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Kids and Media Culture

A Wake-Up Call for Parents

SoSexySoSoon_bkAs a girl, my introduction to sex came from Judy Blume’s books. A friend of mine says she remembers sharing an old tattered copy of Forever with all the steamy parts highlighted and earmarked. It felt like the book had been passed down from older generations of girl students—even though she’s now sure it wasn’t.

Where do kids today get their information? “Popular culture is still the leading source of sex education in the nation,” write Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne, authors of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect their Kids.

Growing up in the new millennium means being bombarded with sexual messages from birth – an average of forty thousand ads per year on television alone. With parent contact decreasing and screen time increasing, marketers are in a position to influence our children in unprecedented ways.

So if you take pride in the way Elmo taught your son to count and Dora taught your daughter Spanish, then you better start worrying about what else the tube is teaching your child. M. Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect writes, “Studies indicate that exposure to sexual media predicts young adolescents’ sexual behavior: Kids who watch highly sexualized media are about twice as likely to have sex early as kids who don’t.”

Therefore, it would seem the real problem is not with the sex education programs being debated on Capitol Hill but rather with the media’s sexualization, something trivializing and objectifying, that few are talking about.

Levin and Kilbourne explain, “Both boys and girls are routinely exposed to images of sexual behavior devoid of emotions, attachment, or consequences… They learn that sex is often linked to violence. And they learn to associate physical appearance and buying the right products not only with being sexy but also with being successful as a person.”

It’s this born-to-buy mentality that got us into this predicament. Up until the mid-seventies, the Federal Government had a history of protecting our children. Then, despite the 1978 Federal Trade Commission finding that children do not have the cognitive ability to evaluate advertising, Congress began passing legislation that allowed children to become their own marketing group. Since sex and violence sell, our kids are left struggling to make sense of it all.

“Disney movies and the princesses featured in them provide one of the first avenues for luring young girls into the sexualized materialistic world,” argue Levin and Kilbourne. These scantily clad characters, whose bodies rival centerfolds, have become big business, bringing in $4 billion in 2007 alone. Granted, they are more wholesome than other products, but they are marketed to toddlers, thereby leaving the most significant impression in the long run. After all, it’s No longer one trip to see Cinderella in the movie theater; it’s dozens of showings on the family room TV.

Of course, little girls have been playing princess for years. So what makes Disney Princesses and others like them so damaging? It’s the fact that looking pretty to capture a prince has taken precedence over anything else. M. Gigi Durham writes in The Lolita Effect that “clothing and makeup aren’t problematic. It’s the corollary assumption – that youth is sexy, that little girls are sexy.” In other words, transforming a school uniform for aBritney Spears video has an effect.

With Bratz dolls now outselling Barbie, a yearning for an unnatural body gains even greater popularity. According to Durham, “the number of girls under eighteen getting breast implants has tripled in the last five years.” And the Economist reported that American women are now spending more money on beauty each year than they do on education.

“Media images have a powerful negative influence on the self perception and self esteem of too many youths, leading to an increase in depression, eating disorders, self-esteem, and anxiety,” explain Pam Siegel, LPC and Kerri Rhodes LPC, experienced clinicians at Medical and Counseling Associates in Richmond.

And contrary to popular belief, girls aren’t the only ones suffering. “Boys raised in a sexualized culture often become men who are unsatisfying and sometimes even dangerous partners for women,” write Levin and Kilbourne in So Sexy So Soon

“What I worry about is how my son’s going to learn to respect women when all the TV shows seem to care about is whether a girl, or her mother, is hot,” says Pepper Dedrick, mother of a seven-year-old boy.

To counteract the media blitz, which Siegel and Rhodes consider print, film, music and technology, they suggest parents stay connected to their kids through things like family dinners. Educate yourself and then limit your child’s media exposure accordingly. If you listen to their music, watch their shows, and check out what they are doing on the computer, as Siegel and Rhodes suggest, then you won’t miss a teachable moment. Also, choose toys, games, and clothes that don’t perpetuate the gender-divide.

Mike Lamberth’s oldest daughter attends St. Catherine’s School in Richmond. He says, “My girls love constructing with Magnatiles and my wife is a big fan of the Mindware catalogue with its great educational games.”

Finally, accept your children for who they are. Siegel and Rhodes argue, “Our kids are ‘perfectly imperfect’…if parents model behaviors and attitudes of self acceptance, our children will come to believe that about themselves and feel good enough.”

Unfortunately, the statistics suggest that M. Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect, is correct. “We are in a crisis of ignorance: The United States has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies, births, and abortions, and the highest incidence of adolescent STDs in the industrialized world.” So don’t think of speaking out against sexualization in the media as censorship. It’s about empowering. It’s about a childhood that feels just out of reach but is not yet lost.

According to counselors Siegel and Rhodes, “This trend can be prevented by the influence of parents and the connection they create with their children. Parents are the most powerful role models that children have. If we don’t buy it, ultimately our kids won’t either.”

Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.
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