Parents should tune into media to keep teens safe

Posted June 12, 2009 11:51 a.m. EDT

“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.

This isn’t some late-night, adults-only flick or 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.

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.

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 or her, 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.

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 issue of Pediatrics surveyed more than 1,000 North Carolina students at ages 12 to 14 and again two years later. Researchers determined white teens exposed to the most sexual content in television, movies, music and magazines were 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.

Jane Brown, 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, she said.

Instead, messages encourage interest in sexual attractiveness and activity sooner in life. 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.

Sex isn’t the only risky behavior the media promotes to teens. Reality TV highlights a spectrum of activities, behaviors and people, often including the worst of the worst.

“[Sex] is not the same as violence,” Browns says, citing that healthy sexual behavior is something parents want for their children eventually, while violence and poor behavior should never be encouraged.

Bad Girls’ Club on Oxygen, for example, brings a group of troubled girls together in one mansion and throws in a little drama, alcohol and cameras to see what happens. It’s a recipe many networks are using to produce often-successful reality shows. The Bad Girls Club is from the same producers of The Real World, which is now in its 21st season.

“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.

One key difference between teens today and in previous generations is the ever-present Internet and the new emergence of social media outlets like 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 (instant messaging) are second nature to children,” North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper says. “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 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. A survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 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, who took her own life after a nude photo of her, originally intended for her boyfriend, was circulated by e-mail.

Many teens also don’t realize that what they may think is a harmless, sexy, heat-of-the-moment image could result in criminal pornography charges.

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.

The Internet provides a useful tool for teens to complete homework, do research and interact with each other. Although 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.

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,” she says, making it a good starting point for the dialog 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 dialog. 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.

When your teen doesn’t have an open dialog with you about sex, he or she looks to other places for information, such as the media and friends, which might 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.

Parents need to help teens understand what they're feeling and help them learn how to be responsible if they choose to act on those feelings, she says.

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 dialog is the key to 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.”