Teenage Wasteland

Critics on the left and right falsely portray kids as passive victims of mass media.


Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America's Children, edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 267 pages, $29.95

Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, by Alissa Quart, Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Publishing, 239 pages, $25

Hollywood has become to the right what big corporations are to the left. When it comes to criticizing popular entertainment, the two targets coincide, and the differences between left and right dissolve. I vividly remember the ghastly sight of Jesse Jackson and Bill Bennett appearing together on CBS's Face the Nation a decade ago, united in their eagerness to protect vulnerable youth from cultural pollution.

Two new books, one mainly from the right and the other from the left, reflect this bipartisan view of America's young people as victims of mass culture and mass marketing. But both also contain hints that kids are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with evil desires—that in fact, they and their parents can counteract the antisocial messages decried by critics like Jackson and Bennett.

Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America's Children must be understood in the context of the Federal Trade Commission's September 2000 report on the entertainment industry's allegedly deceptive marketing practices. Congress ordered up the study immediately after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, largely because the two killers reportedly had played the video game Doom and seen the film The Matrix shortly before their rampage.

Despite the FTC's lukewarm conclusion that violent depictions might have a harmful effect on minors, The Wall Street Journal and other alarmed guardians of morality latched onto the report, along with a joint statement from the American Medical Association and other health organizations condemning media violence, as an excuse to ratchet up their culture war. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) denounced Hollywood's "culture of carnage." He and his allies insisted that the debate about the relationship between fictional and real-life violence had been settled; now was the time for action.

The contributors to Kid Stuff, a collection of 11 essays, do want action, but first and foremost they are empiricists. And the data come flying fast and furious, occasionally making some inescapable points. Media, to a certain extent, do act in loco parentis. The average American child spends some 5.5 hours a day interacting with media (including the Internet), a figure that rises to seven hours by age 18.

Many of the contributors to Kid Stuff insist that movies, TV shows, and video games not only assault kids with sex and violence but induce them to imitate what they see on the screen, ultimately causing them to lose their moral compasses.

Syracuse University historian Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn sees America awash in a culture of moral obscenity. Popular culture routinely strips people of their humanity, she argues, tediously detailing content analyses showing, for example, that "children who watch an average amount of TV see 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other acts of violence during their elementary school years." She adds, "By renting just four videos—Total Recall, Robocop 2, Rambo III, and Die Hard III—a child would witness 525 deaths." Iowa State psychologist Craig Anderson, in his review of 32 studies on violent video games, concludes that repeated game playing heightens aggression and reduces pro-social behavior among both children and adults.

Such concerns fly in the face of two realities. First, youth crime has dropped sharply in the last decade. From 1992 (the year Mortal Kombat debuted) to 2000, arrests for serious juvenile crime fell by about two-thirds, while the number of children carrying guns to school dropped by half. As for sex, a recent study by the Kaiser Foundation (one of the leaders in the cultural cleanup crusade) revealed that the percentage of high school students who had engaged in sexual intercourse declined from 54 percent in 1991 to 46 percent in 2001. Hollywood may not deserve credit for those trends, but it clearly cannot be blamed for increases in sex and violence that have not occurred.

Second, declarations about the baneful influence of popular culture gloss over the dearth of evidence supporting a causal link between watching portrayals of violence and engaging in violent behavior. As scholars such as University of Toronto psychologist Jonathan Freedman and University of Southern California sociologist Karen Sternheimer have shown, the experimental studies the alarmists like to cite may hinge on self-fulfilling prophecies, with researchers prodding subjects into giving the "right" answer. Furthermore, it's not clear how the stimuli and measures of aggression used in the highly artificial setting of a laboratory relate to viewing and violence in the real world.

The epidemiological studies are also seriously flawed. Critics of violent TV often cite the work of Seattle psychiatrist Brandon Centerwall. In a 1992 Journal of the American Medical Association article, Centerwall noted that the white homicide rate in the U.S. rose 93 percent in the three decades following the introduction of household television sets. For him, this trend demonstrated the corrosive effects of TV. Oddly, Centerwall did not distinguish between violent shows and other kinds of programming, and it's not clear what he would have found if he had. SUNY-Albany sociologist Steven Messner has found that metropolitan areas in which violent TV programs attract especially large audiences have lower rates of violent crime.

Centerwall also failed to note that the homicide rate barely changed from 1945 to 1967; the big increase started in the late 1960s, suggesting that something other than TV was at work. Two University of California at Berkeley criminologists, Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, tested Centerwall's thesis with data from other countries, and they found no consistent pattern. The murder rate remained constant in Italy and declined in France, Germany, and Japan following the introduction of TV.

Two other favorites of the culture warriors are Leonard Eron and L. Rowell Huesmann, psychologists at the University of Michigan whose research played a crucial role in the passage of "V-chip" legislation, which requires that TV sets include devices enabling parents to block shows based on network content ratings. Eron and Huesmann's most memorable moment came in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, when they showed that a preference for violent TV at age 8 correlated with the seriousness of criminal convictions by age 30. This claim was based on a sample of three cases.

Since the evidence in Kid Stuff tends to be selected for its usefulness in an indictment of popular culture, it's little surprise that many of the contributors are eager to restrict kids' exposure to TV, movies, video games, and music. But they generally prefer that Mom and Dad serve as the regulators. "Why are [parents] so intimidated by the V-chip?" wonder the editors, Diane Ravitch and Joseph Viteritti, research professors of education and public policy, respectively, at New York University. Anderson, the Iowa State psychologist, commends a San Antonio news reporter who admitted to him that she throws out any video games containing violence that she finds at home, regardless of whether they belong to her son or one of his friends. Anderson supports a unitary entertainment rating system, which in practice probably would be less draconian than useless. Parents already have a wealth of information about the suitability of programming for kids; hard as it is for media critics to believe, many parents just don't put much stock in ratings.

None of the contributors overtly calls for censorship. They frame their goal as balancing First Amendment values with protection of children. Yet this pose seems disingenuous, nowhere more so than in the book's concluding piece by Newton and Nell Minow. It was the former, as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under John F. Kennedy, who described network television as "a vast wasteland."

Surveying today's wasteland, now pockmarked with the likes of Jackass and World Wrestling Entertainment, he advocates enhanced federal regulatory authority over broadcast and cable TV, increased V-chip use, and campaigns (including lawsuits) by media watchdog groups to force networks to devote more programming to "the public interest." He and his daughter applaud the Parents Television Council's efforts to shame and boycott offending networks and advertisers. "It's time to give the censorship charge a rest," they write, "and force the people who produce outrageously violent and sexually explicit material to admit that it is not about freedom; it is about money, and as long as they think they can make some, they will continue to produce it."

Despite its undercurrents of authoritarianism, Kid Stuff does offer some pleasant surprises. The contributors generally avoid projecting malevolent motives (beyond a desire for profit) onto the entertainment industry. A few authors, especially Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin and University of Toledo psychologist Jeanne Funk, make an honest effort to explain the market forces that shape media culture, understanding the futility of completely shielding children from it. "A child, even a vulnerable child," Funk writes, "is not just a sponge that unthinkingly soaks up media messages. Research on media literacy suggests that talking to children about their media experiences can alter the impact of media violence."

Even that formulation assumes that media violence is a bad influence, albeit one that can be countered by moral immunization. In Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes, and Make-Believe Violence (2002), Gerard Jones had the temerity to suggest that media violence, far from traumatizing kids, might be therapeutic. The idea of violent entertainment as a positive influence gains support from the comments of a New Jersey teenager who objected to a post-Columbine Harper's article criticizing violent video games. "As a 'geek,' I can tell you that none of us play video games to learn how (or why) to shoot people," he said. "For us, video games do not cause violence; they prevent it. We see games as a perfectly safe release from a physically violent reaction to the daily abuse leveled at us." The culture warriors who contributed to Kid Stuff should have spent some time talking to consumers like him.

Alissa Quart, a freelance journalist who has written for The Nation, did just that. In Branded, she observes that if mass media are convincing youth to do anything, it's not to kill or copulate but to shop. Quart's analysis bears a strong imprint of leftist media critics such as Thomas Frank and Mark Crispin Miller. There are intimations here and there of capitalism as a cabal, but the book rings true in too many places to be dismissed as an ideological rant. The thirtyish Quart went out and spoke to "tweens" (7- to-14-year-olds) and teens—lots of them. Although a bit too old to pass as a native, à la Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed, she knows their vernacular and their anxieties.

Quart argues that during the past decade or so America's youth, egged on by their parents, have become wedded to consumption as personal identity: You are what you buy. In their desperate pursuit of peer acceptance, she avers, young people more than ever are suckers for mass advertising's pitches for the right (read: expensive) brands. Teenagers, Quart notes, spent $155 billion in discretionary income in 2000. Knowing where the money is, many companies hire youths as market trend spotters; the magazine Teen People alone has deputized some 10,000 kids in this capacity.

The retailing, publishing, film, and sports industries are increasingly focused on getting young people to associate consumption of hip brands with social acceptance. Greater affluence combined with the need for acceptance has led to rapid rises in plastic surgery, breast enlargement, steroid use, and anorexia, all manifestations of what Quart calls "self-branding."

The book's chapter on higher education, which describes the cutthroat competition to get into a small number of elite institutions, best illustrates where Quart hits, and misses, the mark. Childhood, she argues, is becoming one long entrance exam. Not any college or university will do; all that preparation will be a waste if a son or daughter is destined for no better than a good state university or even a highly ranked but semi-obscure private four-year college such as Grinnell, Bowdoin, or Oberlin. When $30,000 to $40,000 a year in tuition, fees, and room and board is on the line, only the Ivies, and a few other prestige universities such as Stanford, Northwestern, and Duke, will suffice.

Parents may be even more obsessed than their kids with the status conferred by the right college. A prominent college tutor/counselor describes her clients' attitude this way to Quart: "My kid has to get into Harvard or Princeton or I will kill myself." Children, taking their cue, see higher education as a logo identity. They select extracurricular activities (often inflated or invented) with an eye toward pleasing admissions officers. A child these days doesn't take French or cello lessons out of enjoyment; he takes them because years later they will look good on a college application. Tom Cruise's strategy to get into Princeton in Risky Business seems honest by comparison.

Quart's dissection of status anxieties is brilliant, but her focus is restricted to academic overachievers bred by upper-income parents. One suspects that her hand wringing is akin to traditionalists' laments about the "epidemic" of childlessness that in fact characterizes a relatively small stratum of higher-income professional couples in their 30s. Moreover, Quart doesn't admit that, up to a point, getting kids to compete is necessary. The demand for the most desirable slots in any endeavor inevitably exceeds the supply. Parents naturally want the best for their children, whether in the form of a wardrobe, an education, or a wedding. If they (and their children) are spending more money on these things than ever before, maybe it's because they have more to spend.

In a sense, Quart is a descendant of a tradition begun in the mid-19th century by Marx and Engels on the left and Matthew Arnold on the right, the soi-disant voice in the moral wilderness excoriating the base appetites of an emerging commercial culture. But in another sense she's a realist. Far more attuned to markets than such contemporary critics of crassness as Benjamin Barber and Wendell Berry, she writes with empathy and insight about the dark side of the branding game, the taunts and rejection directed at those who consume the "wrong" things.

Students marked by classmates as dorks and losers may resort to vengeance of the sort seen in Littleton, Colorado, and elsewhere. And let's admit it: There is something decadent about people whose conversation and behavior revolve almost entirely around acquiring material things and other badges of status, all the while pitying the poor souls down the pecking order. Such people, of course, rarely will admit being slaves to fashion. Bill Buckley remarked many years ago that even George Babbitt didn't approve of Babbittry; he merely practiced it.

Youth themselves must take the initiative to get off the consumption treadmill, Quart argues. "Do It Yourself" culture, that public square populated by punks, Goths, hippies, and other castoffs, is her ideal way to air grievances and conduct transactions, with activities ranging from music file sharing to high school plays to thrift store shopping. Where the Kid Stuff authors generally prefer to rein in untutored youthful desire through a combination of media self-policing, closer parental supervision, and government oversight, Quart would decommodify desire by creating anti-branding platoons. Although she certainly would object to such a characterization, deep down she's a left-libertarian, blasting away at Edison Schools while defending homeschooling.

Both of these books suggest that young people need better emotional equipment to deal with the opposite tugs of individuality and belonging. Teenagers, like everyone else, want to be themselves but dread being left out. Most lack the maturity to resolve this tension on their own, especially when they're experiencing sexual desire (and rejection) for the first time. That's why parents should provide more guidance, beginning with their own firsthand observation that youth is fleeting.