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Examining the media and cultural influences on dating violence

Last Modified: February 15, 2023

Healthy Mind, Safety & Prevention

dating violence

This post was written by Courtney L. Washington, PsyD, CSAYC, HSPP, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute.

In honor of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, I wanted to expand on a piece written a few years ago about the prevalence of teen dating violence and continue exploring our culture’s influence on the subject.

A little refresher

Teen dating violence (TDV) is a form of intimate partner violence that occurs between two people in a close relationship. There are four types of TDV:

  • Physical violence: When a person harms or tries to hurt a partner through physical force.
  • Sexual violence: Forcing or attempting to force a partner into a sex act, sexual touching or non-physical sexual event like sexting) when the partner does not or cannot consent.
  • Psychological aggression: The use of verbal and non-verbal communication intended to harm another person mentally or emotionally and/or exert control over another person.
  • Stalking: A pattern of repeated unwanted attention and contact by a partner, causing fear or concern for one’s safety or the safety of someone close to the victim.

Keep in mind that although we are discussing this through the lens of teenage relationships, dating violence is very real across all age ranges, and the same concepts apply.  

So, what is it about our culture that promotes acceptance of dating violence, and how does interaction with the media and social media perpetuate this acceptance?  

The media’s messages about relationships and sex

The US culture is rooted in the heteronormative script. This is the idea that what is viewed and accepted as “normal” in our society is developed from a very narrow perspective. This viewpoint about people’s roles in a relationship is rooted in stereotypical beliefs about how men and women “should” act and being viewed solely from a heterosexual orientation. While things are improving, much of the media we consume acts to reinforce this narrative about what is normal and acceptable.

  • American youth view nearly 4 hours of television per day. [9]
  • On average, 84.6% of movies contained sexual content (this varied based on rating). [6]
  • 53% of female characters versus 30% of male characters were involved in sexual content. [4]
  • The sexual content shown addressed the risk and responsibilities of sex less than 5.2% of the time. [9]
  • 84% of music videos showed sexual imagery such as sexual dancing, objectification and self-touching. [10]
  • Female artists are more provocatively dressed and often objectified than their male counterparts. [9]
  • Women were provocatively dressed 35.3% of the time versus men 5.2% of the time and engaged in sexually suggestive dancing 31.4% versus 4.2%, respectively. [1]
  • In music lyrics, 65% referenced degrading sex and objectifying women, with men singing 88% of these songs. [7]
  • In video games, women are vastly underrepresented as characters (14%), and those that were present dressed more revealing when compared to men (43% female versus 4% male). [5]

And while we examine the media’s messaging, we must also talk about the use of pornography within the medium.

  • Annual US sales of pornography top $10 billion, and worldwide the pornography industry sales are more than Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft combined.
  • The average age of first-time exposure to pornography was 12.2 years old.
  • 93% of males and 62% of females reported exposure to pornography before age 18, with the majority being between the ages of 14 and 17.
  • Young males aged 12-17 years were the most frequent consumers of online pornography.
  • Research also consistently supports a positive correlation between pornography use and sexually permissive attitudes, but it’s important to remember that correlation does not mean causation. [9]
  • One longitudinal study found that porn use was associated with later beliefs about sex being primarily physical, in which personal pleasure takes precedence over the relationship. [8]
  • Research shows a link between pornography use and the belief that men dominate sexual initiators and women are sexual objects. It also correlates to sexual violence and coercion perpetration among adolescents. [9]
  • Adolescents exposed to violent, pornographic material were six times more likely to become sexually aggressive.
The data on social media use
  • According to platform reports, roughly 4.48 billion people use social media worldwide.
  • 56.8% of the world’s population is active on social media when looking at eligible audiences aged 13 years and older. This rises to 82% when you look at just North America.
  • Teens report spending an average of 9 hours daily on social media platforms.

We should also note that there is an intersection between pornography and social media. Many teens report multiple types of solicitation over social media sites. For girls, it is more often solicitation to share nude photos or connect with strangers. For boys, this often comes through friend requests from virtual bots displaying sexually explicit material. Furthermore, the algorithms designed to keep people plugged into the platform begin curating specific content for you to view based on your previous views. That is to say that if you are a teen boy who lingers on an explicit photo that happens to come across your feed, the more likely you are to see more images like this in the future. Lastly, social media sites are often used to exchange explicit messages between teens. 61% of teens who have sent nude texts say they were pressured at least once.

Based on this data, the messages sent around dating, relationships and sexual contact are clear. Violence is ever present, and men and women have clear roles in relationships. So how do these messages impact today’s teens and the brain?

The impact on teens

Social Cognitive Theory suggests that observations and engagement with such media content shape a viewer’s scripts, schemas and beliefs, which lead to behaviors. [2] Higher levels of media exposure are related to greater endorsement of the heterosexual script, including beliefs that men are sex-driven, women are objects and other sexual double standards rooted in heteronormative gender roles. [9] High screen time (more than 3 hours per day) is also associated with increased risky sexual behaviors, such as sexual initiation before age 11 and more than three sex partners in adolescents. [3] And, for girls, identification with same-sex media figures is associated with more dating and sexual experience. [9]

What do we do?

Now that I have you sufficiently terrified and wanting to restrict all media from your teens remember that is not helpful or healthy. Media use is a part of our human existence in modern culture, whether we like it or not. In order to raise healthy, functional humans that contribute to society, we must teach them to become critical consumers of knowledge and media. This means having conversations with them about the media they use. To do this, we must engage teens in education, open communication and model healthy relationships. The research clearly shows that having a trusted adult that can help teens process, make sense of, and question the messages they see in the media is the number one factor that decreases the negative impact it can have on developing belief structures.


Helpful resources

National Domestic Violence Hotline

National Safe Place

Love is respect
Call: 1-866-331-9474
Text: LOVEIS to 22522
Chat online
YMCA (Northeast Indiana)
Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Crisis Line



[1] Aubrey, J. S., & Frisby, C. M. (2011). Sexual objectification in music videos: A content analysis comparing gender and genre. Mass Communication and Society14(4), 475–501.?

[2] Bandura, A. (2002). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (Eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research (2d ed., pp. 121–153). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.?

[3] Barr, E., Moore, M., Johnson, T., Merten, J., & Stewart, W. (2014). The relationship between screen time and sexual behaviors among middle school students. The Health Educator46(1), 6–13.?

[4] Bleakley, A., Jamieson, P. E., & Romer, D. (2012). Trends of sexual and violent content by gender in top-grossing US Films, 1950–2006. Journal of Adolescent Health51(1), 73–79.?

[5] Downs, E., & Smith, S. L. (2010). Keeping abreast of hypersexuality: A video game character content analysis. Sex Roles62(11–12), 721–733.?

[6] Nalkur, P. G., Jamieson, P. E., & Romer, D. (2010). The effectiveness of the motion picture association of America’s rating system in screening explicit violence and sex in top-ranked movies from 1950 to 2006. Journal of Adolescent Health47(5), 440–447.?

[7] Primack, B., Gold, M., Schwarz, E., & Dalton, M. (2008). Degrading and non-degrading sex in popular music: A content analysis. Public Health Reports, 123, 593–600.?

[8] Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2013). The differential susceptibility to media effects model. Journal of Communication63(2), 221–243.?

[9] Ward, L.M., Erickson, S.E., Lippman, J.R., Giaccardi, S. (2016). Sexual Media Content and Effects. Media and Communication Policy. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Oxford, England. ?

[10] Ward, L. M., Reed, L., Trinh, S., & Foust, M. (2013). Sexuality and entertainment media. In D. Tolman, L. M. Diamond, J. Bauermeister, G. William, J. Pfaus, & Ward, L. M. (Eds.), APA handbook of sexuality and psychology, Vol. 2: Contextual approaches. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.?

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