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24/01/2020 Communication Science news and articles

A Cautionary Tale Gone Wrong: When Screens Meet Teens

Emma writes about why everything goes badly wrong with popular teen shows these days.


Nowadays, the “hottest” TV shows of the moment are not the ones that shy away from showing explicit images and play by the rules of society, but the ones that claim to push its boundaries, like Euphoria, Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why.

All these popular series have two characteristics in common that contribute to their ever-growing fame, beyond their exaggerated plots: they all claim to be shows featuring teens in their daily life and to be aimed at teens, whereas they are actually neither.

More adult than teen

The main characters in every drama are always a group of ‘friends’, who are supposed to be merely 16-17-year-old, but who look and act like they are well into their 20s. These adolescents are shown going to school in stilettos and mini-skirts, binging on alcohol and drugs, and constantly bouncing from one sexual partner to another while treating them like penny change, and no one seems surprised by their choices, despite their age.

This is not to judge anyone by any means – if you do act like that and you are happy with your life, be my guest!

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that for shows that claim to portray the realistic situation of most of Generation Z (i.e. teens born between 1995 and 2010), it is far from the truth. In fact, Gen Z was named by researchers the chaste generation, since they are reportedly less sexually active than previous generations, yet they are described as sex machines by adult writers who stopped being teenagers about two or three decades ago. Yes, all these shows are made by people who are marching into their 40s and 50s and claim to be showing reality, while actually they are merely portraying adults’ paranoia and anxiety towards teens.

These shows are more suited for adults

The typical story of the young innocent kid corrupted by society and their peers into committing poor choices that will follow and haunt them into their adulthood, which frightened at least once every parent that ever lived.
Therefore, it is safe to say that these shows are more suited for adults, rather than teens, since they are the ones who can watch them and only see the storyline, without putting themselves in the characters’ shoes.

The influence of the TV industry

However, this is just scraping the top of what is actually really wrong with these sensational series. The fact that they are directed and produced by (mostly male) adults and repeatedly show images of young adolescents in explicit and extremely graphic situations, is another realm of disturbing. Of course, the actors are fully grown people but the characters are still teenagers in the eyes of the very much older writers, which is exactly what makes this whole dynamic so creepy. These grown-ups appear to draw great pleasure from portraying teens as sex machines, so much so that it’s become an overused character trope.

This should raise a lot of red flags in us viewers, as we are witnessing the spreading of a dense yet flimsy sex culture amongst most teens, who feel compelled by these shows to act the same way as the characters.

Here goes the mantra: “If everyone does it in the series, shouldn’t I do it too?

After all, it’s been proven time after time how much influence television has on young people and how great its impact on society is, so these statements should not come as a shock to anyone. In fact, statistics show that teenagers who grew up in countries whose TV shows have different – i.e. more “chaste” – storylines reported having less intercourse at a young age.

For example, Korean Dramas are known to show only family-friendly images and to avoid scenes which are deemed not suited for young people, like overly explicit encounters – a big difference from the TV shows we are used to see in Western countries.
As a result, a research reported in 2016 that only 6.3% of male and 2.8% of female teenagers from South Korea were sexually active, while those numbers skyrocketed to 44% and 42% for US teens.

These figures are a clear indicator of the fact that what is shown on screen has an influence deeper than what we can possibly imagine on the behavior and decisions of our younger people.

They are unwillingly witnessing their supposed future be portrayed filled with graphic encounters, substance abuse and no repercussions from parents or adult figures, unaware of the effects these images will have on them in the long run.

These shows seem to have no more limits in terms of how far they can go, and how graphic and explicit they can be. After all, who’s there to stop them?

What we should do about it

It is undeniable that society has made a lot of progress also thanks to the exposure television gave to so many former taboo topics, but boundaries have to be set not to commit the mistake of taking it a bit too far.

It’s all fun and games ‘till you actually consider how much TV has affected today’s generation, and how it is beginning to change our view of ‘socially acceptable and appropriate behavior’ for the worse.

Luckily, as most of Gen Z is getting older and more mature, it is moving past this state of naïve susceptibility right in the midst of the rise and peak of this kind of TV shows in mainstream society.

Thus, the one who is truly endangered by this oversexualization and explicitness is not today’s generation, but the one that follows: Gen Alpha (i.e. children born after 2010). This distorted reality may not be the present, but it might become the future.

That’s what we have to avoid at all costs: when art stops being fun and cool and instead becomes a threat.

Cover: JESHOOTS.com

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