Is Social Learning Theory Good News?

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Social media and technology have transformed the landscape of this generation.  Children are growing up in the age of computers, cell phones, and social media.  Long gone are the days where kids played outside and ventured home only when the street lights came on.  Nowadays, children and teenagers spend a significant amount of their time in front of video game consoles, cell phones, You Tube, and Netflix.  The graphics in video games and computer programs continue to become more and more realistic with each technological enhancement. There is a school of thought that staunchly believes that aggression is being learned from playing violent computer and video games.  This school of thought derives from social learning theory.

In the 1960’s, Albert Bandura developed social learning theory, which is based on the premise that watching, copying, and modeling behaviors can help an individual to learn new behaviors.  Under social learning theory, it is suggested that a young child can learn to be aggressive merely from watching and playing violent video content.  In a similar sense, social learning theory also suggests that a young child can watch a You Tube instructional video to learn how to correctly fix his tie.  Social learning theory becomes applicable to a teenager viewing and emulating behaviors viewed on other social media accounts.

All of this begs the question, is social learning theory good news?  The proverbial jury is still out on this one.  In one sense, social learning theory is positive when applied to situations where there is a positive role model.  An up and coming athlete who studies and works with an Olympic champion would have an opportunity to grow by watching and learning from the Olympian.  A mentor paired with an at-risk youth would likely have an exciting outcome, as the at-risk youth could study, learn, and emulate the behaviors from the mentor.  Rookie police and firemen shadowing more seasoned police and firemen could portray significant growth by learning from experienced professionals.  A preschooler can benefit from an older sibling who tries to teach them how to zipper their jacket or tie their shoelaces.

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On the other hand, social learning theory can tip in the other direction and become negative when individuals are watching and learning from destructive role models.  Teenagers struggling with eating disorders might experience a setback if they view and learn from social media pages with harmful content.  Children who continually play video games that highlight weapons can learn to become a little too comfortable with them.  Social learning theory can also be detrimental when an individual is negatively influenced by a poor role model.  A middle school student may begin to experiment with drugs and alcohol after watching another peer engaging in substance abuse.  Peer pressure can influence a vulnerable person to do and learn things that they otherwise would never get involved with.  

Thus, social learning theory can result in positive or negative outcomes depending on the type of role model that is being watched.  This can be a scary prospect in a society that runs almost exclusively on electronics and technology.  It has become difficult for parents to monitor everything that their child is looking at and learning from.  Parents desperately attempt to monitor their children’s Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter pages, while simultaneously keeping tabs on their You Tube accounts.  With social media, it is almost impossible to eradicate all negative influences on the internet.  Thus, parents, educators, and adults need to be especially vigilant in monitoring what today’s youth are watching, playing, and viewing.  Despite this fact, when interfacing with positive content and helpful role models, social learning theory can be a very good thing. 

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.