The Power of Prime

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Media Teaches Bad Values to Your Children

Are success at any cost, wealth and materialism, and fame values you value?

How powerful and toxic are the value messages that children are receiving from popular media today? According to a large body of research, the answer is very in both cases. Though I’m obviously making a judgment on what good and bad values are, I don’t think many parents would disagree with the values that I believe aren’t healthy for children. The research demonstrates that the values I’m going to describe actually hurt your children.

Though there are many values that you want to protect your children from adopting, I’m going to focus on the three that I believe are most influenced by the popular media, most harmful to children’s development, and that have research to support my stance. But don’t let my short list prevent you from identifying the unhealthy values that you see hurting your children and from taking steps to prevent your children from being exposed to those values.

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Success at any cost. An unsettling aspect of the media’s perspective on success is its imperative that success must be achieved at any cost. This culture of success causes children to believe that they must succeed in our culturally defined ways to be esteemed by society, peers, and, most sadly, by their parents and themselves. Not surprisingly, this message has created a desperate need for success in children. When that need is combined with growing up in a culture of greed, fraud, and absence of culpability, they learn that they can use any and all means to attain that success.

This culture of avarice not only tolerates, but also encourages this “win at all costs” mentality by modeling and messaging dishonesty, cheating, manipulation, and back stabbing. Examples of this distorted view of success abound in our culture. Reality TV relishes lying and deception. Corporate malfeasance, for example, insider trading and tax fraud, is revealing itself to be the rule rather than the exception in Big Business. Sports has seen the proliferation of illegal performance-enhancing drugs among star athletes who are revered by young athletes.

This “the ends justify the means” attitude is starkly evident among high-school students. Recent surveys found that 75 percent of students had cheated on a test in the previous 12 months, as compared to only 25 percent in 1963 and 50 percent in 1993. Particularly unsettling is the finding that about 50 percent of high-school students see nothing wrong with cheating. The rationales that students use to justify their cheating are disturbing, for example, “I actually think cheating is good. A person who has an entirely honest life can’t succeed these days,” “We students know that the fact is we are almost completely judged on our grades. They are so important that we will sacrifice our own integrity to make a good impression,” and “I believe cheating is not wrong. People expect us to attend 7 classes a day, keep a 4.0 GPA, not go crazy and turn in all of our work the next day. What are we supposed to do, fail?”

This “just win, baby” message that children get from popular culture can also be life threatening. The use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs is present at all levels of sport and increasing among young athletes. Recent research indicates that between four and 12 percent of high school male athletes—500,000 to one million by some estimates—said they had taken steroids. Pressure to make varsity teams, receive college scholarships, and pursue the dream of professional or Olympic success (however much of a pipe dream that is for all but a few young athletes) compel many young athletes to take drastic steps to improve performance. These athletes are heavily influenced by professional athletes who act as their role models. They see that the benefits of steroid use are significant and the consequences of being caught are minimal. The invincibility that many teenagers feel precludes them from considering the health risks of steroid use, including infertility, high blood pressure, liver damage, and prostate cancer. Young athletes also ignore the psychological and emotional dangers of steroid use, for example, hyper-aggressiveness—what is known as “roid rage”—irritability, and, upon their discontinuation, depression, lethargy, and feelings of hopelessness. At least two suicides have been attributed to steroid withdrawals in recent years, as well as an undetermined number of suicide attempts.

Technology now enables young people to cheat more creatively, with less effort, and with less chance of getting caught. For example, students can now plagiarize written assignments with ease from the wealth of information on any subject they can find on the Internet. There are also web sites from which students can purchase papers rather than actually write them.

Research has also found a “social contagion” effect in which young people are more likely to cheat when those around them cheat. When children hear or see others cheat, they assume it’s acceptable to cheat or feel that they must cheat to keep up with their peers. Before the recent advancements in technology, though, the circle of contagions to which young people were exposed was quite small, for example, a group of friends or a sports team. The Internet now exposes children a much wider and more diverse range of contagions, from peers to professional athletes to politicians to businesspeople. The messages from many of those contagions tell children that everyone cheats, it’s okay to cheat, and they must cheat if they are going to keep up with those who are already cheating.

Disturbingly, cheating in high school and college doesn’t appear to be something that young people grow out of. To the contrary, recent research indicates that those who cheat early in life are more likely to cheat later in life, for example, by lying to customers, bosses, or significant others, overstate insurance claims, and falsify tax returns.

There are few more powerful indications of the corruption of children in America by popular media than this unprincipled attitude toward success. This is the crazy new world in which your children are growing up. With so much of our culture sending messages through its technological conduits to your children that it’s okay to lie, cheat, steal, be irresponsible, and act selfishly, how can your children not come to the conclusion that such behavior is not only perfectly acceptable, but absolutely necessary to find success in life.

Wealth and Materialism. Money certainly has great value. Money provides for basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter, as well as freedom from financial stress and opportunities for interesting and enriching experiences. Additionally, material possessions, “stuff” as the late comedian George Carlin called it, can fulfill practical, aesthetic, entertainment, athletic, and other needs and wants.

The pursuit of wealth and material goods for their own sake or in the belief that they will offer something deeper and meaningful is, based on extensive research, a fantasy foisted on parents and children alike by popular media to meet its own profit-driven ends. Materialism refers to “focusing on attaining material possessions…” and the belief that the amassing of wealth, “materialistic pursuits, accumulation of things, and presentation of the ‘right image” are necessary for happiness. Our culture does its best to convince people that wealth and materialism will make them happier, more attractive and popular, and of higher status. Yet, to the contrary, the research shows that it has quite the opposite effect, specifically, people who value high financial success are less happy, have lower self-esteem, are more depressed and anxious, and have less healthy relationships. Unfortunately, in the battle between popular culture and the facts, popular culture is winning and its influence has trickled down to children.

Children these days are inundated by media that is saturated with messages of wealth and materialism, from celebrity magazines that feature mansions and expensive cars to start-up millionaires (and even billionaires) in their 20s to reality TV shows in which ordinary people get rich with little talent or effort. Children get the message early and often that they way to distinguish themselves is with money and “stuff.” These messages, combined with the “anything is possible” messages that children get from our culture, conveys to them that wealth and material possessions are not only important, but also attainable. It’s no surprise, then, that a recent survey revealed that 81 percent of young people rate “getting rich” as their first or second most important goal. There is not, however, any accompanying messages about what it actually takes to make money or any discussion of the problems that come from valuing too much the acquisition of wealth.

Other research indicates that the strongest influences on the materialistic values that children develop about money and stuff comes from their parents, peers, and popular culture. For example, children’s materialism was predicted by the materialist values of their mother (the more materialistic mom is, the more her children are), how involved and nurturing mothers were in their children’s lives (the less involved and nurturing moms were, the more materialistic their children were), and children’s perceptions of inter-parent conflict (the more conflict they perceived, the more materialistic they were).

Popular culture, also not surprisingly, has an impact on whether children come to value wealth and materialism? Most of the research has focused on television advertising and those findings are clear: children who are exposed to more advertising are more materialistic. They also ask their parents to buy more things and those requests lead to more parent-child conflict. For example, heavy television viewers use the “nag factor” far more than light television viewers to persuade their parents to buy things they want. Moreover, materialism is negatively related to prosocial values and behavior and to self-esteem. 

Strategies for marketing products to children using so-called old media, notably television and radio, include repetition (e.g., repeating the same commercial during Saturday morning cartoons), branded characters (e.g, Chester the Cheetah, Cap’n Crunch), catchy slogans (“They’re great!”), product placement (e.g., E.T. eating Reese’s Pieces), merchandising tie-ins (e.g., SpongeBob Squarepants, Shrek), and giveaways (e.g., Cracker Jack: “A prize in every box”). The advent of new media in the last decade has allowed popular culture to create supersystems that include web sites (e.g., Candystand sponsored by Kraft), Youtube videos, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, video games, tracking software and spyware, online and video games, and viral and stealth marketing, that exposes children to even more undue influence on their values.

Fame. A recent study reported findings that I think you will agree are truly alarming. The researchers analyzed the values expressed on the most popular television shows among so-called tweens (children ages 9-11) every decade from 1967 to 2007. Just so you can get a sense of how TV viewing has changed, here are the shows that were selected:1967: Andy Griffith, The Lucy Show; 1977: Laverne and Shirley, Happy Days; 1986: Growing Pains, Alf;  1997: Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Boy Meets World; 2007: American Idol, Hannah Montana. The results revealed little change in values presented on the shows between 1967 and 1997 during which time, the five most expressed values were Community Feeling, Benevolence, Image, Tradition, and Popularity (three out of the five would be generally considered to be healthy) and the five least expressed values were Fame, Physical Fitness, Hedonism, Spiritualism, and Financial Success (three out of five would be generally considered to be unhealthy values). Only during the most recent decade did a dramatic shift in values occur. The new top-five values were Fame, Achievement, Popularity, Image, and Financial Success (with Self-Centered and Power close behind) and latest bottom-five values were Spiritualism, Tradition, Security, Conformity, and Benevolence (with Community Feeling to follow).

An additional analysis of the data revealed a significant increase from 1997 to 2007 in the centrality of fame to the main characters in the television shows. Related values that also increased substantially included Ambition, Comparison to Others, Attention Seeking, Conceitedness, Glamour, and Materialism.

Given that the findings described in this research were not a gradual shift across the decades studied, but rather an abrupt change only in the last decade, the results can’t readily be attributed to demographic patterns related to increased wealth or education. Instead, the most dramatic change, and the likely cause of these results, is the rapid and all-encompassing emergence of new technology that has given popular culture new and startling reach and influence.

The programming through which these value messages are being communicated to your children are growing by the year. Since the data from this study were collected, more televisions shows aimed at the tween audience are being produced, including Big Time Rush, True Jackson, and iCarly. In fact, seven out of the top ten shows aimed at tweens are about teenagers who have achieved fame with careers in entertainment. Not surprisingly, all of these shows send the same message, namely, that fame is the singular goal and it can apparently be achieved with little preparation or hard work.

Of course, you could argue that just because popular media is sending value messages to children doesn’t mean that they’re paying attention to them, much less internalizing them. Unfortunately, preliminary research by the same investigators examining this question indicates that children are getting the message from popular culture. According to this new study, fame is now the number-one aspirational value among children nine to eleven years old. Another survey of children under ten years of age found that, among their ten favorite things, being famous, attractive, and rich topped the list and being fat topped the list of worst things.

Should you be alarmed by this dramatic shift in the content of popular media? Absolutely! Is there any way for you to exert influence to reverse this destructive trend at a societal level? Probably not, as the forces supporting these messages are powerful. All you as a parent can do is educate yourself about these unhealthy influences on your children and do your best to limit their exposure to those messages and expose to them to positive values that will counteract the bad ones. And, perhaps most importantly, don’t allow yourself to be seduced these harmful messages.

This post is excerpted from my latest parenting book, Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-fueled World.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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