Get Out of Your Own Life! Environmental Influence on Kids

nationalchildrensstudyMar. 30, 2009 Mea culpa for the unannounced vanishing act, but I’ve been out of town interviewing teens in a different ‘pocket’ of the greater Bay Area, exploring how environmental influences (peers, nature, geography) shift the volume and decibel level of media intake among kids and where we might learn some ‘best practices’ to leapfrog into a healthier place for the well-being of kids AND the planet.

First off, despite reports of an Earth Hour ‘bust’ from the CAISO power grid data and ongoing mockery from quadrants far and wide (including an Al Gore drive-by from the ‘Watts Up With That’ blog) I’ve been immersed in full  exploration of EcoSentience attending an enlightening workshop in Santa Cruz.

Bonnie DeVarco and a bunch of other laser sharp scientists, psychologists, educators and just plain cool human beings from our dear NextNow Collaboratory explored conundrums in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller, using the conversational tools and collective knowledge process of the world café.

Not to get all esoteric on you, I’ll simply say that while I was down there, I noticed some environmental differences in the Santa Cruz youth culture in a VERY macro kind of way far beyond the green scene. It piqued my  curiosity, I stayed longer than I thought and I’ll admit it…I fell in love with the indie spirit of the town.

defiant-childIt was an interesting time away…Just over the hill an hour, but worlds apart.

As an adult interacting with kids, I was NOT even remotely shunned, dissed, glared at, disdained as an interloper, mocked with a roll of the eyes, or treated as betraying the youth culture by these tweens and teens…Nor was I served a tight-lipped monosyllabic form of answers in staccato  ‘us versus them’ mode, or a code of silence in ‘talk to the hand’ defiance.

Ageism can be just as damaging as ‘racism’ or other preconceived notions of imagery bias…

Yet media producers LOVE to depict this ‘sleeping with the enemy’ generational divide to add ‘drama.’

Unfortunately, all that accomplishes in my household is a rote way for my daughter to say, ‘I’m a teenager what do you expect?’ as if given a hallpass to be incorrigible from the media powers that be.

Gee, thanks, gang.

santa-cruz4-001It was refreshing to ‘get out of my own life’ for awhile and experience youth in new surroundings…

I feel the parent/child relationship depicted in media often fuels familial conflict rather than bridging divides, which is annoyingly trite in this digital age of virtual friendships considering half the time no one really knows how old you are in real life ‘off-line’ anyway. I suppose it’s handy for those that like to deal in unimaginative archetypes…but it’s really rather absurd and dysfunctional.

The very fact that it was soooo easy to converse without that awkward, ‘why is this lady even talking to me’ incredulity made me want to probe deeper into the environmental influences on kids’ behavior and differences in their acceptance of all kinds…

12The second thing that whonked me up side of the head was a notable absence of glopped on makeup, starstruck-Disneyesque glamorama clones, vapid values,  12 Going On 29 wannabes, or flagrant hoochie-mama attire of early sexualization…

Blinged out, brand-driven conspicuous consumption was shunned and unlike other beach towns, there was a very obvious lack of surfer-Barbie-Stepford-sameness or teeny bikini poseurs…

As one teenager expressed, “Kids here are more self-aware, they’re more holistic in their point of view, taking a mind, body and heart approach”—

As I tried to reconcile my “whoa, did she really just say that?” startled reaction with my best, ‘hmn, tell me more!’ Barbara Walters style, I realized this was a unique ‘environment’ for media study, indeed.

star2Even media-soaked preteens, long known for developmental angst, identity morphing and fickle fingers of fate pointing in different directions at the same time seemed to universally reject cookie-cutter media fabrications as ‘lame.’

In fact, it didn’t matter what size, shape, color, or subculture/clique I encountered, there was a level of tolerance, acceptance and grounded ‘coherence’ that was palpable as I chatted among a diverse array of kids from unblemished organic afficionados to pierced and tattooed musicians…in coffee shops, on cliff walks, downtown, playing bongos in dreadlocks, sitting on surfboards, in taquerias, you name it.

tvkids.jpgIt’s like everyone was handed a license to ‘be themselves’ coexisting in a sort of non-judgmental, non-appearance-based collective of human beings, set free from the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ of media mandates, “as seen on TV” as the saying goes…

I recognize this is anecdotal and superficial based on a few extensive interviews and multiple random ones, but this indie spirit of the youth in this town was palpable, and far beyond just me getting out of my skin on a sunny day and enjoying idyllic weather…

red-balloonLike an airtight balloon being slowly deflated rather than popped with sudden harshness…the FEELING of being in these environs prompted a huge exhale nudging me to delve deeper into who is doing research into the youth role of environmental health perspectives…

It made me wonder…what IS the impact on coherence as it relates to media pressure and peers?

How do divergent cliques and tribes mesh without the drama driven culture clash of socially ostracized media depiction?
Why are some regions and populations of youth more prone to ‘drinking the media KoolAid’ in homogenized lock-step as if ‘that’s how life is’ when we all know it’s not?

What is the media intake and marketing spend within each of these environmental hot pockets and is there a correlation between lack of media influence and free-thinking/behavioral mind-body balance?

What indicators come into play?

From climate factors to eco-sentience there are pockets around the country with a noticeable LACK of self-righteousness in the green teen vibe, but more of a ‘moral imperative’ as if it were just an obvious and logical way to be…What accounts for this sociological phenom?

How can we use media in positive ways to shift toward positive thinking and embrace healthier environments (internally and externally) on the youth landscape of life?

I started digging deeper and lo and behold…here’s a good one…the upcoming National Children’s Study.

“The National Children’s Study will examine the effects of environmental influences on the health and development of more than 100,000 children across the United States, following them from before birth until age 21.

The goal of the Study is to improve the health and well-being of children…


“The Study defines “environment” broadly and will take a number of issues into account, including:

•    natural and man-made environmental factors
•    biological and chemical factors
•    physical surroundings
•    social factors
•    behavioral influences and outcomes
•    genetics
•    cultural and family influences and differences
•    geographic locations

“Researchers will analyze how these elements interact with each other and what helpful and/or harmful effects they might have on children’s health…

…”By studying children through their different phases of growth and development, researchers will be better able to understand the role of these environmental factors on health and disease…”

The National Children’s Study purports to be one of the richest research efforts geared towards studying childrens’ health and development  in terms of disparities in health care access, disease occurrence, with preliminary findings rolling in around 2011, “forming the basis of child health guidance, interventions, and policy for generations to come.”

Quite lofty positioning but a noble and ambitious undertaking…

lab-beakerI’m more of a ‘living lab’ type of gal when it comes to youth culture, as I’m a hands-on observational sort, gleaning what I can from experience in media analysis…

But given some of the firepower behind this study (like Dr. Peter Scheidt of Duke University and Johns Hopkins who is Director of the National Study or Dr. Jessica Illuzzi  Study Director for the National Children’s Study at the Yale Center for Perinatal, Pediatric, and Environmental Epidemiology, the North Carolina/Chapel Hill specialists, Univ. of Minnesota and countless other partner orgs in the making) it seems to be shaping up impressively to become the largest U.S. study of its kind!

Here’s how to add yourself to their list-serve to stay informed if you’re inclined, as they’ll be trickling out findings in dribs and drabs.

I can’t wait to hear more, because I tell ya, I’m more than a little intrigued by the environmental role in mitigating some of the pop culture/media influences, from nutrition and disease intervention to behavioral elements.

santa-cruz-002Plus, with a 13-year old smack dab in the crossfire of oversaturated media/marketing ambient exposure, I’m doing the best I can to hold my ground right now and NOT have a knee-jerk “flee” reaction to less pressure-cooker environs…(see my cellphone photos at left of my multi-mile impromptu cliff walk; those little dots are all cormorants, pelicans and gulls)

I certainly know ‘you can run but you cannot hide’ in terms of the pervasiveness and cacophony of noise and stimulation, and the last thing I want to do is delude myself into thinking there’s an environmental panacea that supersedes that very cogent filter between one’s ears. (and she’s about as ‘media literate’ as they come, living with me, the poor dear)

But let’s face it…

Environment DOES factor into peer climate, and I DO firmly believe media is defining kids before they can define themselves…

No other generation has EVER had this degree of relentless ‘guidance’ from media as a ‘super peer’ broadcasting 24/7 about how to look, what to wear, how to smell, who to be…

Carving a sense of one’s self is MUCH easier to do when ‘media clones’ and appearance-based cues aren’t narrowcasting definitions of beauty in full tilt surround sound, especially from a fragile child development standpoint.

Raconteur Quentin Crisp’s famous quote plays out daily in local middle school environs that I see daily:

“The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.”

I for one am thankful whenever I see a lack of homogenization and small havens hither and yon where this does not seem to hold true…So it’s obvious why Santa Cruz resonates with some serious gravitational pull…

unplugged.jpgAs much as I’d like to use the power of media for positive change, there’s a part of me that feels a long overdue need to unplug it altogether and ‘advance’ (not retreat) to a more balanced state of being altogether.

This little respite of seeing a clear demarcation of divergent youth overcome ‘clique culture’ was refreshing to say the least…after all, in media analysis I all too often see the exportation of our ‘consumption culture’ abroad and it shames me to see the global impact of such short-sighted usurping of indigenous environs.

I dunno. Maybe I just need a solid vacation. I think I may go down there again over ‘spring break’ and this time bring my daughter to see if she observes youth from the same lens.

santa-cruz-001Of course, if she catches a glimpse of those 12 beach volleyball courts (sponsored by Arrowhead water which proves corporate citizenship and community stewardship can go hand in hand with ease) I may end up having a hard time reeling her back in to the homefront environs here, and find she’s asking me to pack my bags, alter my life and head over the hill for a ‘do-over’ as they say in playground parlance.

Then again, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea…

Might even be a good social experiment. Hmn…What do you think? Have you ever wanted to crawl out of your skin and get out of your own life to view it anew from a fresh perspective?

Tempting, huh…Wanna come?

p.s. btw, Regardless of how many cynics say this past weekend’s Earth Hour is eco-tokenism, I’ll always ‘vote earth’  because I’ve seen firsthand what happens when we stray too far from the land and lose our sense of what’s important. We can’t protect what we don’t know…

Enjoy these adorable kids! Oh! And check out this cool link of the major global landmarks going dark (click to fade in and out) kinda fun to tell a story to kids…A definite global ‘light switch’ show-n-tell!



  1. Good post! And Santa Cruz isn’t a bad place to move to at all! Gotta love the spirit of a town that’s home to the Banana Slugs.

    Good tip on the National Children’s Study, too. Even though I constantly complain about my chronically overflowing inbox, of course I signed up for the listserv. I think you’re right — this one is worth keeping an eye on.

    9to5to9’s last blog post..A new drill to prepare for the worst

  2. Well, I don’t see any moving in the mix just yet as the upheaval would be severe, but then again, sometimes that’s just the ticket. The mindshare of the Shaping Youth team is heavily internet-based anyway, since our advisors are far from regional, but I’ll admit the Silicon Valley/S.F. Bay Area innovation is hard to beat ANYwhere.

    I have yet to encounter such a rich pool of intellectual input and talented tribe of movers and shakers…It’s one of a kind, pulling from some of the top media minds worldwide with digital access to same. Then again…the key is that word…’digital’ —amazing to see how the internet, Skype, and media itself has morphed into being simply a ‘timezone’ issue not a workaday barrier! 🙂

    We’ll see…Hoping to go to Silicon Valley Innovation Institute (SVII) tmrw. eve to hear Dr. Bruce Sawhill speak on chaos theory…his talk is “Innovation on the the edge of chaos: from metaphor to physical principle and back again.”

    Amazing mind. Then again…he lives in Santa Cruz and pops up as needed to speak. Hmn…

    Amy Jussel’s last blog post..Get Out of Your Own Life! Environmental Influence on Kids

  3. p.s. And here’s a cool link from USNews & World Report about how schools are trying to mitigate ‘stress test’ damage…
    Doing yoga and such:

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