Mass media and its influence on stereotypes

  • Awareness
  • 23/01/2019
  • Maltese Safer Internet Centre

The impact of the stereotypes spread in the media is very serious on teenagers, both males and females, and it can have long-lasting consequences. The Maltese Safer Internet Centre (SIC) describe this issue and the activities they carry out to fight the negative influence of stereotypes on children and teenagers.

Without a doubt, one cannot but admit that mass media are part of the world of today, in particular in developed countries. Newspapers and printed materials, the television, the radio and the internet provide entertainment and are necessary for work and daily life, such as for online banking, buying and searching information.

The internet is now the fastest-developing medium, yet television is also still very popular as well as very influential. With the messages sent, highlighted and given importance to, the media has the power to influence people's desires, opinions, beliefs and attitudes.

The brain helps each individual organise their acquired knowledge about the world around them, through a sorting process aimed at simplifying information. The brain creates cognitive schemes, which are certain representations of the reality displaying its most typical and fundamental elements and properties. These schemes help one define the basics of the world and civilisation. They have a significant influence on social cognition, from anticipation of what to expect, to understanding situations and controlling emotions and feelings.

These mental schemes, often based on tradition and resistant to change, produce many simplifications and generalisations. These stereotypes created present an incomplete, subjective and in certain instances, unrealistic or false idea of reality. What children and youths see, hear and understand in the media helps them figure out who and what is valued in our society. The media have a lot of power to endorse stereotypes.
Even today, regardless of the fact that people are so much more conscious of the issue, mass media still perpetuates traditional gender stereotypes. People, including children and youths, fall into the trap of replicating behaviour and assumptions witnessed in online spaces.

Males are influenced regarding the limits of their macho persona, being aggressive and not showing feelings and emotions. Females, on the other hand, are influenced regarding their position in society, occupations and, to a much greater extent than males, to their ideal physical image. Explicit and indirect hidden messages online could reinforce stereotypical gender norms, that influence young people who are in the process of developing their identity and views about the roles and opportunities they see available depending on their gender.

However, the stereotypes propagated by the media go way beyond just gender stereotypes. Due to their great influence on people's attitudes, the television and the internet, in particular, can depict certain social groups in an adverse and unrealistic manner.

It is a known fact that attitudes, values and self-esteem are well developed by the mid-teenage years, or even earlier. One cannot but highlight the violence perpetuated by the online games they play, the messages in the adverts they see and the negative lyrics and behaviour of the popular singers they follow and admire.

When we discuss youths, children and the media we also think about issues the younger generations face, such as bullying and eating disorders, amongst which anorexia, often brought about because of the influence of not having the certain figure and body image portrayed as acceptable by the media. Thus, stereotyping is intertwined with other issues too.

One cannot but ask whether media literacy education can break the cycle partly created or propagated by the internet itself. The best way to fight media stereotypes is, without a doubt, to develop and disseminate educational material and resources. This is what BeSmartOnline have decided to do in Malta, with the production of a short educational clip in Maltese (with English sub-titles for foreign students).

This clip will be used with 11-12-year-old pupils during Personal Social Career Development lessons to educate students regarding stereotypes and the media. This is just one of a set of five clips being produced as part of BeSmartOnline! the other four targeting older students and tackling the issues of acceptable communication on network sites, inappropriate sharing of personal information, pornography and sexting.

It is not just individuals but society as a whole which has to reach an adequate level of social readiness, so that messages breaking gender stereotypes can be effective. This is what BeSmartOnline! will be embarking on in schools in Malta, with training also being offered to all teachers concerned, since throughout their development, students must learn how to deconstruct the narrow, harmful codes that negatively influence how they perceive their own identity and that of others.

This is part of the BeSmartOnline!'s mission to educate, since there are occasions when the media may encourage constructs that can be profoundly anti-social and psychologically harmful.

Find out more information about the work of the Maltese Safer Internet Centre (SIC) generally, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services, or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.

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