Video games, movies and television, Facebook and Twitter—for a couch-potato child, digital culture is rarely more than a fingertip away. Young Americans spend on average about seven and a half hours a day with digital media. In fact, they often multitask, using many devices simultaneously to pack in some 10 hours and 45 minutes’ worth of content every day, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report. With kids devoting more free time to media than many adults spend at their full-time jobs, you would not be alone in wondering what they are taking away from the experience.

Of course, hand-wringing over how TV and the Internet are warping young brains is hardly new. Even for kids bedazzled by tweets and text messages, video—whether on a smartphone, at a movie theater or on an actual TV—still dominates the digital landscape. Indeed, recent studies show that children and teenagers develop beliefs directly influenced by the movie characters and TV stars they observe.

At first glance, TV seems decidedly troublesome. A Senate committee determined in 1999 that the average American child sees 200,000 violent acts—including 16,000 murders—on TV by the time they reach the age of 18. Somehow squeezed in between all the bludgeoning and bloodshed, nearly two thirds of all TV shows also manage to air overtly sexual material, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports.

To date, though, the research on whether movies and TV shows are a bad influence is still mixed. Many studies have demonstrated that exposure to sex, drugs and violence on-screen can make all three seem more acceptable in real life. But a growing body of work indicates that children also learn valuable lessons from television, long after their Sesame Street years have passed. As with any potential threat, parents need to offer guidance—reality checks that put “reality” shows in context.

Switched On
First, the bad stuff. In 2002 Madeline A. Dalton and her colleagues at Dartmouth Medical School decided to investigate the thread connecting children, the media and risky behaviors by analyzing the impact of R-rated films. They surveyed approximately 4,500 students aged 10 to 14 and collected data on numerous factors affecting their lives, such as parenting characteristics, school performance and general rebelliousness. Of those whose parents let them watch R-rated films, 35 percent had smoked and 46 percent had tried alcohol. The teens who had not watched R-rated films—only 16 percent of the sample—appeared to be at one-third the risk of experimenting with drinking or smoking, when all other factors were accounted for.

Dalton’s group then became curious about how those vices emerge over time. She and her colleagues asked some 3,500 middle schoolers—none of whom had ever smoked—to identify which movies they had seen from a list of 50 films, all featuring characters who lit up. They reinterviewed these same preteens 13 to 26 months later. By then about 10 percent of them had puffed on their first cigarette. The scientists found that the kids who had seen the most smoke-filled flicks were more than twice as likely as their peers to have tried smoking. They also noticed that smoking in movies made a stronger impression on teens whose parents did not smoke.

To look into the question of teen sexuality, in 2006 L. Monique Ward and Kimberly Friedman of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor showed 244 high school students clips from popular TV sitcoms, some of which illustrated one of three stereotypes: “sex is relaxing,” “women have to look good” or “men only think about sex.” They found that the heaviest TV watchers in their sample were most likely to agree with the stereotypes and to have had sexual experiences at an earlier age. Amy Bleakley and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania reported similar findings in 2008. They surveyed 500 adolescents aged 14 to 16 and discovered that kids exposed to more on-screen sex tended to become sexually active younger. What is more, sexually active teens preferred more risqu programming.

Some 57 percent of Bleakley’s respondents listed popular media as a main source of information about sex, trailing behind only friends, teachers and mothers. Based on this statistic, Bleakley, along with her colleagues Amy Jordan and Michael Hennessy, published an editorial in 2010 in the Philadelphia Inquirer urging the media to do a better job at presenting sex and its attendant risks. “Characters should discuss contraception,” they wrote. “Unplanned pregnancies should not always be resolved with a convenient miscarriage. Plotlines that show romantic relationships should model conversations about testing for sexually transmitted diseases.”

Ward has found evidence that more realistic scripts could help kids make better decisions. When she interviewed more than 500 teenagers who regularly watched the TV series Friends, 60 percent said the show had taught them how to say “no” when pressured sexually. Just less than half of the teens said that watching the show had made it easier for them to discuss safe sex with their partners.

Another study centered on Friends looked into the impact of one plotline in greater depth. Rebecca L. Collins of Rand Health found that teens gained valuable information from a 2003 episode in which a character discovers she is pregnant. Among the fans she questioned, 65 percent remembered the key fact from the episode—namely, that condoms are only 95 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. About one in 10 of those interviewed said they talked to an adult about condoms after seeing the episode.

Television shows also may have the power to foster social tolerance among young adults. In 2009 Ward and Jerel P. Calzo, also at Michigan, polled attitudes about sexual orientation among more than 1,700 college students, almost all of whom identified themselves as heterosexual. The responses revealed that students who watched a lot of prime-time television tended to be significantly more accepting of homosexuality—a subject that currently appears in about 15 percent of American sitcoms and series, according to Deborah Fisher of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. The influence of popular culture, however, is not limited to TV. Music video fans in the survey tended to be more comfortable with homosexuality, too.

Friends in TV Land
How can it be that screen personalities, who are often fictional, hold such power to change children’s attitudes and behaviors? The answer lies in the bonds that teens—and, in fact, viewers of all ages—frequently forge with TV characters. Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl first described these one-sided, or parasocial, relationships in a seminal paper in the journal Psychiatry in 1956. More recently, Tilo Hartmann of the Free University of Amsterdam described parasocial ties in more detail. As Hartmann sees it, fans do not simply like a character—they try to guess his motives and how other characters will react to him, much as they would with a real person. They know the character is not real, but they nonetheless perceive him as part of their social environment. Jaye Derrick and Shira Gabriel of the University of Buffalo and Kurt Hugenberg of Miami University in Ohio have shown that parasocial interactions can be so significant as to substitute for actual friends.

For teens, parasocial relationships can be especially meaningful. By identifying with favorite characters and observing how they navigate sticky on-screen situations, kids can learn strategies to handle problems they may feel uncomfortable discussing with family or friends. There can also be genuine benefits for adolescents who adopt celebrities as role models. Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura, who pioneered the theory of observational learning in the 1960s, found that adolescents tend to choose role models who exhibit positive traits—such as power, attractiveness and popularity—that the teens believe also describe themselves. Not all role models are created equal, but even seemingly undesirable ones, for example, ones who reject authority, may help teenagers establish independence, a crucial developmental step during puberty.

Karin Lenzhofer, a media researcher at the University of Klagenfurt in Austria, argues that current films, TV shows and music videos offer an abundance of positive role models, particularly for young women. She believes that seeing strong, self-possessed female performers and pop icons has a subliminal and largely positive effect on the self-image of girls. Claudia Wegener of the Konrad Wolf School for Film and Television in Potsdam, Germany, found evidence that supports that idea. In 2008 she interviewed more than 3,000 people between the ages of 12 and 20 and found that the die-hard fans among them were usually well integrated and socially engaged. For most, idol worship does not overshadow normal, everyday interactions.

Real-world relationships may in fact temper the influence of media role models. “Adolescents are not watching in an isolated environment,” Wegener says. They often discuss specific characters with friends and family and form opinions based on those conversations. Indeed, today’s teens want to talk: a study conducted in 2007 by Frank N. Magid Associates, a media consulting group, revealed that 93 percent of the teenagers surveyed had good relationships with their mothers, significantly higher than two decades ago. In keeping, the Nielsen Company has found that roughly a third of the prime-time viewers of ABC Family, a network with several series about teens facing difficult circumstances, are women aged 18 to 49, suggesting that mothers and daughters are watching together. When adults help children make sense of what they see, read and hear, the media can be a powerful teaching tool.