrayed. Ask children to think about what would happen in real life if the same type of violent act were committed. Would anyone die or go to jail? Would anyone be sad? Would the violence solve problems or create them?
    Asking children how they feel after watching a violent TV show, movie, or music video.


"Media Violence," AAP Committee on Communications, in Pediatrics, Vol. 95, No. 6, June 1995.
"Suggestions for Parents: Children Can Unlearn Violence," in the Center for Media and Values (now the Center for Media Literacy) Media and Values, No. 62, 1993, "Media and Violence: Part One: Making the Connections."

Adapted from: Girls, Women + Media Project

For additional information please see:

Teen Handout

Technology & Teens

Technology, Teens & Domestic Violence

Educating against High-tech Abuse

Media Influence Links

Buying America's Youth

Television Parental Controls

TV Turn Off

Internet Media Parent

Understanding the Impact of the Media

Parents: The Anti-drug

Parent Aptitude Test

The More You Know

New Study on Teen Communication Preferences

Speakers Available

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