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Monitoring Teens' Media Intake Poses Challenges

If you go to online spaces popular with teenagers, you'll find plenty of smart, funny, charming material. But you'll probably also find things that would make the most liberal parents cringe, such as one Internet-based animated game allowing players to sexually humiliate a popular singer.

It's easy for teens and pre-teens to access hardcore images of sex and violence that would have been hard for adults to find 20 years ago. Some Web advertisements blindside kids such as 15-year-old Angela Black.

"Pop-ups come up sometimes, and it's just like, 'Delete,'" Black says. "That's all I do, because that's disgusting, porn stuff."

Every day, Angela updates her social networking Web sites -- all three, on Myspace, Xanga and Facebook. Most of the stuff isn't anything Angela's mother needs to worry about: Angela and her friends fill their pages with silly, supportive messages. They post pictures of bad hair days and muse about life, faith, and love.

But the pages of Angela’s classmates aren’t always as wholesome.

"I see people talk about their adventures with boys or girls -- and sometimes it's freaky, but not shocking anymore, because you get used to it," Black says.

But the ability to disguise one's identity online can make it harder for parents to determine exactly what their children are doing. Ashley Hutchinson, a 21-year-old volunteer who helps educate teens on sexual-health issues, notes that parents have lost their historic advantage of being the first to know how to use communication tools. Teens use cell phones, gaming consoles and other portable media devices to exchange content in ways that don't always occur to their elders, such as text-messaging sex hotlines.

If experts agree on one thing, it's that most parents are clueless about the media lives of their children. It can be tricky for parents to define what is appropriate, especially when mainstream culture has become so casually risque. Susannah Stern, who teaches communications at the University of San Diego, notes that kids have "learned very well from adults what we value and what gets people to pay attention."

Recently, the Kaiser Family Foundation did a study showing that over the past seven years, sexual content on network television has increased from more than half of all shows to seven out of every 10 shows. The number of sexual scenes in those shows has gone up, too.

Teenagers do not respond identically to media messages, says Susannah Stern, so there's no one way to help guide them. She says adults should make clear that their interest is not in removing teenagers' autonomy but in helping them develop their own internal controls.

"What's hard is that parents [want] a list of the 20 things you should do and the 20 things you shouldn't do," Stern says. "I just don't think in this day and age dealing with adolescents that you can give that kind of prescriptive list."

Volunteer counselor Hutchinson describes hers as a guinea-pig generation: the first to grow up immersed in a brave new world of technology and media culture, and the first to master it -- more or less -- on their own.

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