Is Social Learning Theory Good News?

Author Tracy Smith
May 13, 2020

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, YouTube, and Netflix. The graphics in video games and computer programs continue to become more and more realistic with each technological enhancement. This trend is unhealthy for a variety of reasons, including the increased physical aggression that studies have shown to result from playing violent video games. This notion is supported by the concepts behind social learning theory.

Social Learning

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 YouTube instructional video to learn how to pitch a tent. Social learning theory has further applications when it comes to consuming content and observing behavior on social media platforms.

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 is useful 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 officers shadowing more seasoned colleagues can shorten the learning curve required for the job and help them gain valuable skills by observing the more experienced professionals. A preschooler can benefit from an older sibling who tries to teach them how to zipper their jacket or tie their shoelaces.

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 personalities that reinforce unhealthy stigmas about beauty and eating habits. 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 selects 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.  

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In summary, social learning can result in positive or negative outcomes depending on the type of role model that is being observed. This can be a scary prospect in a society in which children have easy access to poor role models and violent content via mobile devices and the Internet. It has become difficult for parents to monitor everything that their child is looking at and learning from. Many parents desperately attempt to monitor their children’s Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter pages, while simultaneously keeping tabs on their YouTube accounts, though even this is not full proof.

With social media, it is almost impossible to eradicate all the negative influences in the lives of one’s children. Thus, parents, educators, and adults need to be especially vigilant in monitoring what today’s youth are watching, playing, and viewing, in addition to keeping the lines of communication open with children. Many, though certainty not all, children respond well when adults speak to them openly and honestly about the rules they impose and the reasoning behind them.

However, the best way to curtail the dangers of social learning are by employing the benefits of social learning. By limiting access to harmful content and replacing it with content or experiences that expose children to positive behaviors and role models, many of the bad lessons can be unlearned.

Author Tracy Smith

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for a Community YMCA. 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.