Children, Media and Eating Disorders, Part I

The media's message has invaded the home and family as much as every other facet of our society, and there are many obvious reasons why. As a business opportunity, children represent a valuable advertising target if only because of their potential lifetime brand loyalty and penchant for browbeating parents into spending money. Millions of young souls are the tabula rasa of a media culture--a social movement masquerading as entertainment--primed to usurp parents' rightful authority and shape a directionless generation all too prepared to feel inadequate and fat, fat, fat. And why not? Kids have no idea where to look for guidance and identity, and the media can't do enough satisfy its own hunger for power and influence in the marketplace and for growth at any cost. And who's going to protect them anyway? Regulatory agencies or big business? Several previous posts make it clear that the answer is no. Parents? Themselves?
For parents raised on the splendor of icons like Tony the Tiger and "Trix are for Kids," media, advertising and TV used to mean something very different. It felt like sitting on the edge of your seat as a whole new world of promise came into view. As MTV and Star Wars dominated an ever-growing portion of the national psyche, kids placed their aspirations for a better world into media and entertainment. No one thought the media would renege on its unspoken promise and betray the national trust. Back then, the afternoon special starring a bulimic teenager seemed like a public service message about the rise of eating disorders, not the harbinger of a national identity crisis on the horizon. This was a time when the media knew its social responsibility to culture and society, when media celebrity meant being a role model to a new generation and MTV really did think it was changing the world. It's not that the media is less powerful--although that influence is no longer the purview of a handful of venerable institutions--but that the onus of building a better world has morphed into the need for immediate impact. When the goal is numbers and influence, nobody cares anymore what happens to the individuals who consume the media. Far from the heady but seemingly innocuous years of media forging a new frontier, now everyone is a consumer charged with protecting themselves. And with parents still awash in the old media ethic, that leaves children even more vulnerable to this brave, unforgiving, new world.
With no one protecting kids from media influence, it might be worth reviewing some child psychology to understand what the media uses to exploit children’s vulnerabilities.  The development of self-worth and identity goes through several stages, but one thing remains fairly constant: an absolute belief that they are the center of the world. Perhaps becoming an adult means fully realizing how false this is.  For children this is not a character flaw--as many overwrought parents are wont to believe--but an interesting psychological reality of modern life. It doesn't mean children think they are all powerful or that the narcissism makes them king of the world. Instead, it is a temporary solution to understand confusing events around them. Children understand the facts of the world long before they have emotional comprehension or a sense of personal identity. When kids don't have the tools to take something in, they almost magically believe they caused the events around them to happen and confuse their emotions with personal responsibility. Think of a child witnessing parents arguing. All kids think that they did something to cause the fight to happen: the emotions and context are too confusing. An adult would react emotionally but see that confusing feelings cannot cause something to happen. But that's much too sophisticated for a children, even for adolescents. And there is no amount of reasoning that would help a child to believe otherwise: call it the shared delusion of childhood. This means that, for a critical period of their lives, children determine their place in the world, i.e.  their identity and self-worth, exclusively from the world around them. If that world is predominantly peaceful and pleasant, the child has little to worry about. The more a child's life is complicated, confusing or worse, the development of that self-worth is marred by, for lack of a better term, "badness." Parenting manuals have distorted this fact of development into a backlash against discipline. Children still need rules and consequences and lots of them, but they also need consistency and praise. They need to hear through words and action regular reinforcement of their value and place in the world. By action, I mean the way parents, family and friends live their lives. Emotional maturity will follow.
With this background, it's easier to see why many children are at risk. Some kids will have the support system of family, friends and school that insulates them enough from the media to develop identity and self-worth influenced but not dominated by the culture of thinness. But what about the kids who have instability at home or live in a community consumed with thinness or take in too much "badness" in their lives or even just have parents who are unaware of the power of the media? For the vulnerable kids--not a small minority--this social movement becomes not just a culture but a cult that reels a large group of children into its fold. The appeal of a set of rules to define identity, a definitive moral code of food and weight to separate good from bad and an obsessive mantra that blocks out the confusing emotions of childhood and adolescence is just too satisfying to pass up. Add in parents themselves focused on media and thinness as a way of life and peers already drinking the Kool Aid and it's easy to see why the society as a whole has a tough time seeing the way to create a healthy, positive self-image in kids these days. An epidemic of eating disorders is hard enough to imagine, but what about the media culture as a rite of passage, or worse a method of raising the next generation? A discussion of some options to counter these real possibilities will be the topic of the next post.

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