The Blog

Teens Use Music to Regulate Emotion

Coping with new experiences leads to new emotions as well as pressure from peers, school and family; a pressure to conform comes into conflict with the desire to be an individual - not to mention first loves, unrequited love and the inevitable break-ups.

Teenagers appear to spend a great deal of their time watching television and listening to music. Increasingly however, teens appear to be employing a type of multitask media where laptops stream movies, TV programmes and music and there is constant switching from one social media site to another (not to mention the texting, instant messaging, tweeting and so on). Nevertheless, media plays a major role in the life of a teenager whether it's music or other forms of entertainment. It appears that teenagers, more than any other group, are using media in order to regulate mood and to escape their sense of self. The reflective parent will be more than aware of the struggle to coax their teenager out of their room while all they want to do is lie on the bed and listen to their latest download or stream music from their favourite media site. Solitary activities such as these can cause parents a certain amount of distress; after all, as parents, we are merely showing concern (even though the teenager may view parental behaviour as an attempt to control).

Music remains a highly emotive issue with families, particularly as society can be highly critical of some types of music (grandparents may have grown up with Elvis, parents with the Sex Pistols but might find some modern genres too much to cope with). With the majority of teenagers having televisions and other media equipment in the bedrooms it would appear that families remain isolated within their own homes and that most teenagers virtually live in their rooms, exiting only to eat (or collect their meals and disappear back upstairs). Solitude can have both a positive and negative impact on the wellbeing of teenagers and similar results seem to have been found in the use of media to regulate mood.

Like daydreaming and fantasising, being transported by music into imagined situations may at first appear maladaptive, but according to some researchers our ability to do this could have a major impact on current and future wellbeing and emotional stability. Dara Greenwood of the University of Michigan alongside Chris Long of the Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas suggested that people turn to different types of media in three emotional states: a positive mood, a negative mood or out of boredom. Certainly media sometimes appears to be used for tactical reasons, including daydreaming, relaxation, self-reward or distraction. Mood regulation seems to be more important for teenagers than for pre-pubescent children or adults and their withdrawal from the outside world (either physically by staying in their room or by means of personal headphones) would appear to be related to mechanisms involved in self-imposed isolation. While such behaviour (for example, the insistence on wearing headphones even during social occasions) is often construed as arrogant and anti-social, the act itself might not be intended as such, but rather as a way of withdrawing from a situation with a highly negative social association. Greenwood and Long have suggested that this use media could be related to the inability (or at least difficulty) in regulating emotion, in other words, when presented with a situation which we have little or no control over, we may attempt to regulate these feelings by withdrawing into certain types of media such as television of music. The teenage years do see an increase in extreme emotional moods and it would appear that with teenagers (perhaps more so in social situations dominated by adults) the pressure to act in a particular socially acceptable way becomes too difficult.

Why do teenagers need to regulate their mood anyway? We all need to regulate our moods at some point or another and although Greta Garbo always insisted that she never declared a public desire to be alone, we all sometimes wish we could just take time out from family, friends and everything else. For teenagers, such a desire is bound to be more intense because teenagers are in the process of self-building. The development of what psychologists call the self is far from an easy task and while teenagers strive to be individuals they usually end up more like their parents than they would care to admit. Nevertheless, the experience or journey of self-building is a vital part of a teenager's development and we still don't really understand the mechanisms involved as well as we would like (or as well as some claim to). Psychologist Reed Larson has suggested that teenagers use music in order to explore numerous possible selves; this might include both those selves that are desired and those that are feared.

Coping with new experiences leads to new emotions as well as pressure from peers, school and family; a pressure to conform comes into conflict with the desire to be an individual - not to mention first loves, unrequited love and the inevitable break-ups. At some point the teen will no longer be able to discuss such things with parents or other family members and they might not be the kinds of issues they can talk with their friends about. Greenwood and Long found that people tend to become absorbed in media following a low mood and that music and television allows the individual to regulate and explore that negative state. This would suggest that there might be some restorative process taking place where worries can be internalised and dealt with on a meditative level.