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Fact of life: You can’t escape TV sex

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
November 29, 2009
— If you’ve got a TV and children, be ready to deal with unwanted sexual references.

It’s a fact of life, say Janesville parents interviewed for this article.


“When I was growing up, those kinds of shows were rare, and your parents usually knew what ones they were and when they were on, and ‘you’re not watching it.’” recalled Teresa Nguyen, the mother of three boys.


“Now, it’s everywhere, and now you can be exposed without even seeking it. That’s the big difference,” whether it’s on TV or online, said father of three Kevin Reilly.


But parents are not powerless in the face of the media onslaught. They can turn off the TV, of course, but their most powerful tool may be talking to their kids, parents and experts say.


Cindy Ward said she and her husband have told their kids what they find objectionable—to the point that her kids are uncomfortable when something appears on the screen that they shouldn’t see.


“They have those values in their heads,” said Ward, mother of a son, 9, and daughter, 11.


“As they get older, especially with my oldest, I’m becoming more comfortable in telling him why I think this is inappropriate and what it leads to,” Reilly said.


In other words, instill your own values before TV instills its values. One way to do that is to watch TV with your kids.


Nguyen said she limits TV time in general, and when something objectionable occurs on the tube, she comments on how inappropriate it was.


Nguyen said she’s bothered most by the promotion of shallow, meaningless sex and women as sexual objects.


Nguyen counters those message with her own values: “I want my boys to respect girls and respect women for who they are inside, and it’s a bonus if they look good, but you don’t get that on TV, and that’s what bothers me a lot.”


Of course, you can ban shows. But sooner or later, sex will hit your kid between the eyes, whether it’s a Viagra commercial during the evening news or R-rated jokes on what you thought was a cartoon made for kids.


More than one parent has been caught short by the adult content of the cartoon “Family Guy,” for example.


“I watched “Family Guy one night out of curiosity, and I thought I will never let my kid watch that,” Ward said.


While many parents know in their guts that kids shouldn’t be exposed to too much too soon, a recent study backs them up. A Rand Corp. study found that watching lots of sexy TV might lead to kids having sex at an early age.


Marie-Louise Mares, professor of communication arts at UW-Madison, noted that the Rand Corp. data show most kids who see sex on TV don’t go out and have sex, but there does seem to be an effect for a minority.


“I think that kids who watch lots of sex on television might well be more curious about (sex), and that’s why they watch it, and that’s why they end up having sex,” Mares said.


”It’s not clear to me that it’s a straightforward causal relationship, that they watch TV and them go out and have sex.”


Mares said research suggests most parents stop monitoring what their children watch as the kids enter adolescence. She thinks those parents should reconsider.


Research has suggested that if a child watches a program, and the parent doesn’t comment, children tend to believe the parent approves of what’s being shown, Mares said.


Mares advises parents not to constantly interrupt a program but to ask occasional questions: Do you think that’s realistic? What would happen in real life if something like that occurred?


Parents said they can also set examples in their own lives for kids to see.


“If they see their parents watching it, that’s what they’re going to watch, too,” Reilly said.


“We don’t let our kids watch TV unsupervised,” Ward said.


That doesn’t mean sitting with the kids all the time, but her kids know they must ask if they can watch and tell her what they’re going to watch, she said.


Monitor, and don’t hesitate to say, “You’re not watching this anymore,’” Reilly said.


“I hate to say it, but you can see things in certain homes—video collections, magazines, slogans on T shirts, that can give you a quick indicator of where the parents’ values are and what they’re comfortable exposing their children to,” Reilly said.


Kids also learn from watching their parents interact, Reilly said. If parents respect each other, the kids will learn that’s how men and women should act.


Simply making TV the outlaw may not be the best choice. Professor Mares said that could cause a “forbidden fruit” effect in curious children, who will find ways to watch at a friend’s house, for example


“I think if you completely remove yourself from it, that’s not a completely real expectation of living in the world,” Ward said.


If scantily clad women appear in a beer commercial, for example, it’s better to talk about it, Ward added, so kids understand why parents find it objectionable.


Pretending that these things don’t exist isn’t healthy, “especially for our sixth-grader, who soon will be off in high school and have independence,” Ward said. “She needs to make good choices, and not just because mom and dad said you should.”


“I think you can talk to them pretty openly and prepare them” about handling situations at other homes, so they’ll be able to stand up for themselves, say they’re uncomfortable or that they want to go home, Reilly said.


Reilly said parents should get to know the families of their children’s friends. Reilly goes online to check whether other parents have criminal records.


“You need to be involved in what your kids are doing and make sure you understand you’re teaching the things you’re teaching them,” Ward said.


“I don’t want to over-shelter them, but there’s a time for all that,” Nguyen said.


”They’re still kids, and they need to be kids. They don’t need to grow up so fast.”


TV sex tips
Advice for parents is rampant on the Internet. One Web site that concentrates on television, movies, video games and other media is Common Sense Media, at www.commonsensemedia.org. It offers these tips for parents of middle school kids:

-- Don’t let kids use TVs and computers behind closed doors. This makes it easier for you to enforce your own rules and will help you understand exactly what your kids are seeing. When possible, watch and listen with your kids so you can answer—and ask—questions that might come up.


-- Look for teachable moments. A TV show in which a teen considers having sex with her boyfriend, or a song featuring sexy lyrics, can be the perfect opening for you to talk. Ask your kids about what they are seeing, hearing, and thinking about. They would rather talk about a movie than their own sexual thoughts.


-- Be aware and share your values. By middle school, kids know the facts. But they also are surrounded by sexual humor that is especially appealing because of how embarrassed kids are by the whole topic. This can demean sex. Make sure you explain your values and balance the sexual examples kids see everywhere with your positive values.



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