George Drinka, M.D.

George Drinka M.D.

When the Media Is the Parent

Smoking, Sex, and Health Care, Part 2

The government is working to deliver healthy media messages

Posted May 28, 2014

Be sure to read Part 1.

In a front page article in the New York Times on March 20th,we learn of the creative approach of the Federal government to sign up youths for the government website for health insurance. In the article we learnt that the White House has decided to pull out all the stops to enhance the number of youthful sign-ups for private health insurance. On the verge of desperation, the Administration tapped into multiple sites on the Internet, ones frequented by youth. This included Between the Ferns, the Ellen DeGeneres Show, the Drunken Chef, and even ESPN and get out the word about the value of health insurance.

The article begins with the doings of Denis R McDounough, the White House Chief of Staff, as the deadline for sign-ups approached. A former college football player, McDounough was deployed to speak to a young audience of sporty guys on ESPN. After he’d chatted up his audience with sports talk over March Madness and offers his listeners a former college athlete’s insider’s view of the strengths and weaknesses of one team versus the other in the run-up to the Final Four, he then moved smoothly into a discussion of the need for young people to seek health insurance for themselves.

He cited the almost clichéd scenario of a laidback, uninsured guy shooting hoops with a bunch of his buds, when, boom, he blows out his knee on the court. He wakes up in a hospital bed with a cast, no insurance but with huge bills, enough to drive him into bankruptcy. Deftly Mr. McDonough exhorts his young audience to be smart and go online, get insurance, and protect themselves from a world of hurt.

Also reported in the article was the work of LeBron James to offer similar messages to his audience and the hostess of the “Drunken Chef,” yet another celebrity well-known to young people, pleading with her followers to get on the computer and get themselves signed up for an affordable private insurance plan, complete with the government subsidies.

Another recent news story, not directly alluded to in this article, is the well-known tale of Obama himself appearing on the irreverent by very popular online show “Between the Ferns.” After the President and the show’s host traded snide jibes, Mr. Obama went nerdy with his young audience, burying them in statistics and imploring young folk to get on the Internet and sign up.

The rest of the story is now history.  The number of applications jumped shortly after this show and, over all, the number of applicants for health insurance through the so-called insurance exchanges shot well past the projected mark of 7 Million to hit 8 Million. Further, since the number of young people who needed to sign up in order to guarantee that insurance premiums would not rise significantly in November of this year had been reached,  this approach of the White House to finding young people where they lived on the media had been a remarkable success.

Politics aside, what’s not to like about 8 million more American having health insurance? As a provider of mental health care in Portland, Oregon, I am relieved with this trend and am only concerned now that, with so many new people able to access care, doctors and therapists alike may face a barrage of new patients, many in serious needs, who will call up and want good services. We may need to scramble to catch up.

The take away message of all three stories is that lecturing youth about the evils of tobacco or the dangers of teen sex or the potential danger of living a life without ready access to affordable health care does not work effectively with a youthful cohort if employed as the sole means of addressing these problems. Rather, we are learning that since young people live lives heavily immersed in the media, we do well to accept this reality and instead try to enter into this world with our children and teens and deliver healthy messages both where they are and in a tone that catches their eyes, ears, imaginations and intellects.

In summary, we must accept on a certain level the strange new world in which we live: one in which young people spend more time planted in front of machines that deliver many, many ambiguous messages to them, instead of with friends and parents. So it seems both assuring and exciting to see the government working to deliver healthy media messages and for even the world of market-driven reality TV doing some good for young Americans at large.  Political blowback aside, we might enter the world where kids live and there engage in meaningful dialogues with them. 

Dr. George Drinka is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of The Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady and the Victorians (Simon & Schuster). His new book, When the Media Is the Parent, is a culmination of his work with children, his scholarly study of works on the media and American cultural history, and his dedication to writing stories that reveal the humanity in us all.

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