March 19 2017
Uh-oh. The Disney Channel’s ratings are slipping (down 18 percent among 2-11 year olds from this time last year). And you know what that means? Once again it’s time to offer more “relevant” programming, shows that are better suited for kids (read girls) who are “growing older younger.”
And so the new show “Andi Mack” (first two episodes were released last week) features a protagonist who finds out that the woman she thought was her older sister is actually her mother.
We’ve come a long way from the kids shows that featured a difficult subject — adoption, racial prejudice, cigarettes — every once in a while to shows whose entire premise could be the stuff of a grown-up soap opera. Don’t worry, Disney’s leaders worked with consultants from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy on a show that they say is intended for 6-14 year olds. And you thought the movie “Storks” provoked some unwanted questions. Wait till your kindergartner starts eyeing her older sister suspiciously and calling you Grandma.
“Andi Mack” is hardly the first attempt by children’s television executives to go edgy in search of more viewers.
Take “The Fosters,” a show that started on ABC Family before it changed to Freeform a couple of years ago. Featuring an interracial lesbian couple who take in foster children, the first episode includes an abusive foster father threatening children with a gun, a beating inside a juvenile prison facility, a child stealing money to give to her drug-addicted biological mother and, just to lighten things up, a mother’s discussion with her son about whether he has a sufficient condom supply.
The more risqué the shows become, of course, the more they are praised by critics. Writing in The New York Times about the 20th anniversary of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Neil Genzlinger explained, “For decades television’s portrayal of youth had a 1950s sheen to it. Teen characters were allowed to have car trouble and fret about going steady, but sexual identity, suicide, self-harming and social ostracism usually weren’t on the agenda.”
But what if parents want programming for kids to be different from the stuff of adult programming — and steer clear of subjects more suited to cultural studies seminars?
We are largely out of luck. Maybe it was all over when Dawson Leery told Joey Potter in the first episode of “Dawson’s Creek” that he liked to play with himself while watching Katie Couric, but now it seems like a race to the bottom.
And the network that puts the most dysfunction into each episode will win. Michael Rich, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, says, “The way to make these stories feel fresh is by pushing against cultural limits.”
Rich says these shows are “setting cultural norms and setting expectations of what they should be.” And the results can be dangerous: Kids who consume high amounts of media with sexual content tend to begin sexual activity earlier than those who consume less. A 2013 study in the journal Psychological Science found, for instance, that movie sexual exposure (MSE) “predicted age of sexual debut.” It also “predicted engagement in risky sexual behaviors both directly and indirectly via early sexual debut.” It is not that watching sex on television will make every teen want to go out and try it. Rather, it’s that teens come to think that most of their peers are doing it and so it makes sexual activity a more plausible choice for them.
Storylines about damaged families can have a negative effect on young viewers, too. In a chapter in the Handbook of Family Communication, Barbara Wilson of the University of Illinois notes that “adolescents who frequently watched soap operas . . . were more likely to believe that single mothers have good jobs and are well-educated [and] do not live in poverty.” But single parenthood is correlated with plenty of bad outcomes both for mothers and children, and most parents don’t want their kids to romanticize it.
Teens exposed to soap operas are also more likely to believe that “marriages are fragile, that a greater proportion of people are divorced and that a higher proportion of people have illegitimate children and extramarital affairs.” Because these shows purport to be realistic, viewers walk away with a skewed impression of reality that may then influence their choices gnaomioing forward.
Richard Lerner of Tufts University says that the portrayal of adolescents on television and in popular culture has little to do with the way most adolescents actually behave. “The stereotype [both on TV and in real life] is that adolescents are problems to be managed.” So few adolescents actually think about suicide or abuse or drugs or are sexually assaulted, but that’s not the impression you would get from supposedly realistic television shows about them.
In their efforts to be edgy and relevant, to more accurately reflect the gritty realities of modern life and get away from the idealized world of the 1950s, Hollywood is giving teens a very skewed version of reality.
Micheal Flaherty, the co founder of Walden Media, an entertainment company that helped to produce movies like “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” believes that many of the shows aimed at adolescents actually “manage to trivialize the reality of the actual kids who are struggling with addiction, abusive parents, mental illness, gun violence and bullying by making it seem so commonplace.” Citing the novelist Walker Percy, Flaherty says, “These shows share a common characteristic of all bad stories. All bad stories lie.”