Updated: Aug 22, 2018
By Nick Fontaine
Music plays a major role in the lives of many people, especially during the tumultuous teenage years. It now plays a larger role than ever in the age of smartphones and apps that allow us to essentially have the entirety of recorded sound at our fingertips. It has been shown that adolescents spend more time listening to music now than ever before.
Scientists have been examining the effect music has on teens for a long time. A quick search on the National Institute of Health’s free PubMed database shows research on the effects of Rock n’ Roll music dates as far back as 1959. As music evolves, so does the research on its effect on the youth. A recent paper by Sarah M. Coyne and Laura M. Padilla-Walker suggests that listening to music with aggressive or sexual lyrics during adolescence leads to an increased amount of aggressive and sexual behavior, as well as an earlier onset of sexual activity. They also examined the effect of “prosocial” music on behavior.
his study was done by having a large number of teens (N=548, with an average age of 15.32) say what their favorite band/singer is as well answer survey questions designed to indicate their level of aggression. About one year later, the same teens were asked to fill out the survey again, but this time it included questions about sexual activity. They found that listening to aggressive music on a regular basis is positively correlated to aggressive behavior, and that listening to sexually explicit music was significantly negatively correlated to age at first intercourse, but not significantly correlated to frequency of intercourse and number of sexual partners. They also found that listening to music with prosocial content was not a significant predictor of prosocial behavior.
While interesting, there are many problems with this paper going from normal experimental weaknesses to the inherent juvenoia has been a part of similar studies for as long as adults have disapproved of the younger generation’s music taste (which has been forever).
From a methods standpoint, this experiment had a few weaknesses. The participants in the study came predominantly from somewhat-wealthy, educated, white families, so a more diverse study would be needed so see if the data can be generalized to a greater population. It also only used each teen’s top favorite artists to classify what they listen to. While people do tend to listen to music similar to their favorite artist, it is very likely they also listen to a wide variety of music that differs from this. This experiment also had no real control and relied on self-reports from teens. This can be prone to errors as teens may feel compared to impulsively lie to make themselves seem more or less aggressive/sexually active to fit social norms better.
There also are a few problems with the inherent logic of this study. Firstly, it is very possible that the cause-and-effect relationship proposed could be wrong. While listening to a certain kind of music may have some influence on actions, it may just be that people tend to listen music they can relate to better. For example, if a teen lives in a violent and aggressive environment, they are probably more likely to listen to aggressive music. To match their inner feelings, and may not have those feelings as a result of the music.
It also appears that this study does not give teens enough credit for being as competent as they really are. Most people would agree that they weren’t necessarily the best or smartest version of themselves at 15, but they weren’t so out of control of their own decisions that they would suddenly start acting like a worse person for listening to too many Eminem songs. While teenagers are fairly impressionable, it seems over simplistic and kind of degrading of them to say they are so easily influenced.
This study also puts a lot of focus on rap music. While rap music does have some violent tendencies, the paper does come off sounding like an older person yelling about times changing. They even refer to it as “gangsta rap” which was very much an outdated term in 2015 when the paper was published. People have been complaining about popular music corrupting youth for as long as youths have been able to access music for themselves. They have been saying similar things since the advent of rock and roll.
Finally, this study points out that music, and popular culture in general, is getting more vulgar and explicit every year. On average this has been shown to be true by several other studies cited in the original paper. If pop culture really does have such a corrupting effect on teens you would expect juvenile crime rates to increase along with the increase in aggressive and sexual content of their entertainment. However, according to Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, juvenile crime rates have been steadily decreasing over the past 20 years.
Figure 1:This chart shows the juvenile crime rate in the US since 1980. Rates are arrests of persons ages 10-17 per 100,000 persons ages 10-17 in the resident population.
While Coyne and Padilla-Walker’s study does show that teens who listen to aggressive music tend to be more aggressive on average, it is fair to say it is not a conclusive finding. Firstly, correlation does not imply causation. With this correlative study there could either be no causal relationship, or even the inverse of the relationship laid out by the researchers-- it is possible that aggressive teens tend to seek out music to match their emotions, not cause them. The study also had a suboptimal setup and measurement system.
In summary, while listening to violent or overtly sexual music may not be the best choice for teens, it is not a sure bet to lead to a life of deviancy. I think one of my favorite bands, AJJ, says it best in their song “White Worms” with the refrain “If you want to listen to the devil's music/ You should probably listen to the devil's music”.
Juvenile Arrest Rate Trends. (2016). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/JAR_Display.asp?ID=qa05200
Coyne, S. M., & Padilla-Walker, L. M. (2015). Sex, violence, & rock n roll: Longitudinal effects of music on aggression, sex, and prosocial behavior during adolescence. Journal of Adolescence, 41, 96-104. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2015.03.002