Can I blame the "Slut List" on all the sex in the media?

Michael RichMedia expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use. Last week, he discussed whether you should take your child to see Where the Wild Things Are.

Here’s this week’s question:

Q: I’ve been hearing about the high school in NJ where older girls are putting freshman girls’ names on a “slut list”—and the worst part is that being on the list is considered a good thing! I can’t help thinking that all the sex in the media is to blame for girls thinking it’s a badge of honor, but maybe I’m overreacting. I want to talk to my 13 year old daughter about this, but what should I say?
Suspicious of Sexy Media in Princeton, NJ

A: Dear Suspicious,

I wouldn’t blame the entire situation on media, but I do think you’re right that the way American media promotes sex has something to do with this. On TV, in music videos, and in celebrity culture, girls are shown as sexy at younger and younger ages. Through shows like Gossip Girl and celebrities like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, girls are gaining power and making a name for themselves through outrageous sexual behavior.

So why do these teens want to be on the slut list? Perhaps because they see this type of behavior the way media portrays it—as empowering and attention-getting. At this age, their brains aren’t yet developed to the point where they think these things through.

As a parent, you can help provide the reflection and perspective that your teen daughter doesn’t yet have. How? By asking her open-ended, non-judgmental questions. Because you can ask her about the story instead of about her personal experience, this is a safer way for her to discuss these issues with you, and if you respond with curiosity and openness rather than horror or disapproval, you are more likely to get somewhere useful in the conversation.

For example, try asking your daughter how she feels about this story, why she thinks girls wanted to be on this list, and why she thinks sexual behavior is a way of determining popularity. Even if she says something like, “Oh mom you’re so old fashioned—everyone’s doing this,” you can teach her to think critically about “the way things are” by questioning it yourself. Keep asking questions you truly don’t have the answers to, like, “But why do they do this? Can you explain it to me?” In this way, you encourage her to reflect on how others see people who are on this list, how those who are on it might feel, whether this is an “honor” that will serve them well into the future, and whether they actually wanted to do whatever they did to get on that list. Additionally, you are teaching her to consider what defines her (is it her clothes? her sexual behavior? something else within herself?)—and that is a lesson that will serve her for the rest of her life.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

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