Forget tobacco, this is the new threat to teen health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have some good news and some bad news for parents. The good news is that your teen is significantly less likely to smoke than you were at her age. Teens today are also far less likely to get into physical fights than teens were 20 years ago.

texting-while-drivingThe bad news, according to a recent study, is that many teens aren’t paying attention behind the wheel. The CDC’s national survey found that ‘41 percent of [high school] students who had driven a car or other vehicle during the past 30 days reported texting or emailing while driving.’

Many teens (and adults!) think they can safely tap at their smartphone’s screen and still pay attention to the road. The statistics prove otherwise. Fatalities due to distracted driving rose by 28 percent between 2005 and 2008, and the age group most likely to be involved in fatal collisions was 16- to 29-year-olds. Male drivers are more than twice as likely to be involved in such accidents as are female drivers.

Government officials are clearly aware of the problem; 37 states and the District of Columbia have banned all cell phone use by novice drivers. But law enforcement is not the most influential authority in most teens’ lives. Parents are.

It’s a well-known fact in child and adolescent psychology that young people pay attention to the behavior modeled by grown-ups – parents, especially. It should come as no surprise, then, that a study by AT&T found that 41 percent of teens reported that their parents text while driving. Teens can sense this disconnect; 77 percent agreed with the statement, ‘adults say that kids should not text or e-mail while driving, but they do it themselves – all the time.’

80s_AntiDrugAdIf you’re the parent of a teen, or a child soon-to-be a teen, check your own driving habits. You may remember the old anti-drug TV ad (right) that concluded, ‘Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.’ The ad is a bit heavy-handed, but it drives the point home (pun intended) about parents who text or e-mail behind the wheel.




How to raise a teen who likes news

OMG_newspaperMost of the attention on teens and media focuses on violent video games, advertising, and social media. Their interaction with news is often neglected, which is unfortunate given how important this form of media is. News tells us what’s going on in the world outside, what we should be thinking about, what we should fear, and whom we should elect to represent us and our interests.

Parents of teens know that most kids this age have little interest in reading news on paper, and the stories they encounter online tend to be those shared by their friends. They might half-listen to a TV or radio news broadcast from time to time, or pick up a news magazine if there’s nothing else to read. What can a parent do to encourage a teenager to seek out information that’s about more than their immediate surroundings and social circle?

Consume news yourself, and talk about it. Kids of all ages model parents’ behavior, so if you don’t pay attention to the news your kids aren’t likely to, either. Make it part of your regular routine to listen to news in the car, read a newspaper, or read online news. Point out interesting stories to your teen, and engage him/her in a conversation about it.

Don’t scoff at what interests them. Many teens may find gossip websites far more interesting than the New York Times or the Atlantic Monthly. If you’re tempted to roll your eyes, engage them in a conversation instead. You’ll show some respect for media content they consider important, and you’ll learn more about what types of ‘real’ news might interest them.

Make it personal. Share stories with teens that are about people their age elsewhere in the world. A news article about a young person’s experience in another culture may be more likely to capture their interest than one about abstract political developments.

Encourage them to ask questions. Stories teens encounter in the news may frighten or confuse them, which may make them want to avoid news altogether. Talking with them about what they see or hear can help them process the information so they’re less likely to shut it out.

Next week, how to encourage teens to think critically about the news…


Reality show on teen pregnancy reduces the real thing

16-and-Pregnant_screenshotIt turns out, reality TV stars may not all be the role-models-from-hell that so many parents fear. While no one has studied the impact of Jersey Shore to my knowledge, they have looked at the effects of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant. I was surprised to learn that this series – along with its Teen Mom spinoffs – may have actually reduced the rate of teen pregnancy during the time it was first broadcast.

Researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research studied Google searches, Twitter activity, and teenage girls’ childbirth rates during the period between 2009 and 2012 when the series were first broadcast. They found that search engine activity related to the series and to birth control increased following the show’s introduction. Tweets about the series and about birth control also increased. As the researchers state, this suggests that the show “had some influence on [viewers] in a way that could potentially change their behavior.”

In addition, researchers looked at the statistics for teens giving birth, specifically for those who would have conceived during the year-and-a-half when 16 and Pregnant was first broadcast. Statistical analysis suggests that the show contributed to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births during the sample period. This accounts for approximately one-third of all the overall reduction in teen births during that time. The researchers attribute much of the rest to effects of the recession.

Why did the series make some teens think twice? Researchers examined the content and themes of the episodes, and observed that the shows depict:

  • Little use of birth control; three-quarters of the girls in the series said they were not using contraception when they became pregnant.
  • Extensive sleep deprivation.
  • Strained relationships with the father of the child; more than half of the couples were having difficulties or had broken up at the end of the episode.
  • Negative impacts on the health and well-being of the teen mother herself.

teen_mom_magazine_coverI was especially surprised by these findings, as many of my own college students have written term papers in which they theorized that such shows glamorize teen pregnancy by turning the teen moms into celebrities. But not all teens perceive the shows and their cast members this way. A survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 77 percent of teens who watch 16 and Pregnant said that it helps them “better understand the challenges of pregnancy and parenthood.” In contrast, 23 percent said it made “pregnancy and parenthood look easy and fun.”

This study demonstrates the power of the media to educate young people (for better or worse) and make them think about risks and the decisions they make every day.


How to read a fashion magazine with your daughter

Cover of an issue of Seventeen magazineTeens are surrounded by images of perfected faces and bodies. Not perfect, but perfected – by stylists, lighting, camera angles, and of course Photoshop. Many teens now have access to this type of technology, and some have even altered photographs of themselves. But they’re not professional touch-up artists, and they may not be aware of the extent to which photos of models and celebrities – and the people themselves – have been edited before appearing in the pages of their favorite magazines.

Teen girls and boys are both exposed to these types of images, and numerous studies (here’s one) have shown that reading fashion and fitness magazines can make young people of both genders more concerned with physical appearance and eating behaviors. In this post, I’ll focus on girls and fashion magazines. How can you help a young woman ‘read’ such images critically? Here are some conversation starters.

“How many people do you think helped her get ready?” Encourage your daughter to think about all the professionals on a photo shoot and their jobs: hair, makeup, lighting, photography, fans (if the model’s hair is blowing), and styling of clothing (assuming the outfit has no wrinkles). Then ask her how many hours she thinks it might have taken all these people to get the one shot they used. A great visual to use is Jamie Lee Curtis’ “True Thighs” photo shoot.

“What do you think she looked like in the shots that were thrown out?” When a photographer is ‘shooting’ a celebrity, the camera clicks constantly as the subject poses and smiles over and over. The model is surely blinking and making less-than-beautiful faces in many of them. Encourage your daughter to take a bunch of photos in quick succession of someone smiling and then not smiling, and see how many it takes to get one ideal image in which every element looks its best.

“What parts of the photo were probably edited in Photoshop?” In fashion magazines, nearly every photo is retouched, and dozens of websites feature unedited photos side-by-side with the final product: celebrity close-ups and full-body shots. Another useful site is this one by a professional retoucher, which lets you mouse over an image to see the original photo.

Encourage your daughter to find more information online about what size a typical model wears, compared to an average, healthy girl of her age. Point out media images of strong women such as athletes, and talk about what they likely eat to fuel their bodies. By helping your daughter to develop critical awareness of images in the media, you can bolster her own self-image and encourage her to feel strong and beautiful in the face of media messages that suggest otherwise.



How to watch a sex scene with your teenager

How to watch a sex scene with your teenagerThis is definitely in the Top 10 Awkward Parenting Situations. Maybe you’ve already talked with your teen about sex, or maybe you’ve yet to do so. Regardless, it’s inevitable that at some point, you’ll be watching a movie or a TV show together, and you’ll see characters on screen doing THAT.

So what’s the big deal? Why not take a bathroom break, talk about something else, pick up your phone, or do anything to try to gloss over the fact that both of you would rather not be watching a sex scene together? Here’s why: Because it’s a valuable way to start a tough but needed conversation.

If s/he is typical, your teenager sees a lot of sexual content in the media, on TV, online, in music videos, movies, and even some video games. To simplify a bit, let’s focus on TV. Of the 20 shows most popular with teens, ‘70% include some kind of sexual content, and nearly half (45%) include sexual behavior.’ This is according to a 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And some of the messages about sex sink in, for better or worse. The Kaiser study found that ‘nearly three out of four 15- to 17-year-olds say sex on TV influences the sexual behaviors of kids their age.’ Those TV shows do not necessarily depict the consequences of sex; in fact, of teens’ favorite programs, only one out of ten shows with sexual content includes a reference to sexual risks or responsibilities, such as STDs or contraception.

So what should you do in this uncomfortable situation?

Keep it light-hearted. We were all teenagers once, and I for one remember wanting to crawl between the cushions of the couch until the sex scene was over and I could look my mom in the eye again. Don’t try to have a Talk with your teenager at that moment unless s/he seems open to it. But you can still encourage her/him to think critically without making it a big production.

Say, “I hope they’re using condoms.” Or “I wonder if both of them have been tested.” Simple comments like these can get your teen to think about the consequences of sex that are probably not being portrayed in the program or the movie.

Say, “Do you think they’ll make good parents?” Few things disrupt the viewing of a sex scene like the thought of accidental pregnancy. Some teens think about it, but many do not, and most TV shows about sex (between teens or adults) don’t address it.

Say, “It seems like all these kids are hooking up with each other all the time. Is that realistic?” This may be Advanced Parenting 101. Only you can know how your teen might react to this question. But if it’s possible to have this conversation, do so. Some shows and movies about teenagers depict them as far more sexually active than teens are in real life. Posing this question may help them talk about pressure they feel, either from their peers or from the media.

It’s uncomfortable for sure, but taking advantage of conversation-starters like these can help your teen process media messages about sex with a critical eye, and make more informed choices in the future.