Fears, Peers, Smoke And Mirrors genre: Hip-Gnosis & Six Degrees of Speculation & Video-Philes

Man In The Mirror

In our never ending quest to have the government or some other entity fix all that ails our society, we continue to look under every rock except the one that really counts…our own. On Thursday the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) announced that in establishing ratings for movies, it would begin to consider smoking along with sex and violence. While the MPAA didn’t say that smoking would be on an equal par with sex and violence, the move signals the furtherance of efforts to remove the symptoms of our shortcomings while sidestepping the source.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to ridicule the intentions of those who seek to address the many issues that plague our consumption without consequence societal construct…but I’m just not sold on the methods nor do I believe that they will achieve the intended results. The following excerpt is from The New York Times.

In a significant change to its movie ratings system, the Motion Picture Association of America on Thursday said portrayals of smoking would be considered alongside sex and violence in assessing the suitability of movies for young viewers. Films that appear to glamorize smoking will risk a more restrictive rating, and descriptions of tobacco use will be added to the increasingly detailed advisories that accompany each rated film.

Antismoking groups, already successful in much of the country in banning smoking in bars, restaurants and other public places, have ratcheted up the pressure on Hollywood in recent years to purge movies of images that might promote tobacco use. Some have even demanded that virtually any film with smoking be rated R, shutting out those under 17 unless they are accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.

Let’s assume that those who have pushed for the inclusion of smoking in the rating system have some solid data suggesting a correlation between what happens on the sultry silver screen and the triggers that lead children to start smoking.

[…] children of non-smoking parents are the most vulnerable. Heavy exposure to on-screen smoking makes these adolescents 4.1 times more likely to start smoking, compared to "only" 1.6 times more likely when their parents smoke.

In 2003, a research group at the Dartmouth Medical School Department of Pediatrics substantially strengthened the case that smoking in the movies causes adolescent smoking. They conducted a "longitudinal study" in which they recruited 2603 adolescents (age 10-14) who had never tried smoking, collected detailed information about attitudes and other factors that predict smoking, then followed the adolescents for 13-26 months later to see who started smoking.

The Dartmouth scientists then followed them forward in time for 13-26 months and found that 10% of the kids started to smoke.

After controlling for the effects of all the other factors they considered, kids who saw the most smoking in movies were nearly three times as likely to have started smoking than kids in the lowest exposure group.

I won’t get into all the details of the study and I’m not suggesting that the study is statistically insignificant…but children who reported having only taken a few puffs of a cigarette were scored as having initiated smoking. Personally, I’m not sure that this final conclusion is meaningful. The study seems to provide evidence that smoking in movies may precipitate experimentation…but I’m concerned that knowing what facilitates an ongoing smoking habit should be the critical research objective. I’ll attempt to explain my reasoning.

The study concludes that 10% of adolescent children initiated smoking…but it doesn’t determine how many of those students actually become habitual smokers. It also doesn’t evaluate whether the other 90% of children eventually experimented with smoking before they turned eighteen; the age at which they can legally purchase cigarettes. However, a 2005 study by the Department of Health and Human Services indicates that over 54% of all students have tried cigarette smoking. This means that well over forty percent of the remaining children in this study will eventually go on to try cigarette smoking before they leave high school.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that most young adults have tried a number of behaviors that they don’t then elect to permanently adopt. Frankly, I would be surprised if most young adults haven’t tried a cigarette, an alcoholic beverage, driving too fast, or any number of behaviors that seem to be equated with rites of passage. I’m not sure that experimentation tells us why some children go on to adopt a particular behavior as part of their identity.

We do know that inherent in the maturation process…going from a child to an adult…there is increasing exposure to choices and alternatives. It’s how we decide who we want to be. When and if a child’s curiosity is sparked by witnessing a behavior…and that curiosity leads a child to act out a particular behavior...is simply part of a natural process. That acting out doesn’t necessarily indicate that a child has or will elect to make that or any other behavior part of their ongoing life routine.

It seems to me that what is critical at the juncture at which a child is exposed to a new behavior isn’t so much the triggering event but the child’s established and accepted belief system, the character that they have developed, and the necessary knowledge and confidence they possess to make independent and reasoned judgments. I believe that equipping children with these necessary traits should be the fundamental objective and it clearly begins with good parenting that is based upon consistent and sincere role modeling.

In other words, the prevention of exposure has little to do with the ability of children to properly navigate and negotiate their way through each new experience. Our oft heard mantras of don’t tell, don’t touch, don’t partake, and pledge to abstain leave a child woefully unprepared for the postponed, though inevitable exposures.

If exposure were all that mattered then wouldn’t anything glamorized in the movies, on television, in video games or on the radio create similar study results? There are constant influences in children’s lives and in our own lives…yet for the most part we don’t sop them up as if we are mindless dry sponges…unless we lack established belief systems or have been subjected to lousy role models who demonstrated little more than a propensity for hypocrisy.

The protective instinct found in parents is to be understood and expected…but it is frequently accompanied by an unhealthy dose of denial…denial that serves to assuage the fears of the parent while at the same time raising the risk profile for the child. Reality ignored remains reality…and all too often our fears then become reality.

An example might be beneficial. My younger sister has two sons that are both in grade school. Her oldest son occasionally comes home with a question, a story, or a joke that is clearly beyond his awareness…exposing him to information that she would prefer he not know. Almost without fail, when she asks him the source of the information, it has come from another boy who has been given the information by an older brother.

Clearly we can’t prohibit or prevent older brothers from exposing younger brothers and their friends to sensitive subject matter and unwanted behaviors. So where does that leave my sister and most parents with regards to protecting their children? It leaves them where parents have been since the beginning of time…responsible for giving their children the tools to think and the skills to discern the risks and the benefits that will come with the countless choices they must make.

I guess what I’m suggesting is that we can attempt to identify and eliminate the virtually unlimited sources that can negatively influence our children…but unless I’m living on another planet, those influences will continue to exist as long as there are two poles on the continuum that defines the whole of our human identity.

There will always be another child or another situation that will expose our children to behaviors and choices that we will find objectionable. Knowing as much should instruct us to prepare our children to make informed and reasoned decisions. The toddler that has never been allowed to navigate the stairs on its own eventually becomes disabled by that inability as well as woefully dependent on the assistance and direction of others.

Instead of focusing on attempts to ban more and more influences, isn’t it time for parents to embrace their obligation to educate and prepare their children to become competent and successful citizens? Shouldn’t we promote and enhance the ability of children to be decision makers rather than give them the impression that they cannot and should not be given increasing autonomy?

While I understand the concept that suggests that it takes a village…I also believe that it first takes good parenting and role modeling to create the citizens that will inhabit that village. The nanny state mentality is not a substitute for sound parenting and those who would subscribe to that construct might want to reconsider the choice to have children.

Children are first and foremost a reflection of their parents. Our fears needn’t overwhelm nor guide us. Our children’s peers will have as much influence as we have left open to external interpretation and manipulation. Isn’t it time to admit that we often create the proverbial smoke screen that shields us from seeing the degree to which our own lack of authenticity is being reflected in the choices and behaviors of our children?

Daniel DiRito | May 14, 2007 | 10:22 PM
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