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Monitoring Teens' Media Intake Poses Challenges
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Monitoring Teens' Media Intake Poses Challenges

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Bringing up teenagers has never been easy, but today's parents have a challenge others haven't faced: media full of sex and violence.

In the third part of our series on children and the media, NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on coming of age in a world where it's hard to avoid exposure to sex and violence.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

If you go to online spaces popular with teenagers, you'll find plenty of smart, funny, charming material. And without much effort, you'll probably also find things that would make the most liberal parents cringe.

(Soundbite of online game)

ULABY: Take this game, on NewGrounds.com. The website attracts over 2 million visitors each month, most of them teenaged boys. The animated game invites players to sexually humiliate a popular singer and ends with a do-it-yourself snuff film.

It's easy for teens and pre-teens to access hardcore images of sex and violence that would have been hard for adults to find 20 years ago. Some of it, on internet advertising, blindsides kids like 15-year-old Angela Black.

Ms. ANGELA BLACK (Teenager): Pop-ups come up sometimes, and it's just like, you know, delete. That's all you've got to do. And that's all I do because that's disgusting, like porn stuff, that's nasty.

ULABY: Everyday, Angela updates her social networking websites, all three on MySpace, Xanga and Facebook. But until recently, Angela's mom had not seen a single one.

Ms. BLACK: She actually just read it this morning.

ULABY: Because Angela was coming to NPR for an interview.

Because she respects your privacy.

Ms. BLACK: No, she wanted to read it all. I told her no.

ULABY: But Angela's mom can relax. Angela and her friends from school and camp fill their web pages with silly, supportive messages. They post pictures of bad hair days and muse about life, faith and every so often, love. But the pages of Angela's classmates aren't always as wholesome.

Ms. BLACK: I see people talk about their, like, adventures with boys or girls or - I go to an all girls school. And it's, sometimes it's really freaky, but it's not really shocking anymore because it's just, you know, you get used to it.

ULABY: Technology is crucial to most teenagers' social lives. Many feel liberated by their relative online anonymity and experiment without much sense of repercussions, says Kathy Winn, who directs educational research for a Canadian group called the Media Awareness Network.

Ms. KATHY WINN (Media Awareness Network): We found that 60 percent of the kids pretended to be somebody else online. So it's a very common activity. They wanted to be a different sex, a different gender. They wanted to be a different age.

ULABY: That could mean a 12-year-old pretending to be 16 or even 20. Experiments with identity can also include web pages parents might know about and others kept secret. All this is normal to adolescence, says Winn. So is an interest in sex. But problems emerge when kids are, literally, left to their own devices.

Ms. WINN: There was a news report here about a group of kids just from normal, you know, well-supervised backgrounds who had a safe sex group, they called it, because they would use web cams to perform sex in front of the web cam, so they were not having intercourse, so it was safe sex and they thought they were being responsible. But of course, these images ended up getting out.

ULABY: That story did not surprise 21-year-old Ashley Hutchinson, who volunteers educating teenagers about their sexual health.

Ms. ASHLEY HUTCHINSON (Sex Educator): There's no escaping all the technology, especially when you're growing up in it, like it's normal for kids these days. I mean, a web cam, like, I know people, they use them everyday and yeah, they do stuff like that. They don't even think twice about it.

ULABY: Hutchinson says, nowadays, the technological sophistication of teenagers means parents have lost their historic advantage of being the first to know how to use the tools. Cell phones, Playstations and portable media devices all are employed by teenagers to exchange and store images, music and videos in ways that don't always occur to their elders.

Here's 18 year old Brian Bollum(ph) and his friend Raisha Hicks(ph).

Mr. BRIAN BOLLUM (Teenager): Like on cell phones, like, you could text message, like of sex having and you could talk to the girls through text messages and stuff like that.

ULABY: And does it check to see how old you are?

Mr. BOLLUM: No.

Ms. RAISHA HICKS (Teenager): There's no way to tell. There's no way to tell someone's age over a text message, because they could lie.

ULABY: Both teenagers say they know plenty of kids who text message sex hotlines during school.

Mr. BOLLUM: Yeah. If they have a phone in class, they start doing it.

ULABY: If experts agree on one thing, it's that most parents are clueless about the media lives of their children.

Researcher Kathy Winn.

Ms. WINN: I guess what showed me the naivety of parents was we had boys who were 13 telling us that they'd been through their pornography stage when they were 11. They'd been there, done that. Now, they were more mature. They were past that. And then we had parents telling us that they had very open dialogue with their children but they hadn't talked to them about pornography on the internet because, you know, their kids were 14 or 15 and they felt that they were too young.

ULABY: It can be tricky for parents to define what's appropriate at a time when mainstream culture has become so casually risqué, says Susannah Stern. She teaches communications at the University of San Diego.

Ms. SUSANNAH STERN (University of San Diego): I don't think we should be shocked when we also see kids - they've learned very well from adults what we value and what gets people to pay attention.

ULABY: Recently, the Kaiser Family Foundation did a study showing that over the past seven years, sexual content on network television has increased from just over half of all shows to 7 out of every 10 shows. And the number of sexual scenes in those shows has gone up, too.

(Soundbite of How I Met Your Mother)

Unidentified Man: Check out table number 4. See that little hottie on the end? She's short but has an ample bosom. I love that she's like, half boob.

ULABY: That's from the teen-oriented CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Similar chatter is commonplace even within the so-called safe harbor between 6:00 AM and 10:00 at night.

Professor Jane Brown is a principal investigator for a study on teen media funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. She points out this onslaught of sexualized media comes at a moment over pitched battles sex ed in schools.

Ms. JANE BROWN (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development): The media has become what we consider a powerful sex educator or, if you will, a powerful sexual peer. An appealing compelling model of what it must be like to be an adolescent that's sexual, popular and attractive.

ULABY: Teenagers do not respond identically to media messages, says Susannah Stern, so there's no one way to help guide them. She says adults must make clear their interest is not in removing teenagers' autonomy, but in helping them develop their own internal controls.

Ms. STERN: I think what's hard is parents don't want grey. They want black and white. They want a list of here are the 20 things you should do and here are the 20 things you shouldn't do. And I just don't think in this day and age, especially dealing with pre-adolescents, adolescents, that you can give that kind of prescriptive list.

ULABY: But some people are trying. Legislation introduced in Congress last May would limit access for social networking sites for kids in schools and libraries.

Mark Ginsberg is president of Xanga.com. That's the third most popular such site after MySpace and Facebook. He says Xanga is trying to help with a new voluntary rating system. To visit sites rated the equivalent of NC-17, he says -

Mr. MARK GINSBERG (Xanga.com): You need to indicate that you're 18 somehow through Xanga account settings to begin with. You need to sign under penalty of perjury that you are who you say you are and above 18 and we do credit card verification.

ULABY: But policing this world has not developed quite as quickly as the kids who've grown up inside it. Twenty-one-year-old Ashley Hutchinson says coming of age in this media morass has affected her feelings about starting a family of her own.

Ms. HUTCHINSON: It scares me when I think about having kids, because do I want to just block it out of their life? Because you can't. Then they're going to get it from somebody else, and they're going to get it incorrectly and learn it the wrong way. Or do I want to watch it with them, do it with them, or like, I don't know. Like what's the best way to take part in their life so that they don't just get all this media thrown at them like we are because our parents never knew about this stuff.

ULABY: Ashley describes hers as a guinea pig generation, the first to have grown up immersed in a brave new world of technology and media culture, and the first to master it, more or less, on their own.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

BLOCK: So should parents keep track of what their teens see online? And what should they do if they find something alarming? An expert offers advice at our website, NPR.org.

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