One of the biggest challenges facing today’s parents is managing media for their kids. According to author Peggy Orenstein, who’s been researching and writing about young girls for over 25 years, this new generation of parents was not raised to meet this challenge. Today’s children, growing up with the Internet, hear a lot of messed up cultural messages and those messages can have troubling consequences for young girls.
Recently, I heard Orenstein discuss her new book, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape with Manoush Zomorodi, host of one of my favorite podcasts, Note to Self—the tech show about being human. Orenstein described a recent trip to Target with her daughter and asked her what she thought of a new line of superhero dolls for girls. Her daughter said she didn’t like them because they didn’t look like real human figures or show any diversity. Orenstein was proud of her daughter’s media literacy and glad that her “brainwashing” had made an impact on her over the years.
If I don’t brainwash my kid, the culture’s going to brainwash my kid! I want her to go into every situation and have my voice playing in her head so that she’ll question what she sees.
Orenstein admits that she was totally unprepared for how much of her job as a mom would be managing media, marketing, and all the messages coming at her daughter. “That is the challenge for this new generation of parents and we’re trying to figure it out.”
Orenstein’s daughter is almost 13-years old, the same age as my granddaughter. Thanks to my media-conscious daughter, I’ve been well educated on the negative influences of the media since my granddaughter was born. My daughter has restricted the use of media for both of my granddaughters (the younger one is 9) since they were toddlers. She doesn’t like the princess messages in Disney movies and objects to books that have characters who are snarky or mean-spirited. The girls are not allowed to watch music videos or television. They are both avid readers, accomplished musicians, animal lovers, and socially outgoing girls.
When I tell my friends about these restrictions, they look at me in disbelief and often don’t understand my daughter’s concerns. I admit at first I thought she was over-reacting. But as I’ve read more and witnessed firsthand how even clothing for young girls has gotten more suggestive, I’ve come around to embracing her point of view.
I’m even more concerned after listening to Orenstein warn that pop culture and pornography sexualize young women by creating undue pressure to look and act sexy. These pressures affect both the sexual expectations that girls put on themselves and the expectations boys project onto them. “A generation gap has emerged between parents and their girls,” warns Orenstein. “Even in this age of helicopter parenting, the mothers and fathers of tomorrow’s women have little idea what their daughters are up to sexually or how they feel about it.”
On the topic of parent-child communication about sex, she says that fathers are not talking to their daughters at all — especially about their values and ethics around sexuality. Mothers, on the other hand, take a “harm reduction” approach to sexuality and talk about birth control, consent, and disease prevention, but not about balancing risk and responsibility and girls’ entitlement to sexual pleasure.
In a new documentary, Screenagers, Orenstein says that what matters to today’s teens is not whether you’re a good person, it’s how you look. “We have to think about everywhere that kids are in the world and how we can educate them in those spaces. We can’t say it’s on the schools or the parents. We have to do this as a community.”
One organization that is reaching out to the community is Families Managing Media — an excellent resource for smart parenting in the digital age. Their mission is to help build healthier families by educating the public on the basics of brain science as it relates to screen use and brain development; offer programs and practical tips to help reduce entertainment technology overuse in the home, replacing it with healthy family-attachment activities; and provide a forum for like-minded families to support one another on this journey through the challenges of the digital age.
As parents and grandparents, it’s critical that we realize we’re facing one of the most difficult issues of our lives: Internet consumption. The more we can learn about the impact this has on our children and grandchildren, the better we’ll be able to empower them to best navigate the digital world.