Fresh Ideas: Teens bombarded with sexual messages
October 2, 2002
Friends and I watched the Teen Choice Awards last month and were struck by the seductively clothed performers, sexual innuendoes, and seeming emphasis on sensuality over talent.
We thought: imagine spending the day in the life of a teenager watching scantily clothed male and female performers on MTV moving provocatively together to the music they sing; magazine and TV ads with wafer-thin models hocking items sure to improve appearance and desirability and, therefore, happiness; and, subtle and not-so-subtle messages from some peers about the importance of social presentation and popularity.
And this is barely skimming the surface of an under-layer of movies, teen Internet porn sites and sex-chat-rooms, and music that promotes sexual activity, hatred and violence toward young women. To young people in critical developmental phases this onslaught of sex must cause fear and confusion about what people of the opposite gender value in them.
Teens say that they often feel their whole self-worth is based on their outward appearance: hair, clothes, makeup and body. And, even at very young ages they report that the pressures to have sex are intense. Surely some succumb to these cultural messages and try to navigate the teen dating scene with them as their guide.
Yet, in talking with many teens I commonly hear comments and questions along the opposite lines of, “I’m not going to start dating for a long time because I know I will have to have sex and I don’t want to yet.” How can we help teens navigate dating with these social pressures and make healthy choices for themselves?
Is it possible that we adults, who are also constantly bombarded with this information ourselves, have become complacent to its meanings and how it is affecting not only how teens feel about themselves, but also the choices they make in dating? How can we stop them from internalizing these messages and, instead, reject these messages, believe they deserve to feel good about themselves and believe they deserve to date people who treat them with respect? Before this sounds too hopeless, let me say that in many ways teens have more educational, extracurricular, and church activities designed to help them feel good about themselves than ever before; yet, conflicting messages are also more potent than ever before.
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Additionally, not all teens are as susceptible to these messages as others. Some seem to have a remarkably good head about it all. Others are completely absorbed into these cultural messages, and many fall somewhere in between.
What makes some teens more susceptible than others? Probably a combination of factors is in play. Temperament is always a factor: kids’ thinking styles and “internal resources” make them more or less able to think of issues in complex ways, or to possess or not possess an internal fortitude to be themselves. Family life is always abundantly important, and kids that spend lots of time with their parents, whose parents praise and encourage their skills and accomplishments, and who help them navigate the social world they find themselves in, are less susceptible.
No matter what our role is with the teen in our life, we can all help. Research has shown that teen girls greatly benefit from comments from the males in their life about their intelligence, personality and capabilities. Emphasize the importance and longevity of same-sex friendships so teens don’t feel dating is all-important, they will be less-likely to put up with someone treating them badly. Ask your teen what their values are in relationship to dating and sex. When teens create and “own” their belief system it is usually close to their parents’, and they are more likely to adapt it to their life.
If you see your teen being treated poorly, talk with them about it. Tell them they deserve to be treated better and that the person treating them this way obviously doesn’t care for them. If it seems to be a pattern or a situation they cannot get out of, seek help.
If your child is listening to sexualized or hateful music, comment on it, “I don’t know why that guy hates women so much, how can you stand to listen to it?” Comments from adults like the following go a long way, “You are pretty (or a great football player), but more importantly you are smart and nice;” or, “You have such a great sense of humor and are so fun to be around.”
Get more direct about it. Tell the teen in your life, “Love and sex can be wonderful things at the right time with the right person (insert your values here), but they are nightmares otherwise (give them details about why).”
Asking teens about their opinions on some of these social commentaries will help them think more critically about cultural pressures. And, it may help we adults think of these societal messages and their influence on our lives more critically as well.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.
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