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“I feel like… their relationship is based on the media”: Relationship Between Media Representation and Adolescents’ Relationship Knowledge and Expectations


Teen dating violence (TDV) is a serious public health issue associated with negative physical and behavior outcomes that disproportionately impact African-American adolescents. Despite the emergence of effective TDV prevention strategies, more knowledge is needed about how African American adolescents understand healthy and unhealthy relationships. Adolescents’ analysis of media representations can provide important insight into social norms around adolescent romantic relationships, which can inform the development of TDV prevention strategies. We conducted nine focus groups (n = 86) to explore perceptions of healthy and unhealthy relationships and the influence of media representations on romantic relationships. We transcribed focus group interviews verbatim and coded them line by line. Participants were primarily African American (90%), female (67%), and high school aged (13–17 years). Consistent with other studies, participants reported significant engagement across traditional and social media platforms that exposed them to a wide variety of fictional, celebrity, and peer relationships. A modified constructivist grounded theory analytic approach produced four major relationship themes: commitment, authenticity, privacy, and maturity. These themes captured participants’ reflections about romantic relationships and how the media interact with relationship processes and perceptions. Results show that adolescents are using media representations of romantic couples to clarify their own romantic relationship expectations and desires. Future prevention strategies should support youths’ use of critical thinking, perspective taking, and analysis to help align their relationship choices and expectations with their own values and preferences.

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  1. Notably participants engaged in heteronormative discussions and assumptions that did not include same-sex relationships or issues of gender identity or sexual orientation.

  2. Participants perceived Barack and Michelle Obama, and Ciara and Russell Wilson as healthy examples of romantic relationships. Other celebrity couples were perceived as more unhealthy examples of romantic relationships. Chris Brown and Rhianna’s relationship was discussed as an example of a physically abusive relationship.


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Funding for this project was provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award No. R13HD085961.

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Correspondence to Shanti J. Kulkarni.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Kulkarni, S.J., Porter, A.M., Mennick, A. et al. “I feel like… their relationship is based on the media”: Relationship Between Media Representation and Adolescents’ Relationship Knowledge and Expectations. J Primary Prevent 40, 545–560 (2019).

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  • Teen dating violence
  • Healthy relationships
  • Violence prevention
  • Media literacy
  • Social media
  • African American adolescents