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Spice, Silicone, and Sex: What's a Parent to Do?!

by Marcy Ross

I blame it on the Spice Girls. Although any popular singing group could have swept my 9-year-old daughter up, and pushed Sarah into preteendom before she even officially hit the double-digits. Indeed, the Spice Girls are now passe among her set -- replaced by the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.

Among the boys she knows, the stars of the World Wrestling Federation are all the rage, along with video games and movies that are far too violent ... by any reasonable person's standards. That millions of kids idolize a former Mouseketeer who allegedly had breast implants at age 17, or the wrestler, Stone Cold Steve Austin, sums it up. Our children are growing up too fast, and their priorities are ... well ... Looney Tunes.

I know that Sarah and I both watch too much television. It's a carryover from my own childhood, which for various reasons, I spent in front of the TV. But way back then, things didn't get much racier than "Petticoat Junction," or more violent than "Gunsmoke."

I enjoy sophisticated entertainment and I've never thought of myself as a prude. But I now find myself stepping back, especially between 8:00 and 9:00 in the evening, worrying about how the tube is affecting Sarah.

Unlike the unrealistic, sexually sanitized version of life on TV when I was growing up, today's kids view a sitcom world filled with (mostly bad ... often tasteless) jokes about sex. In fact, I can't recall sitting through one network TV comedy show with my daughter (except for those specially designed for kids, usually relegated to TGIF night on ABC) without cringing and eventually changing the channel.

But of course, prime time is only part of the problem. Flipping around the dial at noon recently, I saw that Jerry Springer had "Extreme Sex Fetishes" as his topic. Could any prepubescent boy, perhaps home with a strep throat, pass up the opportunity to stay tuned for the kinky segments?


And now, courtesy of the Internet, anyone ... including every kid ... can type in even the most innocent of keywords and get results that make Jerry Springer's sleazy segments seem positively tame. For example, say you type in the word "preteens," using Dogpile.com, a search engine compiler. Along with some preteen sites that might prove useful, you'll see quite a range of pornographic sites involving preteens. Even if you never click on them, the language describing these sites is as foul as free speech can get.

I Plead Guilty!

Yet, it's all too easy to use the TV or the computer as a babysitter, especially on weekends or school vacation days. For a long time, I justified using these electronic au pairs with "It's mostly PBS" -- no commercials and good content. Then it was, "It's mostly Nickelodeon" -- ok, lots of commercials, but mostly good content.

But this summer, the tide turned. Every day, Sarah rushed home from camp wanting to watch MTV. Although she was watching the "teenybopper" side of the station -- probably the same sort of music videos that now often show up on the Disney Channel -- it seemed way too soon for MTV to be a staple in her viewing. And the more she crooned Britney Spears' lyrics, the more she wanted to dress like her.

It's surprising -- and scary -- how much a 9-year-old can look like a 17-year-old with the right (or should I say wrong?) outfits. While we won't force Sarah to wear clothes she doesn't like, we have certainly begun to say "No!" to clothes that seem more appropriate for a teenage girl on a date ... or at the beach.

Over and over, the experts say we parents need to set limits. (Kids may rebel, they say, but deep down they really want some clear guidelines.) It's easy for them to say, but we're up against tens of thousands of commercials, and our kids are being exposed to more than 14,000 sexual references, every year. (To see other unsettling statistics on media influences, see "TV as Babysitter: The Cost" )

Down and Dirty

Between the influence of cable TV and the movies -- plus the year-long discussion about our president's sexual behavior and the "distinguishing characteristics" of his genitals -- the times have surely changed. Here are a couple of examples that I found particularly shocking:

Not too long ago, a respected newsman, speaking on CBS-TV one Sunday morning, described someone as a "scumbag."

A commercial featuring a man dropping his cell phone into a urinal he'd just used was aired at 8:30 PM, during "Seventh Heaven," one of the few TV dramas a family can feel comfortable watching together.

Isn't it possible to have adult fare later in the evening, and spare our children some of the raunchiness that now seems to abound any time of day? Or as a barrier drops on cable, will network TV, sink lower and lower, in an effort to keep ratings up?

Consider, for example, the show about a police sex crimes unit that's been on at 9:00 PM. That made no sense! I just heard that the network is planning to move the show to the 10 o'clock hour. (Be thankful for small favors.)

Coming to a Theater Near You

In an effort to rope in teens, moviemakers keep lowering standards as well. With all those PG-13 movies being hyped out there, I can be fairly certain that whatever hot flick my young daughter wants to see is going to have language and sexual behavior I don't want reinforced. But because Sarah was "dying" to see some of them, we experimented and took her to a few "parental guidance" flicks that sounded as if they might be ok. I was often sorry I couldn't fast forward at points!

Yet it's become awfully hard to find a PG movie appropriate for her age group. It seems only box office giants like Tom Hanks get to make them, and even then, only every once in a while. Fortunately, there's a Web site for us parents,www.screenit.com, that provides a detailed overview of all the current movies in theaters and on video.

Reining in the 'Net

Given ratings and reviews, at least movie content (and to a lesser extent, television) can be monitored. Not so for the Internet, unless you use software like Net Nanny, CyberSitter, and WebChaperone, to help you filter out sexually explicit sites, as well as others you find objectionable (e.g., those advocating violence or racial intolerance). Some even let parents track their kids' Web surfing.

While some search engines have filters that you can activate with a few clicks, if my experience is any barometer, you get what you pay for. Luckily, you can get PC Magazine Online's comprehensive review of Web filters if you go to: www.zdnet.com/pcmag/features/utilities99/parfilt01.html. My husband, Barry, is all for using a filter as a precaution. Although I have a tough time imagining our daughter going beyond Web sites devoted to her favorite music groups or TV shows, kids get curious. And some pretty wild stuff comes up, even when you search with the tamest of keywords.

To some extent, my concerns -- and Barry's -- surprise me. When Tipper Gore campaigned against rock music lyrics back in the '80s (before Sarah was born), we thought she was overdoing it, trying to censor artists. Now, we're grateful to see warnings on CD boxes, as well as those ratings for TV and movies!

While I know it's not fair to blame the media for all society's ills, we parents need to counter an awful lot of outside influences. But how?

We're Not Alone!

A bipartisan group has launched an "Appeal to Hollywood," because "American parents today are deeply worried about their children's exposure to an increasingly toxic popular culture." They're calling for a voluntary code of conduct to help reduce sexual and violent content in TV, film, music, video, and electronic games and increase family-oriented entertainment. While I have my doubts that the media moguls are going to immediately re-think their programming decisions, you never know.

Meanwhile, we parents are still in charge -- and there are plenty of actions we can take to help set limits on what our kids see, hear, and play. While I know I enjoy TV far too much to ban it from my house, we've come up with a bunch of suggestions parents can use to combat media influences. See "Media Management 101".

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