It's been called "the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children!" That's a characteristic bit of overstatement from the conservative media watchdog Parents Television Council, but plenty of people are worrying and wondering if the new MTV series "Skins" is seriously bad for kids.
"Skins" is the American adaptation of a UK hit about the sex, drugs, and rock n' roll lifestyle of a group of teenagers. The PTC thinks the program might actually be child pornography, as many of the actors playing wayward teens are under 18 themselves. The group has persuaded a number of advertisers to pull out of the show, and called for a federal investigation.
But is it harmful to impressionable young viewers? MTV certainly "didn't invent 'friends with benefits,' oral sex as the new kiss, or stripper chic as a teenage fashion aspiration," writes David Carr in the New York Times.
Or did it? There's a theory out there that posits a giant "feedback loop" between MTV and other purveyors of youth culture and the kids who consume it. In a nutshell: Shows like "Skins" actually do hold up a mirror to a portion of their audience; there's not much on MTV that isn't out in the real world, somewhere. But the back and forth between creators and viewers, the theory goes, reinforces and amplifies what may have started out as a smaller, less extreme set of behaviors. And voila! Stripper chic in the classroom and on TV.
So, if this feedback loop exists, what is "Skins" reinforcing and exaggerating?
First, there's the extreme behavior. Along with the ill-advised smoking, drinking, and pill-popping, the teens on "Skins" also steal, drive under the influence, get involved in drug deals, and generally skirt death. Or do all the above at once. When Cadie overdoses and appears to stop breathing, her friends steal a car and recklessly careen to the hospital. Later, in a rush to get stoned and forget the incident, they manage to drive the car into a lake.
And the power of this behavior in the feedback loop is amplified by an apparent lack of consequences. "Even in the most scripted reality programming, the waterfall of poor personal choices is interrupted by comeuppance," Carr writes. "Not so on 'Skins.'" Cadie wakes up from her near-death overdose none the worse for wear. The kids in the submerged car all bob happily to the surface, worrying only that they have lost their bag of marijuana.
And this is acted out in a world where parents and adults are mostly ineffectual, not to be trusted, or simply absent. This isn't a good message to send -- but it's sadly accurate for many kids whose parents, well-intentioned though they may be, are out of touch with their teenagers. The most caring parent-child relationship on the show so far is between Tea and her father. But in the second episode Tea, a lesbian, feels she can't tell him about her sexuality, even though she's open about it at school.
More darkly, the third episode shows the toll that having no available parents takes on Chris. His mother has checked out, leaving only a thousand dollars in cash; his father has a new life and wants nothing to do with him. Hurt and abandoned, he tries to party those feelings away.
Here we're getting closer to what "Skins" has to offer teen viewers: It's a picture of life as a kind of adolescent free-for-all, but one that doesn't gloss over the pain of being them. Kids who are struggling will see their very real emotions taken seriously.
And even amid all the drugs and sex, the show also speaks to the integrity of young people. In the second episode Tea declines to hook up with Tony because she's as desperate to be true to herself as she is desperate to find someone, anyone who can "match her." As Tea and Tony sit in a playground -- drinking vodka, to be sure -- she unburdens herself. Her father gave up everything to marry her mother. "He loves her," Tea says. "I can't imagine feeling that way about anyone. Maybe I got a screw missing." She is strong and fragile, doing the right thing even as she does the wrong thing. She's a teen.
So even as we worry that our kids might see "Skins" as a mirror, or a guide to behavior, or both, there are also some qualities on view here we need to recognize and encourage. And if you decide to let your kids watch it, be sure to watch it yourself and take advantage of the opportunity to discuss the risky behaviors the characters are participating in on a regular basis. The discussion will be useful even if it makes watching the show less attractive to your child.
Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D. is a leading child and adolescent psychiatrist and the president of the Child Mind Institute. For more on sex, drugs, and adolescence, go to our website, which offers parenting advice and a wealth of information on childhood psychiatric and learning disorders.