STYLE

Is TV Damaging Our Teenagers?

11/02/2011 11:23 | Updated 22 May 2015

There has been a bit of a storm recently about the US version of Channel 4's Skins, which has just started running on MTV. Some fairly big US firms - including Wrigley, Subway and L'Oréal - are apparently worried about having their ads wrapped round the show and have pulled out.

Meanwhile a Los Angeles-based organisation called Parents Television Council is asking whether Skins is breaking state and federal laws on child pornography. Most of the actors are, after all, minors (under-18s). The site is encouraging parents to contact their state attorney general. The sample letter says, 'The weekly program depicts all manner of foul language, illegal drug use, underage drinking and other illegal activity, as well as thoroughly pervasive sexual content. '

I have no idea whether this is true. There's a lot of online chatter that suggests that the US version is less subtle than the British one. I have no idea. I haven't watched either version. I don't know whether the new US series has teenage actors involved in explicit sexual content. (How would that work exactly? Wouldn't TV producers be a teensy bit anxious about advertisers deserting en masse?)

But I am worried about what teenagers watch on TV. Generally. There. I've said it. Sooo embarrassing. My teenagers (19, 18, 16) aren't worried. Let me make that very clear. This is life as they know it. They are constantly working hard to protect me from this devil world I have stumbled across in my living room. 'Don't come in, Mum,' they say. 'You won't like it.' So I turn on my heel and walk straight back out again. (I am, after all, a fragile flower. I still cry at Brief Encounter. I get angry when gratuitous breast shots steal into run-of-the-mill murder mysteries languishing somewhere in the mid-week schedules. 'Gritty realism,' says my husband to wind me up. Yeah, right.) For a long time, I tried very hard to understand what my teenagers watched on TV. I sat open-mouthed as the Inbetweeners - oh, I don't know, I can't remember. I think it had something to do with masturbation or willies or wet dreams. It's a hugely successful show. I know it is. It's won a million awards - including two BAFTAs and Best Sitcom at the British Comedy Awards just the other week. So it must be good.

It's the same with Peep Show. I know it's funny. Everyone keeps telling me so. So it must be true. But I don't feel it's funny. I watch these close-ups of strangled British men desperate to have sex, and I think, and? And what? Is there a punch line?

This may be because I'm a girl. Women don't, by and large, sit about getting hugely embarrassed by the workings of the clitoris. We don't agonise over stupid things we blurted out in the heat of sexual tension. We leave that to the boys. We have better things to think about. Yes, OK, granted, these better things can be anything from global warming to quick-drying nail varnish. But they're not, generally, centred on a deep fascination with the penis and how it behaves when confronted with a pair of breasts.

So if that is the opening premise of a TV series - that men are stupidly obsessed with their willies and women are either playing along (by stripping off) or calling time (by being witheringly scornful) - I find myself drifting off into a state of catatonic boredom. And then, when I wake up, I think, is this 2011? Or are we still stuck in the 1960s? The new world order - Carry On Wanking?

I don't, I promise, stand in the living room like Father Ted holding a placard saying 'Down With This Sort of Thing'. We all went to see Black Swan en famille last Sunday, and it was only as we left the Brixton Ritzy that I realised I'd watched cunnilingus in the company of my children. Maybe I wouldn't bristle at wanking and wet dreams in an arty film. Maybe with a bit of clever camera work and a soundtrack of soaring violins I might even feel a wave of sympathy.

But I doubt it, somehow.

What I'm worried about is the kind of strip-cartoonish world we've ended up with where sex is only ever seen through men's eyes. It's an impoverished world, I think. And when it's aimed at teenagers, it makes me particularly anxious because a) they're already under huge pressure, and b) we live in an age of mass internet misinformation that's churning out skiploads of sexist rubbish. Lighten up, my friend Charlie would say. But I can't. And if Steve Coogan can have a go at Top Gear in last Sunday's Observer for coming up with some particularly unfunny Mexican jokes, I'm going to stick my neck out and say that most of the stuff I see that's aimed at teenagers is just, well, childish.

Which may, of course - who knows? - be the point.

For more teenage-inspired drama check out Marianne Kavanagh's column on Parentdish about the trials and tribulations of raising three.

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