Is TV Responsible for Your Teen’s Bad Behavior? Critics Say Yes, Doctors Say No

Concerned parents constantly agonize over what their children are watching, or rather are “exposed to” on television. Watchdog groups exist to monitor media and provide parents with detailed reviews. Critics tend to attack shows that contain morally questionable dialogue or subject matter. It’s all well and good, but what they fail to mention is that the threat isn’t what your children are watching, but what they are doing with the information they’re receiving. Case in point, in a recent op-ed at the New York Post, Naomi Schaefer Riley points out:

Kids who consume high amounts of media with sexual content tend to begin sexual activity earlier than those who consume less. A 2013 study in the journal Psychological Science found, for instance, that movie sexual exposure (MSE) “predicted age of sexual debut.” It also “predicted engagement in risky sexual behaviors both directly and indirectly via early sexual debut.” It is not that watching sex on television will make every teen want to go out and try it. Rather, it’s that teens come to think that most of their peers are doing it and so it makes sexual activity a more plausible choice for them.

The threat here isn’t from “the media.” It’s from the idea kids get that “most of [my] peers are doing it” so I should be, too. It’s the Brooklyn Bridge metaphor (if so-and-so jumps off the bridge, would you, too?) come to life. Teens aren’t merely comparing themselves to their peers, they’re role-modeling them. Along with not drawing attention to this fact, critics also fail to point out that the people who have set that system into motion are parents.

Physician and psychologist Dr. Gabor Mate has written extensively on the cultural trend towards peer-bonding and away from parent-child bonding in contemporary culture. He believes that “the essential condition for healthy development is the child’s relationship with nurturing adults.” Mate focuses heavily on daycare as the foundation from which children begin to pull away from their parents and bond with their peers:

This “peer orientation” undermines family cohesion, interferes with healthy development, and fosters a hostile and sexualized youth culture. Children end up becoming overly conformist, desensitized, and alienated; being “cool” matters more to them than anything else.

The media is a symptom, not a cause of the crisis. The cause lies in the failure of parents to form cohesive bonds with their children who, in desperate need of attention and role modeling, turn to their equally ignored and ignorant peers to fill the gap.

In her rundown, Schaefer Riley notes several risqué moments in recent television history including titles like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek. A high schooler when both originally aired, I was never remotely interested in either show. I was too busy watching 1940s period pieces to even be bothered. Why? Because my mother and I already had a long-established ritual of watching television together. That’s how laying the groundwork starting on day one pays off big years into the future.

Even when my mother wasn’t around I never gravitated towards shows my peers adored. My bond with my parents was so strong that I took a greater interest in shows and series’ my peers had never even heard of, like Masterpiece Theater or movies on TCM. I grew intellectually, emotionally and yes, even socially, beyond stereotypical norms precisely because I didn’t look to my peers for guidance or direction. Why would I? They were just kids.

It’s wonderful to remain vigilant when it comes to the media, but spare me the hysteria. You, the parent, are the gatekeeper whose choices and influence will invariably be far more reaching and lasting than anything your child encounters on a screen.

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