Mom and Dad, where are you?

Rebecca Hagelin

8/9/2006 12:00:00 AM - Rebecca Hagelin

The headline on the Sunday, Aug. 6 Washington Post style section was so visually “loud” that no other words were immediately visible to my eyes. It screamed, “Chill Out, Mom,” followed by “Parents Fret About Children’s Entertainment. Maybe That’s Part of the Problem.”

Say what?

As I travel the country speaking to civic, religious and education organizations about how to protect today’s youth in a culture gone crazy, it’s obvious that the problem isn’t parental worry -- it’s parental ignorance and inaction.

Of course, headlines are supposed to grab your attention (and the writer of this one deserves a Pulitzer). But the impression is so powerful that the reader actually may believe the lie that parental concerns or involvement harm our children.

Here’s the reality: Moms and dads, you have good reason to fret. And as I show in my book, Home Invasion, hands-on parenting in your children’s lives is more important today than ever.

To be fair to Post journalist Ann Hornaday, her article contained excellent recommendations. She pointed out, for instance, that media literacy programs are important components of keeping our kids safe in our technological world of wonders. As an advisory board member for Web Wise Kids, a non-profit organization that has worked with schools, law enforcement and civic groups, and trained hundreds of thousands of students across the nation how to stay safe from online predators, I know that such programs have saved lives.

According to Robert Rabon (whose organization, National Center for Youth Issues, has taught counselors and administrators from some 30,000 schools how to identify dangers and build character in students): “School counselors and teachers can be a primary entry point for addressing the social and emotional issues of our kids. Most public schools have a counselor, but the vast majority have very few tools to do their jobs. One of our goals is to get resources and training into their hands.”

There must be a joint effort by the educational community, religious leaders and, yes, parents, if we’re going to keep our youth safe -- not just from predators, but from the pornography-immersed marketing efforts that have our kids in the cross-hairs.

Today’s kids are the most marketed-to generation of children in history. They spend an estimated $150 billion a year of their own money. Combine this with the often-seen modern parental desire to be their kids’ “friend” (which results in indulging little Johnny’s every whim and a failure to set rules and standards), and you can see why marketers compete like never before for the attention of these sophomoric spenders.

So fierce is the competition for their cash that modern marketing techniques have become, in many cases, insidiously evil. Selling to tweens isn’t about finding out what they want, it’s all about figuring out how to manipulate their minds.

Of course, sex sells and always has been a staple of marketing campaigns. But today’s most highly sexualized campaigns are targeted at children -- selling empty promises of sexual power and every kind of sexual perversion, accompanied by a crude incivility that flows throughout the entertainment programming, not just in easily identifiable ads.

MTV (with its “pooh cam,” which enables one to watch others go to the bathroom, and its tawdry Spring Break specials, etc.) and others have become experts at feeding on the raging hormones, edginess and roller-coaster emotions of our youth, producing highly titillating material that ignites their adrenaline and leaves them begging for more. Instead of helping our sons and daughters positively approach and channel their sexuality and their developing understanding of decency and civility, the entertainment world pours gasoline on youthful passions and confusion.

Plainly put, our kids are being used.

Educators, religious youth leaders and parents must become familiar with this brave new world and rise up to stop the abuse. And parental action is most critical to successfully freeing our kids from those who would entrap them. After all, it’s not at school that pornographic Web sites are viewed, that dangerous MySpace or chat-room conversations take place, or that hours are spent watching the crud of MTV or playing violent video games. It’s in their homes -- often in the privacy of their own bedrooms -- that kids consume the brainwashing rot.

Mom and Dad, where are you?

A 2002 Kaiser Family Foundation Report found that 70 percent of youth ages 15 to 17 reported accidentally coming across pornography online, and 23 percent of those youth said this happens “very” or “somewhat” often. A more recent study by the London School of Economics reveals the problem is worsening, with a full 90 percent of teens who go online reporting they have stumbled across hard-core pornography. The marketing tricks to create kiddie porn addicts are endless: E-mail inboxes are spammed by perverted pornographers, unsuspecting youth are frequently tricked onto pornographic sites by simply mistyping a word or using a common phrase, and “innocent” chatter in chat rooms and on the Web pages of sites such as MySpace lure kids to tawdry places and even personal encounters with pedophiles.

Mom and Dad, where are you?

A recent Nielson study reveals that 77 percent of kids say they have a TV in their bedroom. As the Kaiser Family Foundation reported last year, most kids say their parents haven’t a clue what they’re watching. The average youth now spends 6 1/2 hours on media per day.

Mom and Dad, where are you?

It used to be that a parent’s worst nightmare was the guy in a trench coat lurking in the shadows at the playground. Today, that guy is often in our kids’ bedroom. Ignorant parents, or those too fearful to set standards at home, are paying for their sons and daughters to be virtually stalked in the comfort of their own homes.

The good news is that, as Kaiser has reported, kids say their parents have tremendous influence on them. When children and teens face problems or questions, they are more likely to go to Mom or Dad first for advice and help if the parent has previously taken the initiative to talk to and teach their children about difficult issues.

The question is, what kind of influence are you having on your children?

When you ignore or pretend you don’t see unhealthy, immoral or just plain tacky/cheap messages, your child interprets your silence as an endorsement of the material. When you mindlessly plunk down 60 bucks for the latest video game, or give your 10-year-old the cash to buy clothes that make her look like a street-walker, you’re part of the problem.

Listen to that fret. Respond to that inner voice that tells you something is amiss in our culture. It’s time to rise up like a mother bear and protect your cubs. It’s time to be the protective, involved father of your kids’ dreams. It’s time to be the parent your kids were born for you to be.