Many parents worry about the music their teens choose to listen to and the influence the music might have on their lives. Many teens identify strongly with their favorite music artists, but the ways in which music can influence a teen are complex, subtle and even paradoxical.
Teens listen to music for about 2 1/2 hours every day, according to a 2008 article in "The New York Times." Many of the songs they listen to contain references to sex, drugs, alcohol, violence, depression or suicide. Considering all of the issues teens have to deal with and all the tough choices they have to make as they navigate their way to adulthood, it's only natural for parents to feel anxious about the messages in popular music. However, the relationship between the music teens listen to and the choices they make is not a simple one, according to a research paper on the University of Iowa website.
Teenagers use music to establish an identity. A study by psychologists at Iowa State University notes that adolescent subcultures can be distinguished by the type of music they listen to more than by any other factor. For instance, kids who like punk rock are distinct from goths or metalheads or hip-hop kids. However, just because teens use music to establish their identities does not necessarily mean they will take on the negative behaviors described in some music.
References to violence in pop music are particularly concerning to most parents. However, the Iowa State University report on violence and music did not find a straightforward correlation between violent lyrics and violent behavior. The article noted that teens have their own way of interpreting the lyrics in the songs they listen to and might not take them as literally as their parents would. In some cases they might not even know what the lyrics are saying and in others they may treat the violent or self-destructive lyrics as an expression of a negative emotional state rather than as a reference to real-life violence. A teen who is struggling with issues of anger or depression might think of dark music as a way of working through what he is feeling, not a set of instructions. However, a teen with serious aggressive behavior issues may become even more aggressive after listening to angry music.
Most teens who listen to music with negative messages will not act out those messages, according to the Iowa State University report. Many teens find music a positive force in their lives even when the music sounds negative. However, the music can still have a negative effect in some cases. Teens often use music to process their emotions. A teen who is feeling sad might listen to a depressing goth song, while a teen who is feeling angry may listen to a fierce-sounding punk, metal or rap song. Music can sometimes make an intense emotion even more powerful. Teens who are struggling with serious problems can create a dangerous feedback loop by listening to music that amplifies the bad feelings they were already having. Whether music is helping your teen process emotions or making them worse depends on the individual.