Media And Tween Girls: Creating a Positive Influence
Written By: Dr. Jennifer L. Hartstein Psy.D.
Eleven-year-olds are getting bikini waxes. Nine-year-olds are weight conscious (and some, by this age, have already dieted). According to a recent survey on Yahoo! Shine, 25% of tweens and teens consider plastic surgery based on what they see on television. The Girl Scout Research Institute, in talking with tween and teen girls about reality shows, found that many girls are negatively influenced by what they see and determine that the shows depict “real life.” For example, of girls who watch reality shows, 78% felt that gossip is normal vs. 54% of the girls who do not watch. Another example: 74% of the girls who watch reality TV believe that their appearance is of the utmost importance, as compared with 42% of the girls who don’t watch. Everywhere tweens turn, they are bombarded with messages about how they should look, act and behave. And not all of these messages are promoting a positive sense of self.
A study by the Kaiser Foundation found that tweens and teens are using media of all kinds more now than ever before. Media includes, but is not limited to: television, magazines, computers, movies, cell phones/smartphones, iPods (of all kinds), video games, music, and social media networks. The study found that often being plugged in is more likely than not. Two-thirds of children 8-18 have cell phones (up 39% from five years ago); three-quarters of youth have an iPod or some type of MP3 player (4x as many as 5 years ago). Young people consume upwards of seven and a half hours a day of media. And, because they often are engaged in more than one form of media at time (think, doing homework on the computer while listening to music and, possibly, G-chatting with a friend), young people actually mange to fit close to 11 hours of total media exposure into a day. The Kaiser Foundation first published a study of this kind a decade ago. The amount of use since that initial report has risen by 43 percent.
A significant problem with all of this exposure is the messages that come with it. Tweens are an important part of the culture for marketers. The term “tween” was created by marketers, according to Peggy Orenstein in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. This age group, usually 8-12-year-olds, are not children, yet they are not yet teens. They do no want to be identified as “little” and yet they need their parents for most things. Tweens are just as likely to roll their eyes and demand independence as they are to jump in your lap as they did when they were five. Developmentally, children this age are working to identify who they are and cultivate the image they want to portray. This makes them prime targets for the media, which taps into the tweens desire to be “grown-up.” Often, parents believe that tweens can decipher the messages and determine what is good and healthy versus what is potentially dangerous and risky. Unfortunately, tweens are not really sophisticated enough to know how to interpret the information (despite believing that they do), which puts them at risk for “buying in” to the message, rather than fighting against it.
Things do tend to shift most dramatically when tweens hit middle school, and are on the older side of the curve. It is during this time period that more focus is on appearance. Appearance is not solely what you wear or how you look or what size you are. It includes the things you have, as well. Middle school is a tough time for many tweens because they are pulled in so many different directions and have so many messages being tossed at them from all angles.
So, as a parent, how to you work to ensure that your message is heard the loudest? It is important to remember that there is no way that you can protect your children from all things (and you probably know this already). Just because you decide not to have fashion magazines in your home, it does not mean your daughter isn’t looking at them with her friends at the store or in their homes. Additionally, remember that the values you started to instill when your tween was a toddler still exist. They just need to be reworded and refreshed. Below are a few ideas to consider in order to help your daughter feel comfortable, confident and self-assured in her own skin.
Monitor media usage: You will not be able to avoid all media. Children need it for school. It’s in the bus stops, on billboards…basically it’s everywhere. You can, in your home, monitor how much media is used. Set limits on when and where media can be used. If your daughter has a computer and a smartphone, have a time that all electronics need to be turned in. Do not forget about the iPod touch! This is more than just an MP3 player. Tweens can download texting programs and access the internet, so it is also a mini-computer. Set a “no electronics” rule for family dinners (and yes, this includes you, the parent!).
Understand the media: Know what your tweens are doing with their media. Check out their social media usage (if they are allowed to do it). If they have a cell phone, check to see what and whom they are texting. Watch TV with your tween. Talk about the shows that she is watching and work to understand what it is about the show that she likes. Look at magazines with her to see what she is drawn to and why.
Promote acceptance: This is a time where your tween’s body is changing and she may no longer be the beanpole she was before. Puberty can be tough and everyone develops at different rates. Promote acceptance of who she is and what she has to offer. Talk about how life is much more than solely appearance. Promote health over all other things. Validate that society will pull her in another direction and help guide her toward the acceptance path.
Walk the walk: You cannot expect your daughter to accept herself if she sees you talking about the diet you need to be on, or how beautiful you wish you were. Model for her the behaviors that you want her to follow. Figure out how to promote your own acceptance of yourself. This is the best message you can provide.
Being a tween can be really challenging. It is a time of changes, development, exploration and LOTS of mixed messages. In order to be sure that your voice is the one that is heard the loudest, take the time to talk with your tween about what her interests are, encourage her to explore her own individuality, and promote a sense of health and well-being. It will only help her as she transitions to being a teenager and beyond.