Researchers have found a surprising cultural influence on some boys’ drive for muscularity.
In a study to be published this summer in the journal Body Image, University of Illinois researchers discovered that exposure to video gaming magazines has a stronger influence on preadolescent boys’ drive for muscularity, or desire for muscle mass, than does exposure to magazines that depict a more realistic muscular male-body ideal.
However, the relationship between video gaming magazines – “where characters are drawn with extreme muscularity and much more realism than in video games themselves” – and the drive for muscularity was found only for Caucasian boys, not for African American boys, say Kristen Harrison and Bradley J. Bond, a professor and doctoral student, respectively, in Illinois’ department of speech communication.
According to Harrison and Bond, theirs is the first study to link the gaming magazine genre to boys’ body ideals.
“In a nutshell, we found that exposure to video gaming magazines, which are immensely popular, increased boys’ subsequent drive for muscularity, more than exposure to other, more realistic ‘ideal-body’ magazines like sports, fashion and fitness,” Harrison said. This effect, she said, “was significant regardless of how thin or fat boys perceived themselves to be.”
“Given the extreme muscularity of the characters represented in the video gaming magazines, and the magazines’ popularity among boys and young men, I believe much more research on the topic should be done in the coming years,” said Harrison, whose scholarly research focuses on issues of nutrition and eating, perceptions of ideal-body weight and the impact of media on these variables.
One hundred and four black and 77 white preadolescent boys with a mean age of 8.77 participated in Harrison and Bond’s longitudinal study to determine whether self-reported exposure to four ideal-body magazine genres – health/fitness, fashion, sports and video gaming – predicted an increased drive for muscularity one year later.
Harrison suggests that at least two characteristics of gaming magazines may explain why the genre appears to play a more important role than more realistic ideal-body magazine genres.
“First, gaming magazines’ illustrations of exaggeratedly muscular bodies encourage young readers to take notice of the male form. They catch the eye because they depart so drastically from the typical male body.”
In contrast, models in fitness and fashion magazines and athletes in sports magazines, “although fit and well formed, do not look much different from the real men encountered by boys in their everyday lives.”
The second reason why the gaming genre may play a more prominent role in boys’ developing drive for muscularity is that “male video game characters are frequently cast as superheroes, thereby promoting an association between hyper-muscularity and the power, control and agency that superheroes symbolize to children.”
As for why African American adolescent boys are not as influenced by video gaming magazines as Caucasian boys, Harrison said that “the majority of characters appearing in these magazines are white, so black boys are likely modeling their ideal-body shape from other sources.”
In their article, the authors said that boys play video games nearly twice as much as girls, and that African American children play more video games than white or Latino children.
They also pointed out that gaming magazines are especially popular with prepubescent boys.
“When reading for leisure, boys prefer magazines over books and newspapers.” Topping the list of boys’ favorite magazine genres, which include sports, music, computer and entertainment-type magazines, is the gaming genre.
For the study, two rounds of testing were done one year apart. Researchers administered questionnaires to groups of two to five boys, separated by visual barriers. They were asked to report the genres of magazines they read each week.
The boys’ drive for muscularity was gauged using a child-appropriate version of a standard “drive for muscularity” scale. Drive for muscularity was defined as desire for muscle mass.
“Ultimately, to better understand the role video games and gaming magazines play in boys’ developing drive for muscularity, rigorous and systematic content analyses of these media are needed,” the researchers wrote. At the time of this study’s completion, there was “not a single published content analysis of video gaming magazines in spite of their remarkable popularity.”
“We hope that our findings underscore the need to further investigate these magazines to better understand their role in promoting a hyper-muscular physique among boys and young men.”
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