What Are Kids Learning from TV Characters?
When it comes to sex, violence, drinking, bullying, and other sensitive topics, you want messages about right and wrong to come from you -- not, say, Snooki from Jersey Shore.
But surprisingly, Snooki might be more of an ally than you think. Talking about TV characters and their choices can be a great way to start conversations with your kids about their own behavior. We encourage you to get familiar with the characters kids are watching -- whether you love or hate them -- and sneak in a little parental direction between Snooki's visits to the bar.
1. Snooki, Jersey Shore
Why's she's bad: Not only is she not the brightest bulb in the bunch, but she drinks constantly and to excess. And while her drinking sometimes gets her arrested or leads to iffy sexual behavior, she gets lots of attention (and a big paycheck) for her antics.
Why it matters: Kids who watch shows with alcohol use are more likely to try drinking than those who don't.
What you can do: Use these moments to talk to your teens about drinking and whether they think the depictions on television are realistic. Take time to share your opinions -- and expectations -- about drinking. Be a good role model by not abusing alcohol in front of your kids.
2. Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen), Two and a Half Men
Why he's bad: He is an alcoholic womanizer (who has since left the show, but can be seen in a bazillion reruns). And worse than that, the real-life Charlie got way too much attention for being a drug user and hanging out with prostitutes, all while flouting the idea that there was anything problematic with his behavior.
Why it matters: Adolescents who watch a lot of TV with sexual content are twice as likely to get pregnant or impregnate someone as kids who watch fewer of these shows. And treating alcohol overuse as a punchline sends a mixed message to teens who might be thinking of experimenting with alcohol.
What you can do: Watching shows that include the negative consequences of sex has been shown to be educational for teens. Talk about preventing unintended consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, respecting the opposite sex, and not taking decisions -- like having sex -- lightly. Additionally, talk about how drug and alcohol use has affected Sheen, from his appearance to his dignity to his relationship with family members.
3. Kim Kardashian, Keeping Up with the Kardashians
Why she's bad: Her fame is based on ... not much. Aside from having a bodacious body and a knack for self-promotion, Kim and her sisters are the ultimate celebrity role models with nothing worth copying.
Why it matters: By middle school, kids are looking to their peers for a sense of what's socially acceptable or desirable. And celebrities, with their 24/7 presence in the media, become a gigantic super peer, whether you like it or not.
What you can do: Use celebrity news as a pathway to media literacy. Talk about how these stars make their money. Is it from making positive choices and living mild-mannered lifestyles? No. It's from getting attention for their misbehavior, their love lives, and, especially in the Kardashians' case, their physical appearance. Also, point out that stars like Kim K. get paid to promote products through Twitter, etc.
4. Goku and Gohan, Dragon Ball Z Kai
Why they're bad: While the father and son team from this hugely popular anime series do put forward messages about loyalty and good triumphing over evil, they solve their problems with violence -- including hand-to-hand combat, superhuman powers, and guns. And their shows are marketed toward kids as young as 7, who are just learning to distinguish reality from fantasy.
Why it matters: Exposure to lots of media violence can increase antisocial activity and bullying and decrease empathy for victims of violence.
What you can do: Limit violent imagery in movies, television, and games, especially for younger kids. Explain the consequences of violent behavior, and teach conflict resolution so kids have a vocabulary to use when disputes arise.
5. Tyra Banks, America's Next Top Model
Why she's bad:Though she talks a good game about appreciating different body types and encouraging positive behavior among her young recruits, she continues to reinforce ultra-thin physical standards and showcase backstabbing behavior on her show.
Why it matters: Girls are bombarded with messages about their appearance that reinforce unrealistic standards of thinness and beauty. Studies have shown that these messages have damaging effects on girls' self-esteem and can contribute to eating disorders and other extreme weight loss measures.
What you can do: Place less emphasis on how your teen looks than on what she can do. Show that you value her intelligence, creativity, and other traits that have nothing to do with looks. And expose the myths behind the supposed perfection of models and celebrities -- use Top Model as a jumping-off point to talk about how photos can be digitally altered to make women appear thinner or remove blemishes; talk about how stylists, make-up artists, lighting, and other special effects create the illusion of perfection.
(See more Worst TV Role Models)