Long before the emo generation, parents questioned the influence of music on impressionable youth.
This topic caught my attention recently as an adolescent shared with me the importance of music in her recovery. She described how listening to “emo” music provided her with a sense of belonging to a larger community, something missing in her life otherwise. Her parents expressed concern as to whether allowing her to continue listening to her increasingly “dark” music was the right thing to do. They wondered if listening to this music might have contributed to her recent peak in depressive symptoms.
Adolescents listen to music anywhere from two to eight hours each day. It plays an important role in adolescent socialization and identity formation and has affect regulation potential. Yet their relationship with music is complicated.
Music’s impact on teens
Music is an important form of communication. It provides words for adolescents who might otherwise struggle to communicate increasingly complex emotions and experiences. Rapid growth in cognitive-emotional capacity, technology driven over-exposure and expanding awareness result in adolescents whose resources are rapidly overwhelmed by adult-world difficulties. Adolescents grieving the loss of protection by an idealized parental superhero and rapidly confronting adult-world hypocrisies often turn to music that validates this perception of the world. Some adolescents embrace an ideological stance where music offers a safer venue for rebelling against authority figures or the establishment.
Music supports identity formation and group affiliation. For adolescents seeking a stable identity, music provides a quick means of establishing a group affiliation. Common interests are a binding and healthy aspect of most friendships.
Music provides common humanity. Adolescents struggling with emotional difficulties or psychiatric illness often select music that matches their internal state. A depressed teen listening to music with themes of isolation and despair might at first sound like a really bad idea. However, if this activity provides a sense of belonging, something to reduce their terrible sense of isolation, the music may provide tremendous comfort. Common humanity is offered in a three-minute soundtrack, and suffering is lessened.
However, parents and professionals should demonstrate interest in the soundtrack of our youth. Music has significant influence on mood and thus behavior. Studies have documented music’s influence on adolescent self-injury, suicidality, substance use, promiscuity and violence. As one example, a recent study revealed the average adolescent is exposed to more than 80 references to substance use each day while listening to music. References depict the social use of illicit substances with a positive social outcome.
Talk with your teen about their music. There is research to support that simply asking a young person about their experience of their music is likely to correlate with their behavioral response. A relationship with a young person in which there is curiosity, openness and a lack of judgment provides a space in which one can ask questions that promote reflection and joint exploration around the choices and influences in their life. There are no guarantees, but an open dialogue at least increases the likelihood that the adolescent will consider how and when they listen to their various playlists.
Parents may find some of the current music so offensive that they are tempted to react by trying to shut off an adolescent’s access. Reactivity and coercive efforts are likely to illicit greater rebellion, reduce communication and in this era of internet radio and inexpensive media players, a parent’s control over exposure to musical influence is limited. Taking a more thoughtful and collaborative approach is much more likely to offer a young person the opportunity to develop the internal guide needed to navigate our media-saturated culture.