Youth Culture Window
Television is changing. Everything from how it’s watched (online, cell phone, actual TV screen, etc.), to the number of dimensions now offered, to the actual programming itself, is evolving.
But a few of these evolutions have some concerned for what 2011 will offer teen viewers.
TV’s Grip on Kids
According to Kaiser Family Foundation’s massive study Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds, today’s teens spend an average of 4 hours and 29 minutes of each and every day viewing television content.
That huge increase, compared to the last decade, is largely due to the fact that TV has gone mobile. Television’s content can now be viewed on cell phones, handheld video games, mp3 players, laptops, etc. Gone are the days of being stuck on a couch in front of a dust-covered, 150-pound box.
If television trends continue, the grip TV has on kids’ lives will only tighten. And some worry that TV’s grip on kids is already starting to choke the life out of them.
Towards the end of 2010, The Parents Television Council released the findings of their Habitat for Profanity, a study that focused on the growing amount of expletives on television. In comparing the vulgarity on television from 2005 to 2010, the PTC noticed a fairly remarkable increase. A few points of their summary include:
- Using absolute totals, across all networks use of profanity on prime-time broadcast entertainment programming increased 69.3% from 2005 to 2010. This increase occurred in spite of the fact that there were six prime-time broadcast networks in 2005, and only five in 2010.
- The largest increases were found in the use of the harshest profanities, and in explicit references to genitalia and bodily functions. The greatest increase in the use of the harshest profanities occurred in the 8:00 p.m. ET time period (the “Family Hour”), and at 9:00 p.m. ET.
- Across all networks and prime time hours, use of the bleeped or muted f-word increased from 11 instances total in 2005 to 276 instances in 2010 – an increase of 2,409 %.
You may want to check out the actual list of expletives and vulgarities on Page 6 of their report; it lists each expletive (and its relatives), and then provides the frequency of occurrence in 2005 compared to 2010.
A perfect example of the PTC’s complaint might be CBS’ $#*! My Dad Says, a sitcom starring William Shatner, which airs on Thursday nights at 8:30PM EST. Not only is adult language used on the show, but an actual expletive is found in the show’s title. ($#*! is code for sh*t.)
But expletives were only one part of the PTC’s grief with television in 2010.
The “S” is for…?
In late 2010, the PTC also noted an increase in the “sexualization” of girls – with many of the instances being broadcast for the sake of laughter – in the middle of primetime shows targeted at teens. In the 14 most popular TV shows targeting the 12-17 year old demographic (according to Nielsen), for instance The Office, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and The Vampire Diaries, “Underage female characters are shown participating in a higher percentage of sexual depictions compared to adults.”
Their report, entitled Sexualized Teen Girls: Tinseltown's New Target, found that 73% of televised sexual moments involving underage girls were designed to be funny, with the hope of “using laughter to desensitize and trivialize topics that might normally be viewed as disturbing.” Their analysis went on to claim that 98% of young girls’ escapades on TV shows occurred with partners with whom they had no committed relationship. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 75% of the TV shows displaying this kind of material did not carry the “S” label (for sexual situations) so parents could be warned beforehand.
With those kinds of numbers, maybe the “S” should stand for smut!
The Loss of Innocence
Perhaps the most concerning news coming out of television land in 2010 was the introduction of historically “adult material” in shows that have historically belonged to kids.
For example, Katy Perry had one heck of a year, but undoubtedly, one of her biggest water cooler moments was being banned from Sesame Street because of her risqué outfit. Her remix of Hot N Cold – a duet with Elmo – featured her…ummm, “stuff,” stuffed into a low cut dress. The segment never aired on the kids’ show, but the music video has surpassed 10 million views on Youtube. (Saturday Night Live allowed Perry to have the last laugh on the subject with a sketch of their own.)
In related news, some are beginning to wonder about the introduction of homosexuality on kids’ shows. All agree that the easiest way to accomplish that would be to include a gay character on the show.
Some speculate it may already be happening.
For example, Gunther, the German teen who serves as the antagonist on Disney Channel’s Shake it Up, has been billed as “the first obviously-but-not-openly gay character on a regular TV show on the Disney Channel.” That’s debatable, for sure, but it does cause one to wonder when a kids’ TV show will feature an openly homosexual character.
Unfortunately, it’s a matter of “when,” not “if.”
Viewer Discretion is Advised
Whether you agree with watchdog groups like the Parents Television Council or not, there is no debate about whether or not television is changing. Once upon a time, Lucy and Desi slept in separate beds; now, whole shows are based on what’s happening in the bedroom…or hotel…or bathroom.
I’m looking at you Two and a Half Men.
No wonder so many shows start with the disclaimer, “Viewer discretion is advised.”
If you’re concerned that there is too much questionable (or outright offensive) material on television, relax, there’s a simple solution. Finding it is as simple as looking in the mirror.
Yep, we parents ultimately get to decide what is watched in our homes (even if we abdicate that decision to our kids). If you want to reclaim control of the television in your house, consider these simple steps.
Decide upon your standards…and stick with them. TV ratings systems are helpful, but they don’t get the last word for my family. I’m not outsourcing my authority to them so they can make decisions for my crew. The only shows that we watch are those that don’t conflict with our values. (Thus…we don’t watch much TV at my house.) But even my 4 year old can recognize a “bad show” when he sees it elsewhere. Decide what’s permissible for your family – and what’s not – and then view by those standards.
TiVo and preview any show in question. With today’s technology, there’s no excuse for parents to get blindsided by trashy content. Shows can be recorded and previewed so it can be determined whether or not kids should view it. And when it comes to making the final decision, don’t underestimate your gut instinct. (If it smells and looks like poop…it probably is.) Some shows build their whole premise on filth (again, Two and a Half Men), but other shows start off fairly wholesome, and then stray, (like Smallville).
Watch TV together. This is one of the most helpful strategies for teaching kids their own set of values. By watching TV with teenagers, not only do parents get the right to decide what’s being watched, it also gives parents an avenue to begin conversations with their kids about certain topics found in the show, like sex, ethics, etc. TV can provide lots of teaching moments.
These kinds of habits will give you a front row seat to the continually evolving state of television. Then, if you decide you don’t like the face of television, whether it’s in 2011 or 2020, you can do something about it!
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
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