The V-chip is coming; television ratings are upon us; a new study reveals that the "family hour" is full of sex. The race is on to shelter our kids from the evil box.
Our growing anxiety over television masks another problem, one less amenable to quick fixes: a generation of children raising themselves. The kids for whom the V-chip and "TV-14" are designed spend more time by themselves than any generation in history. The majority of kids today are raised by single parents or by two working parents; 1.5 million children come home each afternoon to empty houses. Tackling - or even facing - the social and economic forces behind this is a lot harder than installing an electronic chaperone for when mom and dad aren't around.
As the editor of a youth newspaper, I talk with young people every day about their lives - what they're scared of, what they hope for, what they know. The girls make clear they don't need TV to tell them about sex. And as for violence, any kid who has to walk past a metal detector to get into school doesn't rely on "NYPD Blue" to feed his nightmares. Even the safest, most sheltered teens are far from ignorant of what goes on around them.
We can install a V-chip in our televisions, but it's not so easy to block the sexual attention and violence that many of our children face every day. What young people need is guidance in moral reasoning: someone (preferably an adult) to help them puzzle through the conflicting messages and difficult situations that constantly confront them.
One of the primary struggles of adolescence is finding an ethic to live by, and young people are tremendous moral seekers. What I love about being around them, in fact, is how hungry they are to grapple with right and wrong, to ask the big questions. Those questions often deal with sex and violence, and they rarely lend themselves to "just say no" answers. Young people need help figuring out how to get the love and acceptance they crave without hurting others or degrading themselves, how to release their anger without resorting to violence, and how to protect themselves without succumbing to paranoia.
The irony is that these themes permeate contemporary television, and television may in some cases offer a braver, more complicated exploration of these issues than young people get in school or at home. This is particularly true when it comes to sex. A recent survey indicates that half of all 15-year-old girls have never talked to a parent about birth control or sexually transmitted diseases, while a third have never discussed how pregnancy occurs. Meanwhile, sex education in the schools has become so politically charged that it has been reduced to symbols. One school district hands out "True Love Waits" buttons; another offers numbingly pragmatic litanies of risks and consequences. But most of the teenagers I know say it's hard to find an adult they can talk to when the time comes to make a difficult decision.
ON television, however, young people can be seen struggling not only with sexuality but with attendant moral issues. On Fox's "Party of Five," Julia faces an older boyfriend who threatens to leave her if she won't sleep with him. She lets him go, but only after some agonizing and backsliding that real teenagers will recognize. On ABC's "Dangerous Minds," Blanca considers getting pregnant so her boyfriend will have an excuse to leave his gang, then realizes she's being used and changes her mind. Shows like these recognize what sex ed classes often miss: Teenagers are more than just hormone-crazed animals who need slogans and warnings to help them control themselves. They fall in love. They make mistakes. They learn from them.
I'm not saying that television isn't also simplistic and reductionist, or that cheap sex and gratuitous violence can't also be summoned with a click of the remote. And even the best TV dramas are obviously no substitute for conversations with parents and other adults. But the pathetic truth is that for many young people, television has become the only place they can find even a semi-honest exploration of the issues they are grappling with.
That isn't to say we should throw up our hands and let television educate our kids. But we can't blame the box for our failures.
* Nell Bernstein is editor of YO! (Youth Outlook), a youth newspaper produced by Pacific News Service.