Tune in to Today's Media to Keep Teens Safe
"Are you sure she'll be down for this?" an unseen man says to the female television star on screen.
"It's Serena, she'll go down for anything," a female star says wickedly.
The saucy innuendo makes me glance nervously around my empty living room and shift uncomfortably in my seat. The scene continues, showing teens drinking heavily, sniffing lines of cocaine and engaging in a make-out session I can't describe in a parenting magazine.
I shouldn't be surprised. This show is constantly shocking me with sexual content, drug use and language that makes me say, "Wow, are they allowed to say that on cable?"
No, this isn't some late-night, adults-only flick. Nor an HBO special. This is Monday night, 8 p.m., prime-time television. This is Gossip Girl - a show the Parents' Television Council dubbed "mind-blowingly inappropriate."
This is a show your teenager may be watching.
No, this isn't the first time adults have deemed a show "mind-blowingly inappropriate" while teens seem to love it. It happens with every generation, so why should you care? You turned out fine.
Traditional media, TV shows, movies and music of generations past considered smoking, heavy petting between adults and "let's get it on"-type lyrics racy and controversial. Today's teens see heavy drug use, drinking and almost pornographic sex scenes in shows and movies. Catchy musical lyrics teach them the most intimate details about sex. Do you even know what that "Crank That (Superman)" song actually means? And that the artist released the song when he was only 16?
The Internet and digital technology are also powerful and potentially dangerous media sources for today's youth, and ones that parents may not be as familiar with as they should be. Predators don't have to actually know your teen to take advantage of him, and now bullies can terrorize from the comfort of their homes using text messages, social networking sites and other digital means.
But it's not all doom and gloom. There are teens who use media responsibly, and there are enough positive uses and available information to help parents resist the urge to ban all things electronic until their kids are out of the house.
How the media affects sexual behavior
Most of the images teens are bombarded with through the media teach them to revel in risky behavior, with sex the primary focus.
A study published in the April 2006 Pediatrics surveyed more than 1,000 North Carolina students at ages 12 to 14 and two years later.
Researchers determined white teens exposed to the most sexual content in television, movies, music and magazines were 120 percent, or 2.2 times, more likely to have sex than their peers exposed to less sexual content in the media. This was true even after taking into account other factors known to reduce the likelihood of teen sex, such as parental disapproval and getting good grades. Among blacks, the relationship was not as clear after adjusting for other risk factors.
It's a fact: Some teens are influenced by what they see in the media. But why?
Jane Brown, Ph.D., a researcher in the Pediatrics study and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says many teens look to the media for information on topics that aren't being addressed at home and in schools.
"In the context of a culture that's still reticent to talk openly and honestly about sexuality," Brown says, "the media becomes a powerful educator. The problem is that the media rarely presents sex in a healthy way."
While the media openly shows teens the intricacies and pleasures of sexual behavior, Brown cites important elements the media often neglects to address in relation to healthy sexuality: commitment, contraception and consequences. By neglecting these three elements, the media doesn't teach teens to have a complete and healthy sexual script. Instead, messages encourage interest in sexual attractiveness and activity sooner in life.
And with studies showing adolescents who are younger at their first sexual intercourse experience less likely to use contraception, it's no wonder half of all sexually active youth acquire a sexually transmitted infection by the age of 25.
"The media is pushing our kids towards sexuality before they are ready cognitively to handle it," Brown says.
Reality TV feeds misperceptions
But sex isn't the only risky behavior the media promotes to teens. "Reality TV" - a popular form of today's media - highlights a spectrum of activities, behaviors and people, often including the worst of the worst.
"[Sex] is not the same as violence," Brown says, citing that healthy sexual behavior is something parents want for their children - eventually - while violence and poor behavior should never be encouraged.
The media seems to promote a different perspective. If you have any doubt, watch an episode of the Bad Girls' Club on Oxygen. The premise is to bring a group of troubled girls together in one mansion and throw in a little drama, alcohol and cameras to see what happens.
Sounds like a recipe for chaos, right?
It's a recipe many networks are using to produce often-successful "reality TV" shows. The Bad Girls' Club is from the same producers of The Real World, which is now in its 21st season. The problem?
"The more real it looks, the more likely teens are to imitate it." Brown says.
When shows reward foul behavior, alcoholism and drug use, they are promoting it as entertaining and cool. The example it sets for teens is that these unhealthy, dangerous lifestyles are somehow glamorous. The instant celebrity status of the stars may give teens the impression that the instant gratification for outrageous behavior is fame and popularity.
This isn't to say all teens are susceptible to this line of reasoning, but some are very interested in popular culture, and without the presence of a positive role model, they may look to the media and celebrities as "virtual" peers to show them how to act and how to fit in.
Social media can be a risky reality
One key difference between teens today and in previous generations is the ever-present Internet and the new emergence of social media outlets such as MySpace and Facebook. Based on a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in December 2007, 93 percent of teenagers currently use the Internet, and 64 percent of online teens between the ages of 12 and 17 regularly participate in some type of social networking activity.
Social networking sites are wildly popular with teens and part of their everyday social lives. Unfortunately, these virtual worlds are quickly becoming 24-hour outlets for bullies to establish a "pecking order" and for young teens to engage in risky online behavior with real-life consequences.
"Texting and IM-ing are second nature to children," says North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. "It's important for them to know not to send things online that could be potentially embarrassing in the future."
As the top law enforcement officer in the state, Cooper, who is also a dad, is leading a national effort to get social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to do more to protect kids online. He believes it's important for parents to understand how the misguided assumption that teens have privacy on the Internet can affect teens in substantial ways.
"We've seen a number of instances where children have sent out videos and pictures of themselves that they thought they were sending to close friends that ended up being posted all over the Internet," he says.
The phenomenon known as "sexting," in which teens send provocative or nude images of themselves by cell phone or online, is quickly becoming a devastating trend. In fact, according to a survey done by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, one in five teenagers reported having sent or posted naked photos of themselves online.
The consequences of "sexting" are plainly illustrated in the story of 18-year-old Jesse Logan of Cincinnati, Ohio, who took her own life after a nude photo of her, originally intended for her boyfriend, was circulated by e-mail.
Many teens don't realize that what they may think is a harmless, sexy, heat-of-the-moment image can haunt them for years, especially on the Internet where the image can be disseminated to hundreds, thousands, even millions of people in a short time. And it also can result in criminal pornography charges.
Positive actions for parents
While the anonymity and immediacy of the Internet can be a breeding ground for sexual solicitation, cyberbullying and exposure to content your teen may not want or be mature enough to handle, it's not all negative.
Based on a 2005 Second Youth Internet Safety Survey, one in 11 youth said he or she had been harassed online. That means about 91 percent of all teens have not been harassed online.
The Internet provides a useful tool for teens to complete homework, do research and interact with each other. And while some teens misuse the Internet - four in 10 have reported giving out personal information online to people they didn't know - the statistics show that this is often the exception rather than the rule.
But because the risks involved with improper use of today's media are so great, there is cause for parental concern. So what can you do?
* Know the media. The most important step is for parents to know what their children are watching, listening to and exploring. Brown specifically suggests listening to music in the car with your teen, talking about the lyrics and understanding how the songs' lyrics relate to your family values. "Popular music has the most sexual content. Except for pornography," Brown says, making it a good starting point for the dialogue about sex.
In her book What Every 21st-Century Parent Needs to Know, Debra W. Haffner suggests learning Internet technology. Ask your teen about it and use it as an opportunity to start a dialogue. Haffner suggests joining MySpace or Facebook and requesting to be your child's friend. Set the expectations and the limits high and enforce consequences when the limits are exceeded.
* Talk about sex. The key is to address this issue head-on. When your teen doesn't have an open dialogue with you, he looks to other places for information about sex. Places like the media and friends, which they may not provide accurate facts.
"Let's not pretend they're not having sexual feelings in adolescence. Let's help them understand those sexual feelings," Brown says. Help your teen understand what he is feeling and help him learn how to be responsible if he chooses to act on those feelings.
* Don't underestimate your influence. Brown's study shows parents who actively and specifically express their opinions and concerns with their teenagers' lives have a greater influence on their behavior than the media. Having a continuous dialogue is the key to having a positive influence on your teen's life. Try to understand and relate to your teen, while providing a strong, supportive, guiding hand.
"It's the same approach you have for other problems with kids - with drinking, drugs and sex," Cooper says. He believes a healthy line of communication and establishing trust are key to encouraging responsible use of the Internet and electronic devices.
For parents who are worried about their teens' media usage, Katherine O'Brien Guilfoyle, a 19-year-old student at UNC-Chapel Hill, suggests approaching your teen "in a non-accusatory way and be willing to have an open and comfortable conversation about it." For teens taking full advantage of today's media outlets, Guilfoyle offers simple advice: "Use the good and forget the rest."
Tivi Jones is a 20-something marketing coordinator at Carolina Parent and blogger who graduated with a degree in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill.
For More Information
What Every 21st-Century Parent Needs to Know: Facing Today's Challenges with Wisdom and Heart
by Debra W. Haffner
Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs and Sex - What Parents Don't Know and Teens Aren't Telling by Stephen Wallace
Generation Text: Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in an Age of Instant Everything by Michael Osit, Ph.D.
Girls Gone Skank: The Sexualization of Girls in American Culture by Patrice A. Oppliger
So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids by Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne.