Teach your children well

Melissa Stagnaro

As I was racing out the door this morning on my way to work, I caught a snippet of something on the news. A new study, the announcer was saying, has identified a correlation between R-rated movies and underage drinking.

Curiosity caused me to pause on the threshold as I strained to hear the rest of what the television personality du jour had to say on this intriguing topic.

Middle school students who watch R-rated films are more likely to drink as teens, she warned me, adding that this impressionable age group is also more prone to violent behavior and smoking as a result of those same viewing habits.

The shocking discovery of the link between what kids watch and their behavior was revealed in a study conducted by researchers at Dartmouth Medical School, she explained, the findings of which are due to be published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs this May.

As a former market researcher – and thinking, functioning adult – I really couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Because, isn’t this something we already know?

Of course we are influenced by what we see on both the big and small screens. If we weren’t all those Madison Avenue ad execs would be out of their high paying jobs. It’s why product placement is all the rage on both TV and in the movies. And why those ridiculous shows like Jackass have to have disclaimers like “don’t try this at home, kids.” (Okay, by kids they mean rednecks and frat boys. But you get the picture.)

I found the correlation with R-rated movies – which, I might add, have already been deemed inappropriate for this age group – an interesting angle for this study. I mean why pick movies as the only model of bad behavior for kids? Because when it comes to young, impressionable minds, I’d argue that ads for fast food, sugary cereals and high-caloric snackfood can be just as damaging to the long term health and well being of our nation’s youth. (I mean, New York’s contemplating a tax on sugary beverages. I have yet to hear them propose a similar tax on movies which receive higher than a G rating. But this is Paterson we’re talking about. You never know.)

And let’s face it, R-rated movies aren’t the only way kids get exposed to violence, drugs, alcohol, smoking or sex. It’s all out there for the world to see on TV, in video games and on the internet.

Now, there are people out there in the position to limit a middle schooler’s exposure to these influences. And no, I’m not talking about movie censors. I’m talking about parents.

The study’s authors are quick to point out that their results were “controlled” for parenting styles. But I don’t see how you could possibly control for something that is so all pervasive in a child’s life. A parent doesn’t just influence what a kid does or does not watch (although they should certainly be paying attention to what their kids are doing in that regard.) They lay the foundation for how their children process what they see and hear. And by actually communicating with their kids, I’d argue they might actually be able to influence whether their offspring emulate the poor decision making and inappropriate behavior of their favorite actors on-screen persona, or view it for what they truly are. And by that I mean overblown Hollywood plots designed to get audiences’ hearts thumping and adrenaline pumping. And box office sales climbing, of course.

Even the study’s authors admit in their findings that the results of their research indicate the importance of a parent’s role in monitoring what their kids do and do not watch, and how they interpret the images they see on screen.

Maybe the numbers attached to the study are useful in that regard. Maybe they will help those who aren’t taking such an active role to start paying more attention. Because, according to the Dartmouth team that did the research, 25 percent of middle schoolers who said they watch R-rated movies “all the time” reported taking a drink without their parents knowing, as opposed to only 3 percent of those who were “never allowed” to see those types of movies.

Maybe, just maybe, with all the pitfalls of the teen years, it’s time for parents to pay head to the words of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

“Teach, your children well.”

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