Pop Culture and Your Kids

WebMD Live Events Transcript

In his book, "Your Children are Under Attack: How Popular Culture is Destroying Your Kids' Values, and How You Can Protect Them," Jim Taylor, PhD, argues that popular culture is teaching children unhealthy values that will do great harm to them, families, communities, and our country as a whole. How does pop culture affect our children? Is it all bad? What about the off button on the TV? Taylor was our guest on June 2, 2005.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

MODERATOR:
Welcome to WebMD Live Dr. Taylor. Thank you for joining us. Let's define "pop culture."

TAYLOR:
Pop culture is many of the things we are familiar with: movies, video games, TV, Internet, music and magazines. It's also advertising, sports and corporate influences.

I believe that popular culture has changed in the last 30 years. It used to reflect our values. Now it dictates our values and it has become the most dominant and destructive force in our society today because it is omnipresent, intense and unrelenting.

MODERATOR:
Why do you think it dictates rather than reflects our values? Doesn't it respond to our feedback? It can't exist in a vacuum.

TAYLOR:
Popular culture does respond to our feedback, but because popular culture has so many weapons to use against children, it has the power to tell kids what they should want. An example is reality television. The viewing public was not clamoring for reality television. Networks brought reality TV to us because it was cheap, and then people, yes, got hooked on it.

Popular culture existed 30, 40, 50 years ago, but back then when I was growing up, we had three TV channels and eight-track tapes. Now children are bombarded almost every moment of every day by popular culture.

Also popular culture is extremely smart. It taps into our most basic needs: self-esteem, social acceptance, and physical attractiveness. So popular culture manipulates and brainwashes kids by getting to their very deepest psychology.

"The fact is, popular culture has always sought out people's needs, whether it's soap operas or game shows, but it seems like we are on a slippery slope in which popular culture has to go lower and lower to attract attention."

MODERATOR:
But if the public didn't watch Fear Factor would it still be on? Let's be honest. It's all about the money, and the American public votes for what is popular with its wallet.

TAYLOR:
Popular culture only does things that make money. Popular culture tells kids and families that it cares about them, but it doesn't, all it cares about is making money.

The fact is, popular culture has always sought out people's needs, whether it's soap operas or game shows, but it seems like we are on a slippery slope in which popular culture has to go lower and lower to attract attention. And that's why you see increases in violence, sexuality, gross out factors and humiliation -- to get people's attention, and yes, people love it. That is the attraction of the shows, like The Apprentice or Desperate Housewives . Are they healthy? Probably not, but this is America and people can watch and play whatever they want.

Where I draw the line is when it hurts children, and when I say hurts children, I mean it teaches them destructive values, it hurts their physical health (we have an epidemic of obesity now) and it wastes kids' time. It keeps them from doing other healthier things. When it keeps kids from being human beings, that's the goal, that's what values are all about.

MODERATOR:
When does it tell us that it cares for us? Can you give an example?

TAYLOR:
It tells kids it cares about them, that if you wear these shoes, if you buy this electronic device, if you eat this food it will make you happy, it will make you popular, it will make you attractive.

MODERATOR:
Given that parents control the money up until a certain age, aren't we responsible for buying into pop culture and saying no to that which we find offensive?

TAYLOR:
Absolutely. It is the parents' responsibility to protect their kids from popular culture and to prepare them for the real world when they go out there. Unfortunately, many parents have been seduced by popular culture, too. They have become enablers of popular culture. And when they go to "the dark side," they advocate their ability to positively influence their children.

I have a chapter in my new book called "Lazy Parenting." Many parents are taking the path of least resistance in raising their children. They're doing what's easiest for them rather than what's best for their kids. A good example is car DVD players. Parents buy them to make their lives easier, not because it's what's best for the kids.

Let me make a little disclaimer. Not all pop culture is bad. Popular culture can be a wonderful source of entertainment and escapism, but when kids have access to pop culture in excess and without guidance or boundaries, then there's a problem.

It's up to parents to make sure that popular culture is controlled by the parents.

MODERATOR:
You feel that our children are "under attack." Do you really feel that the creators of pop culture are trying to undermine our families, or are they just trying to make as much money as they can?

TAYLOR:
Pop culture is amoral. It's reason for being is to make money. It's not trying to actively hurt children, but that's the result.

In my book I talk about six values that I believe are most under attack by popular culture. Values, unfortunately, have taken on very different mediums, and the values I talk about are values that everyone in America can agree on. I'm not talking about "red state" values, I'm not taking about "blue state" values, I'm talking about red, white, and blue values - the values our country was built on. The six values I talk about in my book are respect, responsibility, success, happiness, family, and compassion. Popular culture is doing everything it can to undermine those values because it makes them more money.

MODERATOR:
Give an example.

"Another message about success is that you've got to get it quick and at any cost. That's why we see cheating in school, steroid use in sports, and corporate corruption in the business world -- anything to win."

TAYLOR:
Respect. Popular culture tells kids that the way to gain respect is to disrespect others. An example: professional sports. Terrell Owens, trash talking, touchdown dancing, taunting, famous football player and now you see kids now doing that on football fields, soccer fields and baseball fields when the real way to gain respect is by caring for others. Popular culture also says the way to get respect is by being wealthy, famous, powerful and popular. But real respect is earned by living a value-driven life and through good works. So, popular culture twists these six values to make more money.

MODERATOR:
Is it pop culture twisting these values or are we allowing them to sell us this? If we didn't buy into it, would they keep it up? For example, when Little House on the Prairie was getting good ratings it was what was being sold to us. What do we have to do to get parents to buy into positive pop culture messages?

TAYLOR:
I think many parents have lost perspective. They have been seduced by popular culture themselves, so they don't see the unhealthy value messages that kids are getting.

An important thing that I mention in my book is that parents need to know their children's enemy, meaning popular culture. They need to study popular culture. They need to see the unhealthy values communicated in reality television. For example, The Apprentice is about greed, Extreme Makeover is about beauty and Survivor is about manipulation, deceit and selfishness.

Yes, these are all very entertaining shows and adults can watch them as much as they want, but kids don't just see it as entertainment. And if you think that kids aren't watching adult shows, Desperate Housewives is one of the most popular shows for 12- to 17-year-olds.

Some specific examples: television, movies and video games. They glamorize violence, sexuality, wealth, and the use of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. Fashion magazines -- there's been research that has been shown that when girls read fashion magazines they are more insecure about their bodies, more likely to diet and more likely to have eating disorders.

Another example of the values I mention is success. Pop culture defines success in terms of wealth, fame and power. It defines happiness the same way, yet the research shows that wealth, fame and power actually take away happiness. But those are the messages kids get every day. Another message about success is that you've got to get it quick and at any cost. That's why we see cheating in school, steroid use in sports, and corporate corruption in the business world -- anything to win. These are the messages kids are getting; these are the values of success and happiness they are getting from popular culture.

Compassion is another good example. There's a culture of cruelty and humiliation in schools today. Mean Girls is a good example. Why do you think the Columbine killings or the Red Lake killings occurred? Because these were boys who felt isolated and ostracized. Popular culture is teaching this value rather than the value of compassion.

MODERATOR:
How can we get parents to understand that every TV comes with an OFF switch, if they themselves have bought into being lazy?

TAYLOR:
If parents are unwilling to take responsibility and are seduced by popular culture, their children are doomed because the two most powerful influences in children's lives are popular culture and parents who are telling them to go to "the dark side." Look what happened to Anikan Skywalker when he grew up; he became Darth Vader. Do you want your children to become Darth Vader?

Hopefully my book will become a call to action because the first step in protecting kids is for parents to know their values. I speak to thousands of parents every year, and many of them tell me they've never sat down and talked about what they value. How can parents possibly communicate healthy values to their kids if they're not even sure what they are? Parents need to really look carefully at their values and whether they're actually living their values. All parents will say they believe in the six values in my book, but if you look at the way they live their lives, many don't.

MODERATOR:
I think part of the problem is the political arena's usurpation of what "values" means and whose values have legitimacy.

TAYLOR:
One of the problems is that values have been hijacked by politicians, by media talking heads and by extremists at both ends of the spectrum. My book doesn't have a political agenda and it doesn't have a religious agenda. Any time you have a political or religious angle you're going to divide people. And my goal in writing this book was to bring people together to talk about values that made our country great and that we can all agree on.

While our country is divided over a so-called culture war, we're losing the real culture war against popular culture, and our children are the casualties. Our only chance in winning this war against popular culture is to focus on the values we all share and create a counterpopular cultural revolution; this will only occur at the grass roots level. Our government, on the left or the right, long ago, sold our special interests and money, and only pays lip service to caring about children and popular culture isn't going to change because it's making lots of money.

"Peer pressure -- the greatest ally of popular culture and the greatest enemy of children."

Fortunately, parents aren't alone. Hopefully schools continue parents' values and for people of faith, houses of worship. In my book, I discuss what I call a family value culture. Kids want to be part of a culture, it gives them identity, connection and support. If parents can create a family value culture, that is a culture based on your family's values, they won't need to look elsewhere, such as to popular culture, to feel part of a culture. That family value culture starts with knowing your values, making sure they're healthy values, living your values and then to expand the army. Parents can't fight this war alone, and that army can come from neighborhoods, schools and houses of worship to create a community value culture.

Peer pressure -- the greatest ally of popular culture and the greatest enemy of children. We've lost our communities of shared values. When you send your kids over to their friends' houses, who knows what they're doing over there in terms of TV, video games and whatnot. But if you can surround your family with a community that has similar values, then the peer pressure becomes positive. The pressure is to adhere to your kids' values and when your kids go over to friends' houses, you can trust that similar values are going to be communicated. So this umbrella, the shield of values, goes with kids wherever they go.

Some parents believe they can protect their kids from popular culture by not educating them about it, by shielding them from it, by not exposing them to it and you want to do that early in children's lives. But as they get older and they're going out into the real world, parents need to give them the armor and the weaponry to resist popular culture's attacks. There are some important value tools that parents can teach their kids.

MODERATOR:
For those parents who want to reclaim their place in training their children, what practical steps do you suggest?

TAYLOR:
I already mentioned two: to really sit down and understand your values, and to study popular culture and really understand the deep hidden messages, what I call the stealth messages that popular culture communicates to kids. These are the messages behind the entertaining characters and the fun music. For example, if you look at so many of the advertisements on TV now and you look at the stealth messages, they're about selfishness and popularity, physical attractiveness and being cool rather than doing what's right.

MODERATOR:
And some have no "stealth message" at all -- Paris Hilton shilling for burgers by having sex on a car. Eat the burger -- get Paris.

TAYLOR:
I call those loudspeaker messages because they're very obvious. There was outrage over those ads, but there should be outrage over the stealth messages, because those are the ones that sneak by parents and get into the kids' heads, because they tap into the very basic needs of children.

MODERATOR:
The "free" toys if you eat this fast food; the toys aren't free, you pay with your health.

TAYLOR:
Using a fast-food example: the "happy meal." What's the message there? If you eat a "happy meal", you'll be happy. It's simply not true.

So, getting back to some more practical suggestions, you want to help kids become aware of the assaults from popular culture. I'm a realist. Your kids are going to watch TV, they're going to see movies and most will play video games. You can't lock them in the basement, so educate them about popular culture. Talk to them about the messages so they can separate the entertainment from the brainwashing. Teach them critical thinking. Get them to ask: What is the message here? What are the values being taught? Is this acceptable? I call this raising healthy skeptics. I don't want parents to raise cynics who don't trust anything in the world and I don't want them to raise naive kids who will believe anything.

MODERATOR:
It can be so important just to get them to understand that they are the target of marketing and to learn to identify when they are being sold.

TAYLOR:
Absolutely. That's where the awareness and critical thinking comes in. Perhaps the most powerful weapon you can give them, in addition to good values, is good decision making, because as kids enter adolescence, they're going to be faced with many choices, most notably related to sex, alcohol and drugs. Parents can't stop their kids from doing these things if the kids want to. So what parents can do is make sure their kids have healthy values and then to teach good decision making which involves not just jumping in; stepping back from the situation, considering the consequences short and long term, and asking themselves which decision is consistent with their values. If parents can teach good values and good decision making the kids will turn out OK in the end.

"The key is to know your values and live your values."

MODERATOR:
Parents can't expect their children to live out values that they have not discussed and modeled. And one chat isn't enough, we have our children with us for years -- it needs to be an ongoing discussion.

TAYLOR:
The power of value-driven parenting is not in the once-a-month discussion at dinner. It is walking the walk on values, meaning living your values. It means talking to your children regularly about values and connecting them to real life. It means surrounding your kids with value-driven people. It means giving them value-driven experiences, whether it's community service work, summer jobs so they learn the value of hard work, or family activities emphasizing the value of family. The power of value-driven parenting is in the daily lessons that parents can teach their kids.

Popular culture has pushed on parents the idea that parents need to be friends to their children and that is simply not their job. If parents are friends with their kids they lose power over them, because friends have equal power with friends, but parents have power over their children. And without that power, kids are going to look elsewhere for guidance, such as popular culture. Kids don't want to be friends with their parents. I also speak with thousands of kids a year when I visit schools around the country and I ask how they feel about being friends with their parents. They look at me like I'm from another planet. Kids need their parents to be parents. These days, kids as young as 6 or 7 years old look, talk, dress and act like little adults, but they're not. They're scared, little human beings who need someone more powerful than them to protect them from a world that has never been more dangerous.

MODERATOR:
There is nothing so horrifying to a teen than a parent who is hip and "one of the kids." Parents should be just as appalled at the child who is being pushed to adulthood ahead of their time.

TAYLOR:
I agree, and kids are growing up way too fast. The movie Mean Girls is a great example, as most teen-oriented movies are these days.

MODERATOR:
Before we wrap things up for today, Dr. Taylor, do you have any final words for us?

TAYLOR:
The key is to know your values and live your values. If people would like to learn more, the title of my book is Your Children Are Under Attack: How Popular Culture is Destroying Your Kids' Values, and How You Can Protect Them . You can visit my web site at www.drjimtaylor.com and I also have a free bimonthly newsletter called Kids and Culture Alert which you can sign up for. Finally, I'm available to speak to schools, parents, educators and students. You can learn more by visiting my web site.

MODERATOR:
Our thanks to Jim Taylor, PhD, for joining us today. You have been a wonderful guest and it is refreshing to have a discussion about values without a political agenda. Thanks for caring so much about our children. Members, for more information, please read Your Children Are Under Attack: How Popular Culture is Destroying Your Kids' Values, and How You Can Protect Them .



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