Roles models chosen by the younger generation to follow, imitate, and emulate are a crucial social issue because they define one’s course in life and potential contribution to society. A role model is supposed to be someone whose behavior or achievement is or can be mimicked by others, particularly by younger people. Over the years, kids have been getting into more trouble, whether it’s with the law, gang-related, and even getting pregnant. Even though the need for more positive role models is a demand, most people are still not realizing this. Positive role models influence people’s actions well and help them strive to their full potential, but promoting them requires an understanding of how youngsters choose their role models in the first place.
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The ways in which children and adolescents choose role models are a social issue of paramount importance, as such choices have a profound influence on people’s lives. The vast majority of behaviors that people demonstrate is not devised on one’s own but learned from others. This idea is a staple of social learning theory: people acquire and internalize “behaviors, attitudes, and social norms by imitating others” (Ruggeri et al. 1589). The examples from which to learn are particularly important at a young age because social learning mechanisms already activate in infancy (Ruggeri et al. 1589). As a result, infancy, childhood, and adolescent experiences play a defining role in personality development. Depending on the differences in available and chosen role models, social learning at a young age may lead “to the widely diverging outcomes” in different cases (Kearney and Levine 84). Due to this reason, the youngster’s choice of their role models is a crucial social issue that influences society as a whole through each of its members. Understanding how children and adolescent choose their role models is, therefore, essential to promote socially desirable behaviors.
One important distinction that one has to keep in mind is the age-related difference in the patterns of choosing role models to follow. Smaller children tend to pick adults as their examples due to their greater perceived authority and experience. As demonstrated by Ruggeri et al., when choosing a role model, a child of pre-adolescent age is likely to prefer an older person over a peer, if the two are perceived as equally reliable (1589). Adolescents, on the other hand, demonstrate a directly opposite pattern and tend to rebel against the authority of their elders. When presented with a choice between sufficiently reliable role models, an adolescent will be more likely to choose a peer over an adult (Ruggeri et al. 1595). Thus, if young children have no positive role models, the lack of pro-social motivations may become self-supporting, as young children grow without positive examples will become each other’s role models by adolescence. Therefore, guiding a child’s social learning is particularly crucial during the early stages of personal development when a child is more likely to follow a role model not belonging to his or her peers.
It is hard to imagine a community that could claim that the issue of role models chosen and appropriated by the younger generation does not concern it. A mentioned above, social learning is a process all humans engage in since infancy (Ruggeri et al. 1595). Correspondingly, its importance is also universal and affects every community regardless of its size, composition, or economic situation. As long as people, and, in particular, children observe and internalize others’ behaviors, the choice of role models will remain a prominent social issue.
Yet while no community is unaffected, the specific effects may still vary from case to case, depending on local circumstances. While social learning from role models occurs everywhere and all the time, the amount and variety of available models to follow depend heavily on the situation in any given community. In particular, the socioeconomic situation affects children’s and young adults’ choices, as there tend to be less positive examples promoting constructive pro-social motivations in distressed neighborhoods. For example, children with a low-income background are unlikely “to have economically successful role models and mentors in their own families and neighborhoods” (Kearney and Levine 84). As social learning largely depends on the models chosen, which, in turn, is defined by the variety of potential role models, the same tendency likely applies to pro-social and anti-social behaviors. As a result, children from struggling neighborhoods may end up learning and internalizing destructive and socially undesirable behavior not because they lack the virtue to do otherwise, but because they had no positive examples. Considering these facts, the social importance of role models becomes even greater, as it allows improving socioeconomic outcomes for children from low-income backgrounds.
In the age of digital technology and the Internet, one common assumption about the role models for contemporary youth is that the media act as the main source of role models for children and adolescents. The line of thinking is fairly clear: when the access is at an arm’s reach, it seems reasonable to assume that media – especially the digital ones – will play a progressively greater role. As a result, film, television, videogames, etc. easily become “a pervasive source of shared discourse and play content among younger children” (Hamlen and Imbesi 302-303). One may also assume that preschoolers will be more susceptible to media influence and more likely to pick their role models correspondingly simply because they stay home more than their older counterparts. Apart from that, the media’s influence on one’s choices in role models may depend on one’s socioeconomic background. Kearney and Levine point out that children from low-income neighborhoods are more likely to learn behaviors this way (84). Based on these and other observations, one may conclude that pervasive and omnipresent media are the main source of role models for today’s children and adolescents.
However, this notion seems to be a widely accepted fallacy, as children and adolescents actually tend to choose their role models differently. A study by Johnson et al., based on a racially diverse sample of 220 adolescents, sheds some light on the issue. According to the authors, the significant majority tend to choose their role models among family members, whether these are parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and any other relatives (Johnson et al. 133). Among the non-parental adults, the most prominent category of role models were teachers, although informal mentors and neighbors were also present (Johnson et al. 133). Finally, friends and other peers also featured rather prominently in the results (Johnson et al. 133). Moreover, there was no significant variation by race or gender among the responses. This evidence suggests that, despite the media’s influence, young people still prefer to find their role models among those they know personally and interact with on a daily basis. Thus, one should not discard the media’s impact, but, for most children and adolescents, role models come from their immediate surroundings.
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Despite this evidence, the tendency to blame media and the role models it provides for the perceived decline in social mores is quite persistent. In some cases, it may even dominate the public’s mind, and some critics are too quick to explain socially undesirable behavior by the influence of bad models hailing from violent media. One of the most obvious manifestations of this tendency is the debates surrounding violent video games. The line of argument in this respect is simple and straightforward: on-screen perpetrators of violence “act as role models or sources of justification for behaving aggressively” (Gunter 59). This public perception is so well-entrenched that even the Federal Bureau of Investigations had once identified violent video games as a risk factor in the genesis of murder (Gunter 150). However, while there have been many studies on the subject, the effect of video games supposedly promoting anti-social behavior has not been adequately proven (Gunter 256). While public opinion seeks for the subversive influence of media, it becomes all the more likely that it will ignore the environment where most children actually get their role models: their communities and neighborhoods.
To promote pro-social behavior, children and adolescents need role models able to set positive examples. As mentioned above, the ways in which youngsters choose who to follow and emulate do demonstrate any significant variation between race or gender (Johnson et al. 133). It means that a largely universal approach to promoting positive role models is possible. It is also important to remember that younger children’s social scripts are more malleable, and, all things being equal, they are more likely to imitate adults rather than peers (Ruggeri et al. 1589). Due to these reasons, the early years of personal development are particularly crucial, and providing positive adult role models in this period is essential.
Apart from that, one should also remember that children and adolescents alike usually find examples to follow in their immediate surroundings. As noted above, they are most likely to mimic the behaviors of close relatives, authoritative adults, of friends among their peers (Johnson et al. 133). Also, the variety of available role models directly depends on a given community – for example, children from low-income backgrounds have trouble finding economically successful role models (Kearney and Levine 84). Put together, these two facts mean that social promotion of positive role models for youth should operate not only individually but also on the community level. If effective initiatives to help distressed communities are in place, the change in role models is likely to follow, potentially resulting in the virtuous cycle of these two reinforcing each other.
As one can see, role models are an essential component of personal development, especially for children and adolescents, and promoting the positive ones requires a thorough understanding of the issue. Every person engages in social learning since infancy, and one’s course in life largely depends on the examples that one has to emulate. Due to its universal nature, the problem is important for every community but can be more apparent in distressed neighborhoods with a lack of positive role models. A common fallacy is to blame media – be that video games, TV, or anything else – for supplying anti-social role models, but evidence suggests that children and adolescents usually choose them from their immediate surroundings. Thus, promoting positive role models should begin in the early stages of a child’s development and, ideally, address the issue on the community level as well as the individual one.
Gunter, Barrie. Does Playing Video Games Make Players More Violent? Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Hamlen, Karla L., and Krista J. Imbesi. “Role Models in the Media: A Content Analysis of Preschool Television Programs in the U.S.” Journal of Children and Media, vol. 14, no. 3, 2020, pp. 302-323.
Johnson, Sara K., et al. “Adolescents’ Character Role Models: Exploring Who Young People Look Up to as Examples of How to Be a Good Person.” Research in Human Development, vol. 13, no. 2, 2016, 126-141.
Kearney, Melissa S., and Phillip B. Levine. “Role Models, Mentors, and Media Influences.” The Future of Children, vol. 30, no. 1, 2020, pp. 83-106.
Ruggieri, Azzurra, et al. “The Influence of Adult and Peer Role Models on Children’ and Adolescents’ Sharing Decisions.” Child Development, vol.89, no. 5, 2018, pp. 1589-1598.