Once my twin 13-year-olds moved from the Disney Channel to Netflix, there was no turning back. They made that leap from talking animals and squeaky clean kids to glam vampires and angst-ridden teens. PG shows were off their radar.
When I mentioned that many of the TV-14 shows were inappropriate for their age, they responded, “But Mom, everyone at school’s watching it!”
I know. That refrain should never carry weight with any parent. But in the end, I gave in—not because of peer pressure, but because I found myself drawn to the screen. For once, I was sitting with my kids in front of the TV—something I just couldn’t do with Dog with a Blog.
It all began with Pretty Little Liars, a show about a group of high school girls whose best friend is found murdered. The show focused on the girls’ lives as they grappled with typical teen issues like sex, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, and bullying.
Pretty Little Liars
We were glued to the screen. Watching PLL became a “girls only” event at my house. But one thing bothered me. If other girls their age were watching this, what kinds of messages were they receiving?
The Disney shows had been harmless. Shiny, happy characters resolved their problems—which never involved sex, drugs or violence—neatly in one episode. But it wasn’t the themes of PLL and similar shows that bothered me so much. At school, the girls had learned about the dangers of drug use, unsafe sex, and cyberbullying. They knew that what the PLL girls were doing at any given time was wrong/dangerous/illegal or just plain dumb. Episode after episode, we served as PLL’s Greek chorus, gleefully pointing this out.
Pretty Little Liars
I was more concerned with how the show portrayed teenage girls. These were high schoolers, after all, but they looked suspiciously mature for their age. In fact, three of the PLL main characters were in or near their 20s when the first show was filmed (and by the seventh season, the oldest was 30). The characters wore pretty risqué outfits, which I’m sure defied most school dress codes. They were shapely and fit, with flawless skin and carefully tousled hair. I never thought it would have much of an impact on my girls. But I was wrong.
Annabelle started to complain about her skin. “Hanna never gets pimples,” she would moan as she looked in the mirror. “Why is her skin so perfect?” I informed her of the magic of theatrical make-up, and started to point out small bumps on foreheads that disappeared between episodes as zits that had been carefully hidden. Then she announced she wanted to exercise more, to eat less sweets.
It wasn’t that she had a sudden interest in sex or alcohol. It was that she began to be self-conscious of how she dressed and looked. There was a subtle shift that was undeniable.
Pretty Little Liars
My other daughter remained unfazed, for which I was grateful. But still, it made me realize that I needed to know what they both were watching on TV, and more important, how it might be affecting them.
Annabelle wouldn’t be alone if TV or other media was influencing her self-esteem. Considering that the average teen spends about seven hours per day engaging with some form of media—whether it’s Netflix or Instagram or texting—it’s no surprise that the media would have such oomph. Studies have found that young girls (and boys, for that matter) who are exposed to idealized body images in the media feel less satisfied with their own bodies, have lower self-esteem, and are generally less happy. No big surprise, I know. But how about this: statistics show that more than half of 13-year old girls are “unhappy with their bodies,” and by the time girls are 17, this number increases to more than three-fourths.
I can’t say it was all because of TV that my daughter was suddenly so conscious of her appearance. She was, after all, in her middle-school years. I will say, however, that I’ll be sitting with them as they watch TV.
Sure, it’s no big sacrifice for me to share the popcorn bowl and binge-watch Switched at Birth and Riverdale with them. But I need to be there to keep it real for them, zits and all.
Switched at Birth
Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with LiveYourDream.org to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.