The avalanche of videos and program materials proposing to deter American youths from acting like American adults – that is, indulging sex, drinking, bullying, consumerism, self-medicating, etc. – routinely deploy wild exaggerations and alarmism to sell their sponsors’ political, educational and commercial agendas. Reviewers typically address how hard-hitting these materials are, but rarely examine their basic factuality.
Space precludes indicting everyone, so let’s take on a biggie. The Media Education Foundation (MEF) bills itself as “the nation’s leading producer and distributor of educational videos designed to inspire students and others to reflect critically” on “the media industry and the content it produces.” MEF promises “cutting-edge academic research … challenging media” violence, alcohol and tobacco promotion, sexism and similar images commonly addressed in videos and other materials aimed at fixing teens.
Unfortunately, MEF’s experts – communications professor Sut Jhally and educators Jackson Katz and Jean Kilbourne – break that promise. While MEF’s media criticism is cogent, its videos regurgitate the mass media’s worst myths and phoniest statistics misrepresenting today’s youth as the most addicted, troubled, dangerous, endangered generation ever.
In MEF’s mean video world, media-incited boys and young men perpetrate a rising “epidemic of violence,” including raping and bullying (Wrestling with Manhood: Boys, Bullying, and Battering). Experts in MEF’s Game Over: Gender, Race & Violence in Video Games warn: “Video games give youths the skill and the will to kill” with “unprecedented” brutality. Spin the Bottle: Sex, Lies & Alcohol pronounces alcohol-fueled violence on campus “out of control.”
MEF recklessly inflames the fear that today’s girls and women are menaced by ever more violent boys. Deadly Persuasion: The Advertising of Alcohol and Tobacco, like Wrestling with Manhood, warns of “increasing violence against women.”
MEF’s claims are ridiculous. In fact, teens are the only age group to show drops in violence and serious crime rates over the past 30 years. The FBI reports that in the past decade, even as violent media proliferated, youths’ rates of murder plummeted by 76 percent, rape by 42 percent and all violent crime by 46 percent. These unprecedented declines brought rates of youth murder and rape to among the lowest levels ever recorded.
Likewise, the 2003 National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) found violence by 12- to 20-year-olds fell an astounding 65 percent during the 1990s (much faster than violence by older men) to the lowest point since the first survey 30 years earlier. Recent Monitoring the Future surveys confirm youths report less violence than at any time since that survey began in 1976.
Women report being safer than ever. Over the past decade, the FBI and NCVS found violence against women fell by 53 percent, including murder (down 66 percent), rape (down 70 percent) and assault (down 45 percent). Especially large declines were reported by females ages 12 to 20.
MEF videos constantly demean young women as shallow, self-destructive and “having so much trouble today” because they passively buy into “toxic culture.”
“It’s totally simple what’s in girls’ heads,” patronizes psychologist Mary Bray Pipher in MEF’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.
Refuting MEF’s crude sexist stereotyping, today’s wonderfully diverse teenage girls are safer, behave in much healthier ways and report higher self-esteem than Pipher’s generation did.
MEF’s self-anointment as a media critic is belied by its recycling of the mainstream media’s worst deceptions. Game Over features a newscaster deploring “all the violence being perpetrated by young people lately.” Wrestling with Manhood, flashing news headlines and Parents’ Television Council claptrap, blames World Wrestling Entertainment for inciting children to kill. (That backfired when the notoriously dishonest Parents’ Television Council was forced by lawsuit to admit, “It was wrong to have stated or implied that WWE or any of its programs caused these tragic deaths.”)
In another fabrication common in teen-fixing videos, Deadly Persuasion proclaims unheard-of upsurges in young people’s smoking and drinking, supposedly driven by popular music, ads and “movies targeting teens.” Among MEF’s breathless claims: Girls’ smoking “has risen to exceed boys’ ”; more boys are using “spit tobacco”; “African-American and Hispanic teens’ [smoking] rates . . . are increasing”; “80 percent of black young people smoke Newports”; and “young women are drinking more heavily.”
What appalling lies. The Monitoring the Future and National Household surveys, which MEF thoroughly twists, report that smoking and drinking by teens of both sexes have fallen sharply. In 1976, Monitoring the Future found, 39 percent of high school seniors smoked regularly and 68 percent drank alcohol every month. The 2004 figures were 25 percent and 48 percent, respectively.
Are girls smoking more? No. Girls’ smoking declined by 38 percent in the past 25 years. Do girls smoke more today than boys? No. In the 1970s, girls smoked more than boys; today, boys smoke more than girls. Do more boys chew “spit tobacco”? No. Chewing tobacco use is at an all-time low. Is smoking among black and Hispanic teens rising? No. Their smoking declined dramatically over the past 25 years. Do 80 percent of young black people smoke Newports? No. Just 10 percent smoke at all. Are young people drinking more dangerously today? No. Teens’ and young adults’ drunken driving and alcohol overdose fatality rates have plunged 40 percent since 1970.
While lambasting easy targets like fictional ads and images, MEF shows no stomach for challenging the mainstream media’s real fear crusades that demonize teenagers. Aping the corporate media, MEF ignores the widespread poverty, adult violence and addiction, and generational disinvestments that damage young people the most.
Like other teen-fixing hucksters, MEF producers seem to regard young people as exploitable objects of whatever inflammatory propaganda they can get away with. Reviewers and reporters should stop fawning and start shaming.
Mike Males teaches sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Contact: http://home.
Columnist Wins Award
Mike Males’ blunt criticisms of America’s approach to youth doesn’t win him a lot of friends, but his column for Youth Today has won a first place award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE). Males was honored with a “Gold Award” for best regular column by a contributor during 2004 in the society’s central-southeast region, which includes Youth Today’s home base of Washington.
The ASBPE, based in Wheaton, Ill., is the professional association for journalists in the business, trade and specialty press.
The winning columns are at www.youthtoday.org/youthtoday, under the archives button, in the September and November 2004 issues.