Sex on TV is corrupting our children
Published 17/10/1999 | 00:11
The television set, ignored by parents, is introducing young people to a heartless world of sordid sexual imagery, warns psychologist Marie Murray
SEXUAL abuse of children and adolescents is rampant, often occurring daily in `the best of families', perpetrated by the unmonitored television set.
It is amazing that while parents still attempt to keep their children away from friends who might be `a bad influence', the worst of influences is often allowed, even invited, into the home, shaping their understanding of the world and of themselves, defining what is `normal' and pushing the boundaries towards the rupture of every taboo that once safeguarded childhood and the joy of being young.
Tasteless television is shaping the minds, the imaginations and the behaviour of many young people in a way that is damaging and dangerous. What once shocked us is now commonplace, and our capacity to see the danger for our children is diminished. We do not appear to include TV addiction amongst the addictions that worry us, despite the research showing that up to five hours TV per day is watched by many children and up to seven videos per week are watched by some adolescents.
We avert our children's eyes from the bloody scenes at a car crash, but not from TV violence. We believe that information about sex should be age-appropriate but an alarming number of children are acquiring their first glimpse of sex, and their sex education, from sexual scenes they have seen on TV.
There is a growing number of parents seeking therapy for their children for what turn out to be media-generated problems. Teenagers, whose viewing is unmonitored or where there is no adult interpreter to explain the difference between life and screen life, may find themselves overwhelmed with the transition into adulthood, either rushing dangerously to be grown-up, or avoiding the move to independence because of fear at its screen portrayal.
A recent example of the excess of tastelessness invading the screen is Something for the Weekend presented by Denise Van Outen, who would have considerable credibility amongst young people as former presenter of the Big Breakfast.
Something for the Weekend is aired on Friday nights, but that is when young teenagers are more often allowed to watch TV until late. At first glance the show might seem innocuous, but consider some of its interspersed content: a young man faced with his mother and being asked what would turn her on in bed; a detailed description of the loss of dentures during oral sex; a display of vibrators identified by one partner upon description by the other of the times they had used them; or the even more explicit portrayal of four penises from which a girlfriend was asked to identify her boyfriend's.
It must be remembered that it is not just one television programme but the cumulative effect of trivialising relationships between men and women which is the problem. Research tells us how much our understanding of the world, of ourselves and of others is influenced by the materials provided to us by the culture in which we live.
Television and other products of the media provide us with the materials out of which we may learn about and make sense of the world, and of what it is to be male or female, husband or wife, daughter or son. It may shape our deepest values.
And just as there is an accumulation of `in-your-face' invasive material on the television screen, there is also an accumulation of mirror incidents in society that should alarm us.
Research shows the power of images in encouraging imitative behaviour. Boundaries which are removed on the screen are often subsequently removed in society. In our own Irish society we have seen the breakdown of these boundaries. Consider such incidents as the rape case during the summer where it was reported that an unfortunate teenage girl was drunk and then had oral sex with two boys, a situation regarded as not uncommon by the teens involved. The recent doubling of calls from teenage girls to the Rape Crisis Centre is not coincidental and may be part of this confusion of messages given about boys and girls and given by them to each other. One research survey found that a 13-year-old who had watched extensive pornographic material described it as ``just the facts of life''. Indeed, the first knowledge many children acquire about sex is from the screen and there are increased clinical cases of children perturbed by this first message which is often of an explicitly physical coercion in the absence of emotion, love or even acquaintance.
We have watched the `dress code' aimed at children and then commented on how sexualised their clothes are. We have even seen children's dolls become the objects of confused messages in the Barbie song.
In truth, we have not protected the young enough, either culturally or legislatively. Just as we complain that adolescents cross the boundaries of behaviour, we have lost sight of the boundaries which need to be drawn for them. Do we create television programmes or do the television programmes create us?
From our research we know that young people use the media as a way of coming to understand themselves and in creating identities for themselves. We know that they watch television and video for a variety of reasons: to block out the pain in life; to get away from it all; to gain insight into themselves; to get ideas on how to get back at people; to talk to adults and to each other.
We also know from our research that over one-third of young people say that if they were going to commit a crime, they would get their ideas from television or video.
It is time that we began to understand, interpret, evaluate and translate the messages that are multimedia-conveyed. These range from the advertisement to the lyric, from the soap opera to the documentary, from the film to the video. It is time to determine the degree to which young people use them in negotiating their own day-to-day relationships, use them as belief systems, as means of shaping their identities.
These are the new realities, or what have been called `hyperrealities', where the distinction between reality and the illusions of reality has broken down. In other words, life is as much what comes from the screen as what we encounter.
Whether we like it or not, we live in this new technocultural world which I believe we are called upon to understand, particularly since our children and adolescents inhabit it. Let's screen the screen.
* Marie Murray is a best-selling author and head of psychology in St Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital, Fairview, Dublin 3