Almost all children engage in observational learning throughout their childhoods. Observational learning simply refers to the learning that is achieved through witnessing the behavior and actions of others. That is why responsible parenting is so important: children are heavily influenced by what they observe about their parents, the most influential authority figures they will have through their childhoods, followed by their elementary school teachers.
Because observational learning is as central to a child's emotional development as it is, debates regarding the influence of what children view on television, or listen to on the radio, remain as divisive as ever. Whether excessive exposure to violence on television or in film seriously influences the actions of children is uncertain, but to the extent that observational or vicarious learning or modeling is a major component of mental development, then it would seem that such exposure could adversely affect some children.
Beyond the role of observational learning in childhood is the continued influence of perceived behavior on young and even mature adults. In this respect, the impact of prolonged exposure to pornography as well as violence is viewed by some as a major contributor to deviant behavior among adults. Again, opinions differ, but it is relevant in discussions of social learning.
One of the leading experts on observational learning, Albert Bandura, in his 1977 study Social Learning Theory, theorized that people learn behavior patterns by observing others, particularly when the "others" are well-respected, feared, or are otherwise influential figures in a broader sense. Bandura's most oft-cited experiment is known as the "Bobo doll experiment," in which Bandura studied the reactions of children watching an adult beat a doll. After the children viewed that violent behavior by an adult, they mimicked it on their own when given the identical doll.
As some parents and teachers became increasingly aware of the conclusions of social scientists like Bandura, they began to incorporate "modeling" into their regular conduct, aware that they are being observed by impressionable children who need positive role models and reinforcement. In this respect, observational learning is used in everyday life by many adults. How authority figures respond to adversity, in particular, is instrumental in how children and adults learn to behave. Children learn through experience and observation that life includes setbacks and obstacles. By witnessing adults respond to such setbacks and obstacles in an appropriate manner, the children are at least exposed to a model worthy of emulating.