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One explanation of the pro-social effects of the media on behaviour comes from Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Bandura’s research suggests that children learn through observing a behaviour, then later imitating it if the expectation of reward is high. For example the child needs to pay attention to a role model for example seeing a super hero, then there needs to be retention of the information into the LTM, reproduction, so the child imitates the same type of behaviour such as helping others, and finally the child needs to be motivated to imitate the behaviour such as, being the same gender.
The process of social learning works in the same way for learning pro-social acts as seen on television as it does for learning anti-social acts (vicarious reinforcement). Unlike the depiction of anti-social acts, however, the depiction of pro-social acts (such as generosity or helping) is likely to be in accord with established social norms (e.g., the need to be helpful and generous to others). Assuming that these social norms have been internalised by the viewer, the imitation of these acts, therefore, is likely to be associated with the expectation of social reinforcement, and so the child is motivated to repeat these actions in their own life. Furthermore, Bandura would also suggest that the pro-social effects of the media derives from reciprocal determinism whereby people who watch programmes about helping people will make friends with people who watch similar TV programmes.
A second explanation of how the media influences pro-social behaviour comes from research into developmental trends. Pro social behaviours have been shown to be contingent on the development of pro social skills, such as perspective taking, empathy and a high level or moral reasoning which continue to develop through adolescence, which increase with age (Eisenberg, 1990). E.g., research has shown that young children are less able to recognise the emotional state of others and are less sure of how to help. It has also been found that children have difficulty recognising and understanding pro-social messages, and may be less affected by pro social messages if these portrayals are more complex than the simple modelling of specific behaviour (Mares, 1996).
One strength of media influences on pro social behaviour comes from further empirical support from Woodward (1999). In their study they found that US programmes for pre-school children had high levels of pro-social content: 77% of programmes surveyed contained at least one pro social lesson. This suggests that there is wider academic credibility for the influence media has on pro-social behaviour.
A further strength of LST comes from further empirical support provided by Mares and Woodward (2001). They found from their research that children are most affected when they are able to see exact steps for positive behaviour, such as when someone donates tokens. This could be because they can remember concrete acts better than abstract ones. This suggests that there is wider academic credibility for the idea of imitating pro-social behaviour. Furthermore, the explanations into the media effects on pro-social behaviour is that there are practical applications. For example, Johnston et al. Found that learning pro social behaviour was best when there were follow up discussions.
For example, when Johnson showed students a TV programme in a classroom and accompanied by teacher-led discussions students were more willing to help. This suggests that using SLT of media can improve the quality of people’s lives who are anti-social. Finally, the research into media effects on pro-social behaviour is that it has high reliability. The reason for this is because the research is carried out in a laboratory study, where there is control over the IV and DV and most extraneous variables are reduced. This suggests that if the research was tested and re-tested then the same results would be achieved.
However, one weakness of the SLT is that because the theory is based in research from the laboratory is it lacks ecological validity. Huston (1983) argues that some programmes foster only limited types of pro-social behaviour that do not really apply in real life. For the best effect stories need to depict ordinary everyday kindness and helping and, after the programme adults in the children’s life need to discuss the programme content with them and role model pro-social behaviour in the course of play. This suggests that the findings from this research could not be applied to real life situations.
Another weakness of Johnston’s research is that there is contradictory evidence provided by Rubenstein et al. (1982). They found that in a study of adolescents hospitalised for psychiatric problems, found that post-viewing discussion led to decreased altruism, possibly because the adolescents wanted to take up a view that was contrary to that held by adults. Moreover, the effects of media on pro-social behaviour is that it is reductionist.
The reason for this is because other factors need to be involved, for example personality and temperament of the child and parents. This suggests that the research is oversimplistic when explaining helping behaviour. A final weakness is that the research is culturally specific. The reason for this because the majority of the research has been carried out in the USA and therefore the criteria of pro-social behaviour may be different to non-western societies. This suggests that the research cannot be generalised to the whole population.