Troubled American teen girls mar women's progress

COLLEEN CARROLL CAMPBELL

It seems that while American women are making great strides in public life, our daughters are enduring agonizing struggles in private.

The historic promotion this week of Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody to the rank of four-star general marked the latest in a series of feel-good firsts for American women in the past two years. In the same race that culminated in the election of our first African-American president, America witnessed a historic presidential bid by Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton and the nomination of Republican Gov. Sarah Palin as her party's first woman vice-presidential candidate. Although neither woman won, America's women and girls came to see a female president as a plausible possibility.

Yet even as headlines about shattered ceilings have become ubiquitous, so have reports about the dangerous and self-destructive tendencies of the next generation of women. It seems that while American women are making great strides in public life, our daughters are enduring agonizing struggles in private.

Those struggles center mainly on sex and self-image. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last spring that one in four American girls aged 14 to 19 has a sexually transmitted disease. That estimate arrived on the heels of a groundbreaking American Psychological Association report that chronicled in devastating detail how our porn-saturated, hyper-sexualized society pressures girls to market themselves as sexual objects and engage in behavior that leaves them feeling ugly, worthless and depressed.

The despair of many girls today exceeds the bounds of the typical teenage blues. A 2007 CDC report found that the suicide rate among pre-teen and teenage girls has risen to its highest level in 15 years, with a 76 percent jump in the suicide rate for girls ages 10 to 14. Although the vast majority of teenage girls do not attempt suicide, many struggle with eating disorders, self-mutilation, substance abuse, anxiety and depression.

In its report, the APA blamed these problems largely on a media culture that assaults girls with sexually explicit TV shows, movies, music videos, ads and magazines. That diagnosis drew fire from defenders of our oversexed entertainment industry who reject causal links between teen entertainment and teen behavior.

It's true that Hollywood is not the only culprit in teen girls' troubles. But an entertainment industry that constantly churns out Lolita-like tween idols and celebrates sex appeal as the ultimate measure of a woman's worth surely does little to prepare today's struggling girls to become tomorrow's leading women.

But a new study published this month in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics reports more evidence of connections between the two. Researchers from the RAND Corporation studied some 2,000 teenagers over three years and found that teens who watched the most sexual content on TV -- defined as flirting, kissing, sexual innuendo and sex scenes -- were twice as likely to become pregnant or cause a pregnancy as those who watched the least sexual-themed TV, even after accounting for other factors that influence teen behavior.

As even the most casual channel surfer knows, sexual content -- particularly depictions of fetishistic, violent and extra-marital sex -- is plentiful in prime time. A recent Parents Television Council report found that during what used to be considered TV's family hour (the first hour of prime time each night) references on the five major broadcast networks to extra-marital sex outnumbered references to marital sex by a ratio of nearly four to one. Not surprisingly, many shows that teenage girls watch faithfully depict women as little more than sexual playthings who neither demand nor deserve respect beyond the bedroom.

A bizarre disconnect exists today between the smart, ambitious women who dominate our public life and the sex-kitten know-nothings who dominate our TV screens. It's true that Hollywood is not the only culprit in teen girls' troubles. But an entertainment industry that constantly churns out Lolita-like tween idols and celebrates sex appeal as the ultimate measure of a woman's worth surely does little to prepare today's struggling girls to become tomorrow's leading women.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Colleen Carroll Campbell. "Troubled American teen girls mar women's progress." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (November 20, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Colleen Carroll Campbell.

THE AUTHOR

Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St. Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She is the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. Colleen Carroll Campbell writes for a wide variety of national publications, speaks to audiences across America, and hosts her own television show, "Faith & Culture," on EWTN, the world's largest religious media network.  Her website is here.

Copyright © 2008 Colleen Carroll Campbell




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