Boston University Study Shows Global Teens’ Attitudes About U.S. Society Set Stage for Next-Generation Terrorism

in BU In the Community, College of Communication, News Releases
September 5th, 2002

Contact: Richard Taffe, 617-353-4626 | rtaffe@bu.edu

Boston, MA —A new Boston University study suggests that terrorism against the U.S. is likely to continue because of negative attitudes held by teen-agers around the world about Americans as people – impressions largely drawn, ironically from made-in-America movies, TV, and popular music.

In an effort to forecast the future of anti-American sentiment around the world, the study analyzed responses from 1,259 high-school students in 12 countries. It concludes that little can be done in the near term to change these widespread negative attitudes.

The teens studied were from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, South Korea, Mexico, China, Spain, Taiwan, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Nigeria, Italy and Argentina. Teens in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain held the most negative views, those in South Korea and Mexico were nearly as negative, while those from Nigeria and Italy were neutral. Only teen-agers in Argentina held somewhat favorable views.

BU Professors Margaret H. DeFleur and Melvin L. DeFleur, who conducted the study, said the shared negative beliefs and attitudes create a hard-to-crack foundation for breeding future terrorism. For the attitudes to erupt into terrorist action, the authors said, they must be combined with religious differences, provocative incidents by the U.S. and the existence of militant groups that have leaders bent on creating harm for Americans.

“There appears to be a significant probability that the threat of terrorist acts against Americans will continue in the years ahead,” they said. “It would take some triggering incident and the presence of messianic militant groups to ignite, but it’s a collective perception with the scary potential of becoming a bloody reality when these global teens come of age.”

Evaluating statements about characteristics, values and behavior of Americans as people (not the U.S. government, its actions or policies), the teen-agers generally said that Americans are violent, materialistic, want to dominate, are disrespectful of people unlike them, not generous, unconcerned about the poor, lack strong family values and are not peaceful. They also believe many Americans engage in criminal activities and American women are sexually immoral.

“The findings,” said the DeFleurs, “suggest that problems for Americans are likely to continue into the foreseeable future in terms of terrorism threats, public health issues related to stress, and possible economic problems related to the negative assessments by the next generation.”

The researchers also note that while it is clear that these teens had little choice but to develop their understandings and interpretations of Americans from the communication systems available to them (often only American movies, TV, video games, music CDs, etc.), “gaining some sort of easy way to manipulate that complex communication process that will produce results quickly seems most unlikely.”

Excising negative depictions out of the profit-driven mass media is not a realistic goal in a democratic society, the report concludes, although it suggests that it is possible to change deep-seated beliefs and attitudes. Possibilities for action by Americans are limited, but the authors suggest that remedies may include long-term public information campaigns, reviews or evaluations of movies and other media products, product labeling, or efforts to provoke U.S. public opinion to make it “clear to producers and distributors of media content to other nations that what they are now providing has in many cases become a source of very negative and harmful definitions of Americans and their way of life.”

The DeFleurs’ report, “The Next Generation’s Image of Americans; Attitudes and Beliefs Held by Teen-Agers in Twelve Countries,” includes background on the political, public health and economic factors that prompted the study; its objectives and methodology; a breakout of the findings (with 28 charts); and a discussion of interpreting the results based on three related theories of media influences.

Contacted directly through their high schools by graduate students who are in degree programs at BU and come from the study countries, the respondents had a median age of 17 and were evenly divided between males and females. Professors Margaret and Melvin DeFleur both teach at Boston University’s College of Communication. With an enrollment of more than 29,000 in its 17 schools and colleges, BU is the fourth-largest independent university in the United States. The University offers an exceptional grounding in the liberal arts, a broad range of programs in the arts, sciences, engineering, and professional areas, and state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and research.

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