November 9, 2011

Media Ratings and Materialism

A recent study I read in one of my medical journals surveyed parents about media ratings. Not surprisingly, parents said that they liked the idea of a rating system to help them decide if certain content was acceptable for their children. The list of content they wanted notification about was extensive. It included all the usual suspects: bad language, everything even remotely suggestive of sex, private parts, and so on. The list of rated content included romantic situations, innuendo of every kind, violence seen and implied, derogatory terms, putdowns that kids say to each other (e.g. 'butthead'), and much more. The length and extent of the list shows the lack of consensus about what parents think is important. What is it that parents don't think is important?

But that's not the topic of this post. Embedded in the study publication was this item, which received no other discussion by the authors:

"Of all content types included in the survey, only 1 was not rated as extremely important or very important by the majority of parents: materialism or things that promote materialistic attitudes."

I report this from Berkeley California. In Berkeley, a nuclear-free zone, the sprawling Whole Foods market across from my office is filled with shoppers loading their fair-trade renewable-resource unbleached hemp-fiber shopping bags, filled with out-of-season organic produce flown in from New Zealand, into the back of the Range Rovers required to ensure the safety of their unvaccinated kids when driven by the au pair every morning a few hundred yards to the private Waldorf preschool.

I'm not in favor of unfiltered access by children to everything an adult or even teenage mind can imagine or put on the internet, in a game, or available some other way.

But materialism gets a free pass? Nearly all media produced with a child audience in mind is marketing. It is hard to find content, even content I love, without this. I think Monsters Inc. is one of the best movies ever made. But Pixar (and Pixar/Disney) has clearly taken a lesson from George Lucas, and licensed their trademarked characters widely. If I could afford them, I would have Monsters Inc Band-Aids in the office. It isn't unusual for your kids to see products in the store or owned by their friends and beg for them or ask to see the movie or TV show.

What about the materialism, not considered a problem by most parents, apparently, of so many of the television shows available on networks watched by preteens? Not limited to product placement, this materialism equates success with wealth, big houses, fancy cars, and so on.

I'm not a monk. I like nice things, fancy restaurants, and so on. I sometimes make purchasing decisions that in retrospect seem impulsive. But at this point in my life, I no longer believe these things constitute success.

I’m appalled that the parents surveyed identified depictions of materialism as unworthy of rating. They want to know if their kids will hear the word 'butthead,' but don't care that nearly all of the live action shows on Nickelodeon have characters whose goal is to achieve something financial or monetarily valuable, and they get general peer approval for it. For me, I would like to know if my kids are spending their screen time, no matter how strictly limited, watching infomercials for getting rich in the 'cash flow business.'

For what I suppose is the same reason parents don't focus on the aspect of media content, however, there is very little actual research done on this issue. So we don't really know how powerful this message is. But if it's like so many other subtle media messages, it gets a direct pipeline into the kid's brain.

Still, just like those other media messages, the real way to combat unwanted influences has been repeatedly shown to be modeling at home and not by media ratings. If the parents aren't confirming these media messages, they generally won't stick. So it's great to tell your kids they aren't allowed to eat snack food, but they see you on the sofa with a big bag of potato chips, you will need to do a better sales job. I guess I don't have to mention that all the lectures you received as a child (think back now) about the way you were supposed to act, the things you were required to do or forbidden from doing, just didn't take when you had the freedom to ignore these rules. While it's normal to push the envelope at certain developmental stages, we are most strongly influenced by what we witness our parents doing with our own eyes.

If you don't want your kids to use bad language, don't use it. For everything else, ask yourself 'What would I want my child to do?'

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