Don’t Go Down Shore Without a Lifeguard

If you’ve got teens, or even pre-teens in the house, it’s hard not to ignore the reality show “Jersey Shore” now on MTV. Kathy Griffin mentioned it on CNN New Year’s Eve with Anderson Cooper, who claimed to know nothing about the show. Though typically late to the party, the New York Times has become aware of the show’s popularity and its potential impact on the culture.

I became aware of the show when a group of 12-year-old girls were talking about it at an extended family gathering in early December. I was a little taken aback about the language and lifestyle they were discussing, so of course I tuned in.

Yes, these characters are laughable, cartoons of reality. Like so much of the TV of this genre, we know that it is provoked and edited to be as sensational as possible. We’re supposed to loathe these people and look down on them, and the producers have no qualms about showing these young people in the worst possible light—trumpeting ignorance, narcissism and sexuality in about as degrading a way as possible. And it sells, or it wouldn’t be on.

Now I’m no prude, and I believe in freedom of the media. If MTV wants to put that on the air, then by all means they have a right to do so. We can’t stop them, and I wouldn’t want to.

However, it does point out one of the relatively recent challenges of parenting and raising kids in the rapidly evolving media marketplace—playing gatekeeper on a daily or even hourly basis. Because kids have so many different channels to watch, online destinations to surf and access 24/7, it can be a full time job just to monitor what kids are watching. Yet it’s an important one. As parents and caregivers, we can’t control what’s on TV, but we can control the context in which the kids in our lives perceive the material.

Limiting screen time is good. Parental controls on computers are good. Keeping TVs and computers in public areas of the home is good. But at the end of the day, simply banning or preventing potentially objectionable material will only work for so long. Shows and web sites you might ban will inevitably be part of the conversation in your kids’ peer groups. And don’t make the mistake one parent did, thinking that in forbidding her 12-year-old to watch “Gossip Girl,” she was being protected. This young lady knew every plot and designer name. She got if from her friends and saw it at their houses. She simply didn’t tell her mom.

While a steady diet of “Jersey Shore” or most reality shows could make you worry for the future of the human race if it doesn’t bore you to death with its sameness and predictability first, the best idea is not to ban it but discuss it. Watch it with your kids, if they’ll let you, or record it and watch it later. It can be a great teaching tool. It’s not just that you can let your kids know how ridiculous it is for someone to give themselves a nickname like “The Situation” or talk about themselves in the third person; it’s that you can listen to your kids and get their responses to this. In fact, listening, particularly with Tweens and young teens is a good habit to get into. This is one time when teaching can go both ways.

You may discover, as I did with my 12-year-old friends, that they think the kids of “Jersey Shore” are worse than I did. While adults look back and are saying, “How could anyone be like that?” Young people tend to look forward, and say, “I would never want to be like that.” It actually kind of scared them.

Good.

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