Influence of Music on Youth

How many hours do teenagers listen to music, a day? Including all music devices?

Amanda, Nevada

Amanda, 

Thanks for the question. We spend a lot of time focusing on cell phones, video games, and TV - but certainly listening to music continues to be one of teens' favorite digital activities. Music has been central to young people's lives for generations. For my dad's generation, dancing to music blaring from the record player was the bee's knees. For me, making mix tapes was required to successfully navigate the ups and downs of high school relationships. Now, young people can "bump" music from iPhone to iPhone, stream it online, and watch their favorite music videos alongside the tunes.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation's study "Generation M2," music is young people's second favorite media activity (after watching TV). The average 8-18 year old spends 2:19 hours a day listening to tunes. It is important to note that the amount of time per day listening to music increases dramatically as kids get older, starting at 1:08 among 8-10 year olds.

The more interesting question of course is - what is the influence of music on young people? For most teens, music is an amazing outlet for personal identity development and expression. Music can help youth relax and manage their moods and provide ways to connect with peers. Even better then plugging into an iPod all day long, leverage young people's interest in music and encourage them to play instruments and sing, try out Guitar Hero with family, learn about the history of jazz or Hiphop, or figure out how to edit and mix personal audio creations to share with family and friends online. Here is a sample of a curriculum my colleague Roberto Rivera at Search Institute created that uses history and lyrics to engage youth in forging positive solutions to community problems.

Given the central importance of music in young people's lives, it can be hard to pry their earbuds from their heads. While soothing and relaxing background music may not hinder students' study skills, remember that our brains are only built to do one thing at a time. This means that music with loud lyrics, abrupt changes in volume, or other distracting elements can lure our kids attention away from homework and into song. Encourage your kids to focus on one task at a time and only listen to a quiet, benign soundtrack during study hours.

Very few studies have focused on the influence of music on teenage behavior - and those studies provide little evidence that negative lyrics cause risky behaviors. Many are correlational. For example, a 2009 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that students who listened to a lot of music in which sex was described in a degrading fashion tended to start having sex earlier, and more often than others.

Regardless of correlation versus causation on the research front, make sure that you have conversations with your kids about the music they listen to. An article in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine reported that teens hear 84 references to explicit substance use daily in popular songs. What sorts of messages are in your kid's favorite songs? What resonates with them? What undermines the things they need to succeed? If you notice that your child only listens to music with angry, antisocial or negative lyrics, this may be a red flag that your child is struggling. However, take this as a sign to communicate and connect with your teenager, not simply cancel his or her iTunes account.

As long as we keep some of these tips in mind, music can be an incredible medium through which young people can interpret, celebrate, and share their experiences and emotions. 

Happy listening, Erin Walsh