Parenting: Know Your Children's Enemy

How does popular culture impact your children?

Posted Jan 25, 2010

You probably know that popular culture is a truly destructive force in your children's lives. In a recent survey, three-fourths of parents believed that materialism and the negative influences from television, movies, and music were a "serious problem" in raising children. Over 85 percent of parents believe that marketing contributes to children being too materialistic, sexual content leads children to become sexually active at a younger age, and violent content increases aggressive behavior in children. Yet 66 percent of parents think they could do a better job of supervising their children's media exposure.

But how do you help your children fight this battle against popular culture? It starts by knowing your children's enemy.

What Is Popular Culture?

What is popular culture, you ask? It's Miley Cyrus, 50 Cent, Tiger Woods, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and on and on. But this list only gives examples of popular culture. They are, if you will, some of the weapons that popular culture uses against your children. But they don't really tell us what popular culture is.

One expert says that popular culture is a reflection of our society's values, creating popular icons, heroes and heroines, and rituals, myths, and beliefs expressing those values. I say that popular culture used to reflect our values. No longer. Now it is a voracious beast of materialism, celebrity, and excess that shapes those values to meet its own greedy needs. Many heroes offered by popular culture are not heroic, many of its icons represent unhealthy values, and many of its rituals, myths, and beliefs are in its own best interests, not those of your children. Popular culture is also pervasive, dominating virtually every part of your children's lives.

In Your Children's Face

Popular culture is omnipresent, intense, and unrelenting in your children's lives. Your children are exposed to hundreds of television channels. They have free and immediate access to an almost unlimited array of information through the Internet. They have free and immediate access to other people near and far through email, Instant Messaging, and YouTube. And when they're not on the computer, DVDs, video games, television, magazines, advertising, and shopping malls fill your children's lives. Research has shown that typical children between the ages of eight and eighteen spend well over seven and a half hours each day consuming popular culture.

Not All Popular Culture Is Bad

Though I will probably come across as militantly against any and all forms of popular culture, I actually believe it can be a wonderful outlet for entertainment and escapism. Whether popular culture is dangerous or benign depends on the messages it's sending and how you and your children respond to those messages. Popular culture that is simply entertainment has its place in our society. Whether film, music, theater, books, or sports, activities that transport us from our daily lives into temporary alternative realities can play healthy roles in our lives. These diversions act as brief respites from our otherwise busy lives. They give us a "time-out" that relieves stress, provides a small amount of escapism, creates pleasant vicarious emotions, and just plain entertains us. As long as the messages communicated in the media aren't bad for children, who am I to say that Fellini is better than Spielberg or Beethoven is better than Snoop Dogg (though I could probably argue that point).

However, popular culture that instills in children bad values, attitudes, or beliefs, manipulates their needs and wants, sell goods and services that have no redeeming value, or impresses upon children anything that is unhealthy psychologically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, or physically is, by its very nature, destructive. Examples include advertising that connects certain toys, clothes, food, or drinks with being popular or cool, or music that encourages racism, sexism, drug use, or violence.

But let's be clear here. Even "good" popular culture isn't that good for children. Though there is certainly educational television, video games that encourage creativity and problem solving, and movies with positive messages, these media still teach children bad habits:

  • Experience life vicariously instead of directly;
  • Be sedentary rather than physically active;
  • Have indirect social contact with others instead of real contact; and
  • Prevent them from participating in activities that support their intellectual, emotional, cultural, spiritual, and physical development.

Popular Culture on the Attack

Few parents fully appreciate how popular culture affects their children's lives. Even fewer realize how truly harmful it is to children, families, communities, and to our society as a whole. Popular culture attacks children at their most basic level, the values that guide their lives. It promotes the worst values and disguises them as entertainment. Reality TV, for example, has made the "seven deadly sins" -- pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth -- attributes to be admired. Throw in selfishness, deceit, spite, humiliation, cruelty, and vengeance-all qualities seen and revered in popular culture-and you have the personification of the worst kind of person.

Popular culture is like a network of saboteurs that infiltrate your family's lives with stealth and deception, hiding behind entertaining characters, bright images, and fun music. You probably don't notice half of the unhealthy messages being conveyed to your children. Popular culture is also an invading army that overwhelms your children with these destructive messages. It attempts to control every aspect of your children's lives: their values, attitudes, and beliefs about themselves and the world that they live in; their thoughts, emotions, and behavior; their needs, wants, goals, hopes, and dreams; their interests and avocations; their choices and their decisions. With this control, popular culture can tell children what to eat and drink, what to wear, what to listen to and watch, and children have little ability to resist.

Two Lines of Attack

Popular culture relies on two primary avenues for communicating its messages and influencing your children. The first type of message is what I call "loudspeaker" messages, in which the messages are deafening, constant, and ever-present. The shrillness of these messages is heard, seen, tasted, or felt, and cannot be readily avoided. Examples of these loudspeaker messages are most kinds of popular culture, including movies, video games, television, and music, in addition to less obvious loudspeaker messages from billboards and magazine ads.

The second type of message that popular culture uses to seduce your children are what I call "stealth" messages. These messages are usually hidden behind entertaining characters, images, words, and music that are fun and engaging, but are designed to subtly tap into children's unconscious needs and wishes. Messages that create positive emotional reactions, for example, dancing while drinking Pepsi, or winning a basketball game wearing a pair of Nikes, resonate at a deep level with children, causing them to want to feel that way too. Other stealth messages that tap into children's fears and insecurities related to self-esteem, social acceptance, and physical attractiveness are particularly effective in manipulating children.

Your Children Know about the Danger

Having spoken to tens of thousands of children over the years, I have learned a surprising thing: most children aren't fooled by popular culture. They know it's bad. They know that all popular culture cares about is money. They know that the messages it communicates are unhealthy. Most children also know what good and bad values are and what is right and wrong. But they lack the experience, perspective, and tools to withstand the attraction: its bells and whistles, its bright lights and loud music, its beautiful people. Children have good values deep down-they may even be born with that capacity-but they lose touch with them because the contradicting messages from popular culture are so intense, invasive, and persistent; they are simply overwhelmed by the force of popular culture.

Know Your Children's Enemy

An essential step in joining your children in the fight against popular culture is to know your children's enemy. Study popular culture. Watch what your children watch on television, play their video games, listen to their music, visit the Web sites they surf, read the magazines they read. Then, understand the value messages they are getting from popular culture. Television, movies, and video games glamorize violence, sexuality, wealth, celebrity, and the use of alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. Fashion and celebrity magazines affect how girls think about their bodies, the amount they diet and exercise, and the occurrence of eating disorders. The Internet gives your children limitless access to a universe of inappropriate information.

Only with this knowledge are you in a position to battle popular culture with your children. With this information, you gain the power to protect your children from popular culture and prepare them to combat popular culture when you're not with them. You can use this power by being positive, conscious, and active forces in your children's lives.

  • Don't be seduced by popular culture's messages (you're vulnerable too!).
  • Make informed decisions about what your children watch, play, listen to, and surf.
  • Talk to your children about the unhealthy influence of popular culture.
  • Set limits.
  • Say "NO" to popular culture.

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