As cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Today our children are not brought up by parents, they are brought up by the mass media.”
The Sexualized Child Enters Adolescence
It has become normal in our culture for teenagers to rebel, for adolescence to be a time of conflict between children and parents, and for the older generation to be shocked, troubled, and mystified by the ways of the younger generation. If you weren’t faced with a premature adolescent rebellion earlier, it’s likely that rebellion issues will come up now. But just as childhood is dramatically different today than it used to be, so is the world of adolescence.
Nowhere is this difference more striking than in the media environment. Rapid advances in technology have made readily available to most American children devices and methods of communication that, if imagined at all, belonged to the world of science fiction not that long ago — the Internet, cell phones, handheld computers, e-mail, text messaging, hundreds of cable channels, CDs, DVDs, iPods, and more. This new technology, along with the predominance of the marketplace and a more tolerant culture, has snapped up the shades on hundreds of windows that used to be off-limits to most children and teenagers. As you’ll see, these messages escalate dramatically as children grow older.
Messages About Sex and Gender in the Popular Culture
One fine spring afternoon, fifteen-year-old Matt burst onto the street with a sawed-off shotgun, just as the friendly neighborhood cop was riding by…. Matt shot the cop, commandeered the bike, broke out his Glock, and streaked down the street firing indiscriminately at passersby. In the chaos, a car exploded, flinging a flaming construction worker across the street. Matt decided to ditch the bike. Blowing away the driver of a car with his shotgun, he dragged him onto the sidewalk and peeled off in the car. He spotted a young woman in a very short skirt on the side of the road and ordered her to get in. He drove her to a remote spot and had intercourse with her in the backseat of the car. When he was finished with her, he dragged her out of the car and stomped her to death, feeling himself get hard again as he watched her die. Then his mother ruined everything by calling up the stairs and asking him to set the table.
Matt was playing Grand Theft Auto, one of the most popular video games of all times — a game so socially acceptable and widely known that Coca-Cola did a commercial based on an imitation of it.
While Matt was on his murderous spree, his thirteen-year-old sister, Lizzie, was lying on her bed reading Cosmopolitan. She was learning about how to give a great blow job. Her best friend, Rachel, had gone to a party on Saturday night and told Lizzie all about it. The most popular girl in the class had gone down on three of the football players. Lizzie thought it sounded gross, but Rachel said it was cool. Lizzie didn’t think she’d know how to do it and she didn’t want to ask Rachel, but she’d found the answer in Cosmo. It did sound gross, though.
It can be very difficult for parents and grandparents to understand how different the world is for their teenagers from the one they grew up in. There are similarities, to be sure — the self-absorption, the drama, the anxiety and insecurity, the need to be liked and to be popular, the conformity, the raging hormones. But this is all playing out on a new and unfamiliar stage. The sexual arena for young people these days is in many ways as different from that of the past as the cell phone is different from the rotary dial and party line of the good old days. As different as the Internet from the Pony Express.
Editor’s Note: What can parents and grandparents do?
Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Education at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts. She teaches courses on endangered play, peace building with young children, and a summer institute on media literacy. Her work focuses on how various forces in society affect children, and what adults can do about them. She is the author or co-author of eight books, including So Sexy So Soon; The War Play Dilemma; Remote Control Childhood; and Teaching Young Children in Violent Times. She is a founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE).