Teens vs. Television: A Chat with Professor Patrice Oppliger

Assistant Professor Patrice Oppliger. Image is courtesy of BU College of Communication.

Teenagers’ behavior is often influenced by themes portrayed in the media. By watching television shows where characters fight with friends, struggle with unrequited crushes, and encounter mean girls, teens tend to reflect what they see in the media in their own social lives.

COM’s own Professor Patrice Oppliger studies how media impacts adolescents. By analyzing trends in TV shows airing on Disney and Nickelodeon, Professor Oppliger studies the more formative years of kids between eight and twelve years of age.

She says that this is such a “fascinating time” because it’s when kids are starting to really evolve into who they will be. “They have more social interactions with their peers, school hierarchies,” she says. “They start to have crushes, and start to date.”

These themes are what the media aims to market to young teens and emerge in movies such as “The Fault in our Stars” and in TV shows such as “Lizzie McGuire,” “Boy Meets World,” and “Victorious.”

Professor Oppliger says Disney and Nickelodeon have a monopoly over tween comedies. Even though these shows portray aspects of teenage life like the “mean-girl cheerleader, cute boys, and crushes,” the main premise of these shows is teenage friendship, which is important for viewer development.

Disney and Nickelodeon run these types of shows earlier in the day for the purpose of targeting a younger audience, which contrasts with networks like the CW, which air shows later at night. Also, it is not just young girls watching these shows; these comedies attract young teenage boys, as well.

A Disney program that Professor Oppliger recently studied was “Andi Mack,” a show about a 13-year-old girl who finds out that her sister is actually her mother (and that her grandmother was the one who had been raising her). “It’s pretty stunning for Disney to go down that route,” Professor Oppliger says. “I have high hopes for the characters.”

The first season ended with the main character walking away from a boy she liked–with a smile on her face showing empowerment. This is an unusual storyline for Disney to take on, which shows how TV shows are changing with society to include more relevant and empowering content.

Yet the second season came to a spinning halt. The character development in the first season seemed to disappear and portrayed “girls just falling apart because of boys,” which Professor Oppliger finds disappointing and confusing to see, especially as the show started off so strong. It’s important for young adolescents to see the themes of strength and independence shown in the first season, instead of the usual boys-crushing-girls feeling on which the second has focused.  

Yet the ratings for these tween comedies are dropping. Professor Oppliger found that it is partly due to the rise of YouTubers. “Studying these YouTube stars will be the next venture of seeing how media is impacting teens,” she says. Young vloggers and Instagram stars are rising, getting a lot of attention. These stars are a mix of regular high-school vloggers and manufactured stars, and they tend to be a little bit older than their audiences–which attracts younger viewers.

In the past few years, there have been more issues with targeting young teens. Content tends to be more adult than the audience to whom it is aimed, often due to streaming networks. Because younger teens have easy access to more adult shows through streaming, the age range tends to dip lower than the audience it’s intended for.

Take, for example, the CW’s “Riverdale” or Netflix’s “Thirteen Reasons Why.” In both shows, actors in their 20s portray high school students, who explore dark and adult topics, such as murder, sex, and suicide. Even though high schoolers are the intended audience, the viewers tend to be of a much wider range.

Television shows will continue to evolve and take on prevalent themes of teenage life. Professor Oppliger expressed hope for more stories of girl empowerment, coming-out stories, and independence portrayed in the media in coming years. These themes, she feels, create a positive impact on young adolescents.

In the future, Professor Oppliger hopes to tackle the movement from teens watching traditional television to watching videos on YouTube and other social media–and how video on these platforms affects young teens.



Fiona Martin, Staff Writer

Fiona Martin is a senior at Boston University’s College of Communication studying public relations. Currently involved in PRLab, she hopes to pursue a career in media/entertainment after graduation. In her spare time, she enjoys long runs, good comedy, and dogs with jobs.

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