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Points to Make With Your Teen About Media

Violence In The Media

“Did you ever notice how on TV and in the movies, the ‘good guys’ are often shown committing acts of violence? By making these characters attractive and likable, don’t you think that glamorizes violence?”

  • On television, two in five violent incidents are instigated by characters with positive qualities that make them appealing role models.
  • “In real life, victims of violence may be affected physically and emotionally for years. But in the movies and on television, you rarely if ever see the aftermath of violence.”
  • Only about one in eight violent TV programs depict the long-term suffering caused by violence.

Sex In The Media

  • “Don’t you think it’s hypocritical that more than half the programs on television contain sex scenes or references to sex, yet the major networks generally refuse to air commercials for condoms and other birth-control products?”
  • Of the various types of TV programs, soap operas are the worst offenders. More than eight in ten contain steamy scenes.  

Body Image In The Media

  • “It’s a shame that so many kids, especially girls, are starving themselves to be thin based on the idealized images of women’s bodies they see in the media. Nearly half the women on television are thin or very thin. In reality, the average woman wears a size fourteen dress, and more than one-third of all adult women are overweight—partly because they probably watch too much TV!”  
  • A 1996 study reported that the more teenagers watched soap operas, movies and music videos, the more dissatisfied they were with their bodies and the more they wanted to be thin.

Another study, from the Harvard Eating Disorders Center, demonstrated that television’s influence apparently transcends cultures. In 1995, TV came to the Fiji Islands, where heaviness has traditionally been accepted as normal and healthy. In fact, among the Fijian people, conspicuous weight loss is regarded as a worrisome sign of illness.

At the time of television’s arrival, only 3 percent of girls in Fiji were bulimic (vomiting after meals as a way to control their weight). But after three years of a steady diet of programs from the United States, Australia and England, there were five times as many bulimics. The girls were trying to emulate Western culture’s standards of beauty—or should we say false standards of beauty?

Male-Female Stereotypes In The Media

  • “Why is it that so much emphasis is placed on women’s physical appearance? In the movies, television and TV commercials, girls’ and women’s looks are commented on two to three times more frequently than the male characters’ appearance. Does that seem fair to you? Imagine if the roles were reversed!”
  • The facts, from the Kaiser Family Foundation study “A Content Analysis: Reflections of Girls in the Media,” are these:
    • Fifty-six percent of TV commercials directed at teenage girls use promises of enhanced beauty to sell the product; only 3 percent of commercials aimed at teenage boys employ a similar strategy.
    • Female actresses are far more likely than male actors to be shown clad only in their underwear: on TV, by a ratio of three to one, and in the movies, by a ratio of nearly four to one.  

Racial and Ethnic Stereotypes In The Media

  • “Negative racial or ethnic stereotypes in the media are damaging on two levels. Not only can they prejudice other people’s perceptions about a particular group, but eventually the group being stereotyped may come to adopt the attitudes and behaviors that have been attributed to it.”
  • “The media are more sensitive to avoiding insulting portrayals of minority groups than they used to be. But minorities remain sorely underrepresented on prime-time TV. And why is it that the criminals on so many police dramas are predominantly from minority groups?” Parents who belong to a minority group will want to counter unflattering depictions in the media. They should seek out books and films that call attention to the many accomplishments of their race or ethnic group. For instance, African American parents might encourage their teens to read about important figures such as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, jazz legend Miles Davis—the list goes on and on.

All youngsters could benefit from learning about admirable role models from other races and ethnic backgrounds. An appreciation of how it would feel to be the object of a stereotype is also important. Here are two exercises parents can practice with their adolescents:

  • Have your child compare the images of race/ethnicity/ physical or mental handicaps/old age he sees on TV with people he knows in real life. How accurate or inaccurate is that image?
  • Let’s say your teen is Caucasian. You’re watching a crime drama on which the majority of the muggers, drug dealers and so on are played by African American actors, while most of the victims are white. Ask her how she would feel if the roles were reversed. “This show makes it look like all white people are violent criminals!” Unfair, isn’t it? Now imagine being barraged with these and other unfavorable images on a regular basis.  

Tobacco, Alcohol And Illicit Drugs In The Media

  • “The tobacco and alcohol companies insist that they’re not trying to target minors with their advertisements. But several ad campaigns have clearly been directed at children. Even though you cannot legally smoke or drink, they’re hoping to plant the seeds for when you become an adult. “The companies know that their ads reach young people. Listen to this: The brands of cigarettes that are most popular with teens just happen to be the brands that advertise most heavily in magazines read by teenagers. And many sixteen-year-olds list advertisements for alcohol among their favorite commercials.”
  •  “Think about the impressions that tobacco and alcohol advertisements try to convey about smoking and drinking. How truthful are they? What don’t they tell you about the products?”

Movies: More of the Same—And Then Some

Scenes of sex, violence and drug use in motion pictures are magnified many times over what is shown on television, and not just because the silver screen dwarfs the small screen in size. The depictions are considerably more graphic, and if it’s quantity you’re after, grab some popcorn and take your seat. It’s show time!

The film genres most popular with young people—horror flicks, action/ adventure, sci-fi and suspense thrillers—routinely feature so much bloodshed, you need a calculator to tally up the carnage. The average science fiction film contains fifty-five killings; horror films, thirty-seven; action/adventure, thirty-six; and suspense thrillers, thirty-two.

The movies also surpass all other media when it comes to portrayals of substance use. A study by Dr. George Gerbner, a professor of communications at Pennsylvania’s Temple University, compared TV programs, music videos and the twenty top-grossing U.S. pictures in 1994 and 1995. The forty films averaged 6.3 scenes of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use per hour; music videos on MTV, 5.6; music videos on BET, 4.7; prime-time dramatic shows, 4.4; and daytime serials, 2.5.  

As they do with television, parents need to make use of the ratings system devised by the Motion Picture Association of America. Read movie reviews too. Many newspapers and magazines now include information specifically for moms and dads who insist on knowing the content of a film before they give their teenager permission to go to the movies or rent a videocassette for home viewing.

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Caring for Your Teenager (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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