In the 1960s, American poet Allen Ginsburg once noted, “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.” Singer Jim Morrison later said, “Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.” If these statements were true in the days before the internet and social media, then they have become considerably more apparent in today’s world. According to Khan Academy, mass media is the dissemination of information, or how information is transmitted within a culture. It can include print media, like books, newspapers, and magazines, as well as digital media, like TV, movies, radio, and the internet. Sociologists look at the role mass media plays in society from different perspectives. While one function of mass media is to provide entertainment, it also promotes a consumer culture. Additionally, it acts as an agent of socialization and an enforcer of social norms. It tells us what society expects of us through what it rewards and punishes, but it sometimes glorifies behaviors that society as a whole would consider wrong, such as the intense physical violence often depicted in video games. In some cases, large media corporations control what reaches the public, and the information represents the dominant ideology, which is typically that of wealthy white males. In these cases, minority groups are underrepresented and often stereotyped (“Mass Media,” 00:00:04–00:00:15). Mass media can influence Americans’ political views, tastes in popular culture, views of women and minorities, and many other beliefs and practices. In particular, mass media significantly impacts values by shaping American culture and directly affecting consumerism, behavior, and body image.
To begin with, consumerism is a preoccupation with the buying of consumer goods. Mass media affects consumerism by putting pressure on Americans to buy more. Commercials can greatly influence an individual’s product choices, from the type of carbonated beverage they drink to the shoes they wear, along with countless other buying decisions. Through advertising, mass media creates cultural “symbols” to manipulate a person’s sense of self. In this way, advertisers make certain products desirable by giving them a shared cultural meaning. For example, when you see a man driving a Mercedes, you may assume he is successful or powerful because of the car he drives. A technology company might use advertising to become a symbol of innovation. Use of that company’s product, therefore, may send a particular message about the person using it (“Media Effects Theories”). By association, others may perceive him to be someone who values innovation, or his sense of self-importance might be tied to being one of the first people to own the latest device, such as the newest version of a popular or highly in-demand smartphone.
Mass media also shapes American culture by affecting people’s behavior. It is often blamed for a “decay in morality,” such as youth violence and many of society’s other negative aspects. The average child sees thousands of acts of violence on television and in the movies before reaching young adulthood. Additionally, rap lyrics often glorify violence, including violence against women. As mass media socializes children, adolescents, and even adults, a key question is the extent to which media violence causes violence in American society. Studies show a strong correlation between watching violent television shows and movies and committing violence (“Agents of Socialization”). Children and adolescents can be easily influenced. They tend to imitate what they see, whether positive or negative. They are often exposed to violent shows and video games. Researchers estimate that 90 percent of movies, 68 percent of video games, and 60 percent of television shows depict some type of violence. There are plenty of examples of accidental murders caused by a child who was imitating wrestling moves he saw on television or reenacting a police show’s scene with a gun found in the home. Parents are unaware of how this “entertainment” can affect young people who learn to imitate violence. However, imitating violence isn’t the only effect on behavior. Mass media is also an important influencer on adolescents’ sexual behavior. Those who are exposed to more sexually driven media and perceive greater support from media for this behavior report greater intentions to engage in sexual activity. Young people have access to sexually themed magazines, television shows, and music, and they often lack an awareness of the potential dangers of engaging in sexual activity (“Effects of Mass Media”).
Lastly, mass media shapes American culture by directly affecting women’s body image. It puts pressure on women and young girls to meet an unattainable standard of physical perfection. Every year, the total number of hours that all Americans combined spend watching television is estimated to be around 250 billion hours. Of those 250 billion hours, about 30 percent is advertising, which means 75 billion hours of ads. Likewise, popular women’s magazines and many teen magazines are full of ads. How can women spend so much time looking at ads and not be affected by them? Mass media has a direct impact on women’s body image because of the number of images in the media and the high amount of exposure women have to them. The goal of advertising is to convince people to buy products, but ads seldom portray people who look like the women who see them. Female fashion models typically wear a size two or four, but the average American woman wears a size twelve to fourteen. Clothing designers often use very thin models because they think clothes look better on them. Advertisers use software such as Photoshop to edit photos of models in print ads to remove minor flaws or make the models look even thinner. Thus, the body image that advertising portrays seldom looks like the women at which the ads are aimed. Ads showing bodies that are not very realistic or representative of the general population have far-reaching effects. The constant barrage of unrealistic images can cause feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression. It can even lead to eating disorders (“The Media and Body Image”). According to Alexis Jones, Founder and CEO of ProtectHer, “…it comes down to a worth issue. …the way our culture and society has set up worth for girls…is reinforced in the 10.3 hours of media a day, especially, that millennials consume. The messages that are so crystal clear, specifically in this country, are there are two ways in which you matter as a girl. It’s your physical attractiveness based on an impossible, unrealistic, unattainable expectation, and the attention that you get from boys” (Jones, 00:43:33–00:43:53).
Obviously, mass media is an important source of socialization that was unimaginable a half-century ago. Today, it significantly impacts values by shaping American culture and directly affecting consumerism, behavior, and body image. Whether pressuring Americans to buy more goods—specifically, those that symbolize wealth, power, or some other attractive quality, impacting our behavior, or pressuring women to try to replicate some unattainable level of physical perfection, mass media influences Americans’ beliefs, goals, and overall sense of self-worth. In a society that values free will, it is amazing to see the influence that mass media has on the opinions Americans hold and the decisions they make. The next time you need a new pair of sneakers, when you pick out the pair you want, ask yourself why you like them. Did you see them on TV? Are your friends all wearing them? Are they a well-known brand and, by wearing them, will others associate you with a certain level of wealth? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you will see how mass media has shaped American values.