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Skins

Matt Zoller Seitz discusses MTV's latest:

Like the original, it revolves around a group of improbably glamorous, self-assured teens who have tons of casual sex and do massive amounts of drugs (mainly pot and pills) under the noses of clueless and/or ineffectual parents and teachers. Their behavior has no serious repercussions at least not the sort youd see illustrated in one of those old social hygiene movies that were an integral part of high school back during my heyday, the 1980s, a quaint time when everybody drank bathtub gin and drove jalopies with rumble seats. On "Skins,"consequences are mainly melodramatic rather than medical or social.

He then goes on to ask and answer the following question:

Is "Skins" bad for kids? Well, if shows directly influence behavior, over and above whatever morals that parents teach their kids a big "if" -- then yeah, maybe, I guess so. But on the other hand, I have yet to witness a scenario in either series that I didnt personally fantasize about in some form or another when I was the same age as the teens that comprise this programs target demographic. WhenI was in eighth grade (prime "Skins"age, I'm guessing)I snuck into explicitly violent and/or sexual R-rated films almost every weekend, furtively tried out adult substances, and spent hours futzing with the aerial on top of my parents TV set after they went to sleep hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of fornication on a scrambled pay-per-view broadcast channel. If Iwere that age again in 2011, Id probably watch "Skins" religiously for a couple of seasons, then get bored and move on to something else. The series would have been absorbing, silly, sexy and trashy no matter what critics said about it. The fact that it's officially considered Bad for Kids makes it awesome.

Maybe having kids has turned me into a fuddy duddy. But it seems a little strained to call the idea that a show like this might influence kids' behavior "a big 'if'." I did and thought about most of the things Zoller Seitz describes himself as doing and thinking about as well. But the key difference is that they were all pretty labor-intensive and mostly unsuccessful. Yes, you could stumble across a discarded (or unguarded) adult magazine in my childhood, or you could work really hard to decipher some scrambled Spice channel static. But the sheer difficulty of getting these limited results was a message in itself. In contrast, extremely sexually provocative content is now at the fingertips of any kid with an unmonitored internet connection. And the ubiquity of this content sends a very different message. I don't think anyone knows where this will end up, but to pretend that it doesn't represent a significant change in our culture and that it won't have an effect on children's behavior seems obtuse.Sure, the onus must be on parents to keep their kids from watching age-inappropriate content. But the sheer amount of parental surveillance required to pull that off has increased dramatically. There's no good solution to this, as far as I can see. Censorship is a nonstarter. And Internet filters just don't work, unless they've gotten a lot better. In the early days of the Internet, my parents installed Net Nanny software on their home computer for the "protection" of my younger brothers. It didn't seem to work too well, and it became something of a running joke in our family. Until they bought a new computer, the software would pop up at the strangest moments, like when my brothers were working on term papers and happened to type in a flagged word into their reports. My youngest brother quipped that the net nanny had become a little senile.

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How is this different from 90210 --or the OC--just the explicitness of the sex and drugs?

That, and the age, I think. Based on what I've read -- and the ever-present ads in the NYC subways -- these kids are supposed to be about 14. I didn't watch 90210 either, but I think it was an older group of kids. 14 years olds doing lots of drugs and having lots of sex seems to me be a new cultural low. On the other hand, I don't have a strong point to make here. I'm not sure 90210 was great for kids either. Maybe this is just more of the same, but it all seems likely to have some impact on how the rising generation thinks and acts, no?

In light of all the garbage on television, maybe it is time to trash the TVs. Most shows can be watched online anyways, but viewers have to be more discriminating about what they choose to watch. Watching TV on a family computer will by no means keep kids from watching inappropriate stuff but it will make it less likely they will channel surf their way into watching the Skins. I know that I watch a lot less television now that I don't have a TV (and I see a lot less commercials too, which is never a bad thing).

Eduardo and Cathleen: legally, could the FTC impose 'decency' regulations on television networks that would prohibit this sort of programming? Or would those regulations fall afoul of Supreme Court free-speech decisions?Also: would a V chip screen out this content?

Jim,Regarding the FTC and cable television programming:

Q: What rules, if any, apply to sexually explicit programming?A: Section 505 of the 1996 Act states that cable operators, or other multichannel video programming distributors who offer sexually explicit adult video programming or other programming that is indecent on any channel(s) primarily dedicated to sexually-oriented programming, must fully scramble or block both the audio and video portions of the channels so that someone who does not subscribe to the channel does not receive it. Until a multichannel video programming distributor complies with this provision, the distributor cannot provide the programming during hours of the day when a significant number of children are likely to view it.However, Section 505 was challenged in the courts. On May 22, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Playboy Entertainment Group v. U.S. which determined that Section 505 is unconstitutional. Therefore, the Commission's rules implementing Section 505 cannot be enforced.Q: Is there anything else that will allow cable television subscribers to block objectionable programming?A: Yes. Section 504 of the 1996 Act requires a cable operator to fully scramble or block the audio and video portions of programming services not specifically subscribed to by a household. The cable operator must fully scramble or block the programming in question upon the request of the subscriber and at no charge to the subscriber. Also, cable subscribers may request a "lockbox" from cable operators to prevent the viewing of any channel on which objectionable programming may appear. Cable operators are required to make lockboxes available for sale or lease to customers who request them.

I don't know about every cable company, but mine (Time Warner of Manhattan) allow parents to:

Block by Rating: You can block any show that is rated TV-PG, TV-14 or TV-MA.Block TV Shows and Series: If you feel a particular TV show or an entire series is unsuitable for your child, you can block all episodes. Block Time Slots: Dont want your children to watch a specific channel after 10:00 pm or during homework time? You can restrict access by time slot. Block by Channel: Restrict access to entire channels that you do not want your children to watch without your permission, such as Spike and MTV.Lift Restrictions So You Can Watch: Use your PIN anytime you want to turn off parental controls.Change Your PIN: Change your PIN any time and as often as you wish.

I am (thank heaven) not a parent, but it seems to me that parents shouldn't decide what their children cannot watch. They should decide what they can watch.

Btw, I guess I meant FCC. David N, thx for all that info.FWIW - we have implemented parental controls on our television, but I don't recall ever being prompted for a PIN when flipping through channels. I have to admit, I haven't completely figured out parental controls for this century, because it seems to have to be set on both the cable box and the television? (But then what about their computer, and their cell phones, and the Wii console ... there are a million ways to have content delivered these days ....) Granted, what I watch isn't very racy - presumably, hockey games aren't rated 'for mature adults only'. But MTV is part of our package (I assume it's part of everyone's basic package). Apparently, it isn't being blocked, because one of my teenagers watches "Jersey Shore", to the detriment of her IQ.

Is it the explicitness or the topics or the moral stance that are the problem? When I was home sick as a child, I used to watch soap operas--All My Children, to be be exact. Here's the bio of one of the leading femme fatale characters, Erica Kane.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erica_KaneI can't believe the characters in Skins are going to do anything that Erica and her crew haven'tt. But AMC always raised the issues in a way that facilitated moral evaluation of the issues.(A funny story: I mentioned my AMC interest to the late Fr. Philip Murnion. He asked me if I wanted an autograph --I said, "Of course, I would love Erica's autograph!) I didn't think anything of it. But a couple of months later, a head shot of Susan Lucci, personally autographed to me, appeared in my mail box at ND. It turns out that the creator of the show was a friend of his, and he got it for me! It's framed--on the wall in my office--- near a framed poster of Thomas Aquinas from the Dominican House of Studies in DC and a print from the Haija Sophia in Istanbul!)The exploits of Erica and her cohorts were enormously entertaining--but no one I knew ever thought it had anything to do with real life, or anything one should emulate in real life.

Cathleen - Erica is in rarefied company in your office! My Shakespeare professor mentioned once that she had always wanted to create and teach a course on soap operas - characters, plot, moral dilemmas, and so on.As to your question, "Is it the explicitness or the topics or the moral stance that are the problem?" - I'd need to actually watch some episodes to discern the moral stance. My guess is that the moral stance is neutral-to-approving. Part of the problem is the *targeting* - by dint of its being on MTV, it is trash that is being targeted to the young teen audience. While I agree with David N that parents have primary responsibility for what their children consume in the media, I also think we parents need some help (leaning on my godparent theology here :-)).

In 1959 (I was 13), my mother would not permit me to go see the movie A Summer Place, with Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee, because it was (I am quite sure) rated B - Morally Objectionable in Part for All. It seems to have been re-rated, I think because the B rating was dropped:

Summer Place, A -- Soap operatics run amok in this tale paralleling the woes of teenage lovers (Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue) with those of their divorced parents (Dorothy McGuire and Richard Egan). Adapted from Sloan Wilson's romantic potboiler by writer-director Delmer Daves, the result is glossy trash relieved only by the natural beauty of the Maine island setting of the title. Sexual situations and a shallow view of love and marriage. (A-III) (br) (1959)

The B rating never made sense to me, since if it was morally objectionable in part for all (as opposed to C - Condemned), how could you go see it without seeing the morally objectionable parts? Why not just condemn it? Here are the classifications today:

A-I -- general patronage; A-II -- adults and adolescents; A-III -- adults; L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. L replaces the previous classification, A-IV. O -- morally offensive. Note: Some movies previously were designated A-IV. Older films with this classification should be regarded as classified L.

I still haven't seen it yet, as a matter of fact. The theme, recorded by Percy Faith, was one of the biggest selling records of all times. "It remains the longest-running number-one instrumental in the history of the chart," Wikipedia tells us. It also tells us it was written by Max Steiner, who also did the score for Gone with the Wind. I thought my mother was being very unfair, and I still do, since viewers of Two and a Half Menone of the most nauseating (and highly rated) shows on televisionA Summer Place would seem about as racy as The Song of Bernadette or The Sound of Music. The things I was protected from back then all seem very tame now, and I think it is because they actually were tame. The question is, are the things that seem objectionable now going to seem tame by comparison years from now? I think the answer is probably no. There are limits to how far you can go and I think we are reaching the limits. You can go from suggestive clothes, to partial nudity, to nudity. But you can't get more naked than naked. As far as I can tell, there are no restrictions on what words can appear in lyrics of popular songs. One of my favorite songs at the moment, by Cee Lo Green, has a title I won't even type here with asterisks substituted for the vowels. (It is a really great song, though!) I don't know what I would do as a parent. Explicit language doesn't really bother me. I wouldn't expect to hear it around the house. But something like Skins, or even (for a pre-teen audience) Glee, might be blocked on the family tv, if I had a family.

That's interesting--how do you all think about violence as opposed to sex. You couldn't pay me enough money to watch Saw, or some of the other stuff out there on the violence front. It seems to me analogous to pornography. It seems to me that the level of violence in mainstream movies is higher than the level of sex. I have a conservative Catholic colleague who worries very much up about the sex in tv and movies, but not so much the violence. Is that a male/female thing?

David, it's funny--I saw A Summer Place recently--and, you know, it was kind of shocking. Not absolutely, but relatively, because the behavior --SPOILER ALERT: Teen kids have an affair get pregnant, and then their parents (one of each) have an affair, and then breakup and remarry each other - was clearly shocking in context. What's shocking seems to be a matter of social context, more generally. I asked my mom--she said it was condemned, and it was a big deal to go to a condemned movie.Does anyone read those ratings before going to a movie? I would just assume everything is condemned.

We are certainly in a different age in that what people did in the hideaways is now shown from the rooftops. Because it is not on the internet does not mean it did not happen frequently in other times. Look at what we learned about the clergy from the pedophilia files. Yet morality is always a matter of positives rather than negatives. When wholesome activity is present, interest in deviant matters are minimal. When young people are inspired and motivated in life they are less likely to spend time on matters which are not really that productive. No question sex is the second strongest drive in humans. While parents must steer children away from negative things, the larger challenge is to inspire one's children to do generous deeds and develop their God-given talents. And it is so true that we say nothing about violent videos and games while we react more strongly to pornography. The greatest danger is that we allow our children to languish in mediocrity while we criticize them at ever turn. So when we talk about supervising children the conversation has to dwell on how we turn them to higher things while protecting them from negatives. Instead of just focusing on the negatives.Beleive it or not. When the Beattles first came on the scene many of us were alarmed at the destruction they would encourage in the morals of youth. But when I observed many young people who were really taken by the Beatles I backed off because I could see that they were really good, solid kids who were just enamored by the group. Even Ed Sullivan mellowed on them. History showed that adults began to greatly appreciate their artistry. I do not make the same comparison with pornography. At the same time it is notable how we ignore the violence available while paying all the attention to sexual excesses.

Prof. Kaveny,You are right that there is a huge double standard when it comes to how violence is treated as opposed to sex. I teach a high school ethics course and spend several weeks helping my students examine how media influence their thoughts, feelings, and choices. I spend time on consumerism and sexuality, but another area to which I give special attention is media violence. In addition to "horror porn" movies like the Saw series you mentioned, I am very concerned about the popularity among young teens (and widespread acceptance by parents) of first person shooter video games. Many parents don't think twice about letting their kids spend hours practicing killing other people in very graphic detail via these games. Would we let our kids do the same thing if the focus of the games were sexual acts rather than killing?For anyone who is interested, I have found the writings of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman to be particularly helpful in opening students to a different view of these games and media violence in general. Grossman is a former West Point psychology professor and one of the world's foremost experts on the psychology of killing. He presents a wealth of data showing the causal relationship between media violence and real world violence.

I agree with Bill Mazzella. If you give your children a positive vision of their future, your fight over the content of the tv and Internet programming they are exposed to will be much less exasperating. What these young people are doing is injecting drama into a life that is otherwise achingly dull. And that, largely, is what obsessive Facebook posters are doing too. People who sit around thinking about and taking drugs and coupling and decoupling are the dullest of the dull. If your children have actual interests and plans and activities, they won't have nearly as much difficulty understanding that.

"I agree with Bill Mazzella"Me too. Outstanding comment, Bill!

Bill: Your post The greatest danger is that we allow our children to languish in mediocrity while we criticize them at ever turn. So when we talk about supervising children the conversation has to dwell on how we turn them to higher things while protecting them from negatives. Instead of just focusing on the negatives.reminded me that I want to read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale Law professor Amy chua. The reviews are both inspiring and intimidating

Will the overexposure to all things lascivious and forbidden result in their becoming banal and boring after a while? Come to think of it, I suppose the material has to be geared for young teens nowadays because in another year or so they'll be bored stiff. Then we'll move on to yet younger tweens, then... ?

Bob S,Thanks for the info on Chua. While I agree that a parent should challenger her children I am not sure Chua's overwhelming methods are the answer. As one reviewer noted the responses of her children will show us much. Already her 17 year old are telling her she left "a lot of stuff out."Let me throw something else out. My daughter likes movies like Friday 13th and Freddies. Yet she is not violent at all. In fact she and her girl friends single-handedly stopped boys they know from being violent to another male. So a word to the wise...

Bill,re: your word to the wiseGrossman outlines three major affects of consuming violent media. The first, already noted, is increased aggression. In some people this can manifest itself in lethal violence, but it also often appears in milder forms. Overall the effect has been a staggering jump in violent crime and domestic abuse that parallels very neatly our media consumption habits.A second effect is increased fear and anxiety- we perceive the world and other people (particularly groups like Muslims and African Americans who are disproportionately depicted as perpetuators of violence in our media) as much more dangerous than they are. While this can certainly have repercussions for an individual's life in terms of anxiety levels and personal biases, I see the greater danger in how these subconscious fears affect our political discourse and policy decisions (immigration, war on terror, prisons, etc). A third well documented effect of media violence is desensitization to violence- when we see actual violence we tend to react less to it. Again, this has both individual and social implications. On the individual side we tend to permit harsher language and more aggressive and violent behavior to go unchecked. On the social level we tend to empathize less with the victims of violence (e.g. civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes) and are more willing to tolerate violence as a solution to social and political problems.So, while you are right that not everyone who watches horror movies is suddenly going to go out and assault someone, there is still a lot to be concerned about.

Front page of the Times online today says "Skins" may violate child pornography laws. Let's agree that things have come a lot further than 90210 and the OC. There was no nudity in those shows.

JC--then it's the explicitness that is the problem? Not the behavior itself? Not the plot?I think it's worth thinking about just what the problem is.

The idea that nudity, in and of itself, is worse than some of the behavior we see regularly across the entire scope of television shows, including those directed toward "adults," causes me to grin.

David Tenney --Thanks for the input about Grossman. What he is saying is what the psychologists were saying as far back as the 60s. But you don't get that message in the media anymore, and I've wondered whether the old studies had been superceded. I suppose one big reason the TV news channels don't give that terribly important information much attention is because they earn their money presenting the violent images of actual violence which many people seem to crave. (With radio you just heard about the crime, you weren't given images of it.) Just look at MSNBC's programs on the week-end -- they're always about violent criminals, their crimes and life in our very dangerous prisons. I say this amounts to glorification of violent crime because it gives the worst people TV appearances, which seems to be the ultimate high for many if not most Americans -- I mean to appear on TV means you have "arrived", you are somebody.Does Grossman have anything to say about violence and the media? Does he have recommendations about it? I'm getting to the point I'm almost ready for some censorship or at least the rationing of the amount of violence allowed on each TV channel.Does he think that there is a difference between violent images that are seen to be painful but are presented as abhorrent and images that are seen to be painful but are meant to be enjoyed? (I think there's a lot of sadism in this country.) And what about the violence of boxing and wrestling? And -- dare I say it -- football?

Ann,You have anticipated a number of things Grossman says:- He actually traces the history of research on this subject from the 50's up to brain scan studies done today. (e.g. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/28/AR200611... ) showing that the evidence is in fact overwhelming. Literally thousands of studies have been done, with a number of them establishing a causal (not just correlative) relationship between media violence and real world violence.- He does recommend much tighter restrictions on what can be broadcast and what sort of content can be put in video games.- He says that violence is much worse when its negative consequences are not shown as is so often the case in TV, video games, and movies.I'm not aware of him writing anything about sports, but I know that I for one am very concerned about the popularity of ultimate fighting and mixed martial arts among teens.One of the really surprising things I learned from his writings is that it is not just really bloody and graphic violence that affects people's behavior. What we think of as cartoon violence also changes how people think and act, especially children. He thinks it is particularly important to shield kids under age 7 from any kind of media violence because that is such a crucial time in brain development. In fact he says the following: "My wife and I have cut a deal with our kids and they fully agree. We are going to pay them $1,000 a year towards the grandbabies college funds for every year they promise to keep them television-free for the first six or seven years of their lives. "Below are links to some of his writings that are on the web. Some of this is lengthy, but I would highly recommend it (especially the last two links from his book "On Combat" that update the research from his earlier book "Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill")"Not Just a Toaster With Pictures" - A chapter from "Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill" that reviews the research on the effects of media violence and offers recommendations. http://people.sps.lane.edu/rsimmons/stoktk.pdfOn Combat, Chapter 2- has some fascinating anecdotes about how powerful operant conditioning can be (both in police/military training and in video games).http://www.killology.com/on_combat_ch2.htmOn Combat, Chapter 7- makes a powerful case for the need to limit our exposure to violent media. It includes some really interesting brain research on how our brains function differently as a result of exposure to violent media. The chapter also presents some really hopeful evidence that the negative effects of media violence can be reversed when people do begin to limit their exposure.http://www.killology.com/on_combat_ch7.htm

David T. --Thanks for all the links. I knew the situation was bad, but I had no idea how bad it really is. The statistics are so discouraging -- the fact that violence in a family snowballs from generation to generation! Would that the bishops would work on this problem.

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About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the John P. Wilson Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.