05/17/2013 10:34 am ET

NSFU (Not Safe For Us): Is Everyday Media Getting Too Explicit?

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This article was written by teen reporters from The Mash, a weekly publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.

By Maridsa Choute, Niles West

Media has become ingrained in the daily lives of teens in so many ways, with so much access to violence and sex at younger and younger ages that serious questions are being raised—some by the teens themselves—about what effect overexposure to certains kinds of content might have on younger generations in the future.

Consider the website WorldStar Hip Hop, which features many amateur videos that showcase fights and scantily dressed women. It’s become something of a rage, but under that there is worry from parents, youth experts and even many teens.

In some ways the site has replaced the outcry that was once so loud over video games like “Grand Theft Auto.”

“I don’t like WorldStar Hip Hop because I don’t like the drama and the fights they put on there,” said Elijah Crumb, an 18-year-old Hyde Park junior. “Kids are too wild nowadays, and I think it’s because of sites like WorldStar that help escalate such behavior.”

Kyle Davis, a Daley College freshman, took a more measured view, saying: “WorldStar is OK, I just go on there to see the silly and crazy stuff people put on there. Some of it doesn’t even seem real but then again it does. Teens should be exposed to it if they are like that themselves.”

The Sex Factor

So what about the casual sex portrayed by younger actors in TV shows that are readily available, not just on TV but through applications on mobile devices? And what about other references to, or even blatant exhibits of, violence by and against a younger crop of characters on film, in video games and even, not so subtly, snuck into cartoons?

In “Gossip Girl,” a teen TV favorite that ended its six-year run last year, viewers could see simulated sex scenes featuring its young cast of characters. The 2008 premiere of “90210” drew criticism from Entertainment Weekly magazine for a scene that implied two teens were having oral sex in a school parking lot.

To even view one YouTube trailer of the “Silent Hill 2” video game, you have to enter your date of birth to verify you’re of age. Once the video loads, viewers see the monstrous Pyramid Head character simulate sexual assault of a mannequin.

“The violence in children’s games, movies and TV shows is getting a bit out of hand,” said Carlee Campbell, a sophomore at Bartlett. “As an older sister to a brother, I see the violent and graphic games that he plays on his Xbox and I am stunned by how vicious some of these games are.”

“I completely agree that the youth of our generation has been corrupted by cruel and rather violent media of our society,” she said.

Adding a voice of worry is Bartlett junior Holly Bachman. “I think that younger people are more prone to violence now. … It’s so easily accessible that people learn so much about weapons at an early age.

“My 7-year-old cousin plays ‘Call of Duty’ and uses the terms around the family,” she said. “I don’t think people are giving it any thought in letting their children (have such access). It’s not the video games, it’s on every common news channel that kids can, and do, easily access.”

Lincoln Park senior Omar Khawam, too, sees the violence in the media, and agrees that the overexposure to sex is reaching too young an audience. “I believe that the increase of violence in media could definitely impact teenagers who have low self-esteem and anger issues, and also who give into trends easily,” he said.

Your brain on media

From ads in magazines, to what is shown on cable TV, to song lyrics and YouTube videos, the media has a young and attentive audience. Though the effect of media consumption on teens is a hot topic for discussion, some think they’re above the influence.

According to studies found in the book “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18 Year Olds,” children from age 8 to 18 spend about half an hour more on the Internet (daily) than teens from just five years ago, and time spent on social networking sites is roughly 26 minutes each day.

Psychiatrist Christian Thurstone, a child specialist based in Denver and advice columnist for The Mash, added that exposure to drug culture through media is just as dangerous. He also cited recent laws legalizing marijuana in some states—and the hype surrounding those new laws in advertisements and news stories—as promoting the drug’s new legal status but sometimes neglecting to mention pot’s growing potency.

Indeed, not everyone is swayed by news reports or images, as dangerous as they might seem. But people are highly impressionable during their teen years; that is known.

“The brain is still developing,” Thurstone said. “The prefrontal cortex, which helps in weighing consequences, inhibits bad behavior and controls intense emotions, is not fully developed until the age of 25.”

Other experts say that too much violence can influence certain behaviors in adolescents.

“When kids watch a violent thing, there’s an increase in aggressive behavior; it almost desensitizes them,” said Dr. Ari Brown of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who studies the connection between the media and obesity, sleep deprivation and aggression. “When kids see violent things in the video games and TV shows, it almost makes their reactions to violent events less shocking.”

Parental controls

Some teens have said they think what they see in the media does influence how they act.

“I think that it can influence certain behaviors,” said Ridgewood junior Ryan Schmidt. “Like watching WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) on USA can influence aggression or reckless behavior can be caused by TV shows like MTV’s ‘Jersey Shore’ or ‘Buckwild.’ ”

It likely comes as no surprise, but Evanston child therapist Jeannie Gutierrez said that good old-fashioned parental supervision is the key to protecting young people from being overexposed to sex and violence—parents just have to be more diligent in this digital age.

“I think there is more access (to violence and sexual content) as kids are often left without much supervision to handle electronics and all other types of screens,” Gutierrez said. “… Preview of content is critical to not unintentionally exposing children to content and video that can be overwhelming and overstimulating.”

Vinessa Russell, a Bogan graduate and Columbia College Chicago student, and The Chicago Bureau contributed to this report. Russell is a reporter for True Star, which is an urban teen media program in Chicago.



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