Graduation, Prom, Pressure, Stress? Keeping Up With The Joneses

June 1, 2012 Personally, I don’t think 8th grade and ‘cocktail dress’ should be uttered in the same sentence, but alas, there are entire websites ratcheting up the ‘kids getting older younger’ (KGOY) effect of marketing mania turning ‘tweens’ into 8th grade glamorama Disney divas with little regard for kids’ socioemotional health and developmental milestones.

As 8th grade dances turn into middle school ‘proms’ and grad night rituals like the private party/closed amusement parks are now open for 8th graders, these fabricated media moments of anticipation are distorting childhood expectations to the point that we need to start asking “Graduation? From What to What?” as  there’s very little left to ‘experience’ by the time 12th grade commencement rolls around. It also uncorks a deeper academic question as Obama duly noted in this New York Times piece awhile back called “Does 8th Grade Pomp Fit the Circumstance?”

Copy from the Busch Gardens site pops with the energy of amped up squealing tweens at a Disney concert, “Celebrate this milestone with tons of cool coasters, rock out to hot DJs and live entertainment, WILD animals up close and so much MORE!” Now, 8th graders can even turn it into a “grad night overnighter”…Gee, party on, tweens…Nothing like emulating the red cup crowd in faux aspirational rowdiness. Might as well throw in a partridge and a pear tree and call it a day, as we’re succeeding in sapping the joy, anticipation, and earned accomplishment of actually achieving an ‘end point’ by effusively high-fiving the way through adolescence in “Looks Like We Made It” Barry Manilow mode.

Not putting my curmudgeon dancing shoes on, just asking point blank ‘what will be left’ if this milestone mythology continues, as I’m already seeing palpable signs of “is that all there is?” shoulder shrugs after ‘big night’ build ups of Junior/Senior prom.

We’re definitely immersed in a media saturated culture of red carpet readiness and ‘who wore it best’ vapid values, no doubt…

And we know the media lens that kids are viewing through has become  cloudy and distorted…but it’s OUR job to break out the Windex with critical thinking skills and shift that track on the runaway train.

We don’t have to catch the Affluenza virus…and in this economy, most of us can’t afford to even be exposed to it. We can inoculate ourselves with common sense and pushback on pop culture’s perpetuation of graduation de facto fundraisers and pricey parties to mark milestone events. (see tips/resource links at end)

In fact, here’s a prom 2012 sample of costs that are downright frugal, refuting the widely spread ‘Visa survey’ touted by mainstream media which turned out to be invalid junk science. Reframe the convo, show and tell the wallet-mining, so youth are ready to critically evaluate messages streaming at them 24/7. When media cites “$4.7 billion in 2012 grad gift spending” trigger the sniff test and survey the source for context, in this case: National Retail Foundation (haven’t done a deep dive on methodology/validation there yet, but awareness is a start)  

Adults can take the lead modeling manners of discretion on the fiscal front of graduation too…It doesn’t need to be a stress fest of who made it into what college, or who received scholarship aid, or how big of a bash a grad party might be, or grades gossip. Behave! Parents can also set the tone to eliminate “body snarking” (gowns, stage presence, photos, even self-critical slams) to tamp down ‘appearance-based’ commentary of sizing each other up, which can be downright dangerous as this NEDA sanctioned site describes.

It would help if these school event milestones themselves weren’t judged on dollar-driven appearance and swag too, as right now it seems like the visual hype of media drenched stages like American Idol or Dancing with the Stars has created an impossible benchmark for event planners, much less for students to ‘match’ in spectacular style.

I’m not wistful for low key, nostalgic “school dance in the gym with a disco ball” days where Herculean effort went into thematic décor to magically transform a boring box into something special; (besides, “there’s an app for that” now!)

I’m simply saying the elaborate set designs on ABC Family, Disney Channel, and other shows where prom and graduation specials become a double-episode rating blitz have raised the expectations of tweens and teens to ‘where’s the chocolate fountain and the live band?’ entitlement status.

The media hype surrounding these year-end school rituals has been incessant…Glee Prom-asaurus and Graduation finale, and ironically, in real life, Glee’s Jane Lynch summed it well in her honorary Smith College commencement address:

…”We have an architect, a climate scientist, a writer…and yet I get to talk to you because I’m on Glee…wow, what a world we live in.”

Since we’ve body-snatched the rite of passage fetes of prom and graduation and dialed them WAY down into early adolescence with middle-schoolers, the only story angles left for older teens’ end up being a focus on topics like skimpy gowns, anti-binge drinking or Behind the Wheel Texting: How to Drive Behavior Change  or parental panic about ‘surging prom costs’ (invalidated by skewed statistics) Then there’s the “will they or won’t they hook up”drama of grad night party or prom stigmas that mirror series TV which are recklessly false and distorted, creating needless peer pressure angst all their own. See sex ed/comprehensive health data in Glee Teen Sex: Facts and Opportunities Using CDC vs Hollywood TV).

Oh, wait, there’s one more that hasn’t hit the 8th grade demographic yet…Older teens are simulating ‘big day’ amour with increasingly outrageous methods of “Promposals” which are “creative asks” to the prom shining a searing hot spotlight on kids in an era of digital dating where a rejection can easily be on YouTube or Facebook by 5th period. (ironically, in clicking through this slideshow I noted most of these ‘creative asks’ have been ‘used’ among teens I know, which means it’s a Google search and nada on the originality front)

‘Asks’ can range from fun and whimsical, to bullet-sweating teen stress and public humiliation if turned down in front of peers…

Sorting out what’s ‘real’ and what’s ‘media hype’ gets blurry, as does ‘the cost’ to socioemotional health.

Makes one wonder if we’re going forwards or backwards with such overt media captures of footage on film, reactions on Facebook, and photos of every emotional tweak and tic.

Each scenario is different, but to me, the macro lens should view how the  use of social media impacts behavior on a ‘virtual public stage’ versus pre-digital era dating?

Once upon a time the matters of the heart, (like asking someone out) were handled privately sans peer paparazzi…How does this distort the concept of intimacy? Or does it at all?

I chatted with Suzette Valle of “Parenting In a Celebrity Driven Society” at Mamarazzi Knows Best, and she offered a story of one boy who painted his prom “ask” onto a highly visible arts mural at school which every student walks by, only to be rejected. (no pity project there though, he evidently ended up asking another girl just a day later)

I mentioned the story to my own teen, and she said “No way! Are you serious? REALLY? I can’t believe a girl would do that. You pretty much have to accept no matter what….”

Two things leap out at me here:

1.) She’d feel ‘obligated’ to go with anyone who has publicly put themselves on the line (what does this say about authenticity, self-sacrifice, free agency, and social skills to learn to get out of a situation with diplomacy? hmn…)

2.) Steel armor resilience and bounce-back from being ‘shot down’ publicly that seems so admirable and appealing at first glance, might in fact be lack of intimacy and desensitization altogether. (e.g., I’ll ask her, if not I’ll ask her, and so on and so on; I addressed this “arm-candy” objectification in a Valentine’s Day post called Kids, Media, and Intimacy, What’s Love Got to Do With It?”

Some parents of boys detailed the incredible “performance pressure” their kids were under for prom, while other parents (and even some teachers) were bemused and sometimes participatory in being part of the drama themselves…

This Southern California mom described a Sadie Hawkins style invitation that succinctly captures the lack of wiggle room turning private lives into public spaces,

“While taking a multiple choice quiz in bio class he came to the last question on the test which read: “Will you go to winter formal with me? (mark one) Yes. No.” and it was signed. He read the question twice, only to raise his eyes and discover the majority of the girls all staring at him. In his words, “well I sure as hell couldn’t have said no, they would have lynched me!”

It may all sound like one big fun fest at school, especially our local tale of a classroom entry by members of the waterpolo team in Speedos who marched in and boldly spelled out P-R-O-M-? on their chests…

…But again, how does one backpedal their way out of a such a public scenario if they truly did NOT want to go, sandwiched into the ‘disease to please’ and ‘Curse of the Good Girl’ that some of us have been battling for decades?

Even in a more private setting (at home) kids are accompanied with ‘support teams’ as this mom described “a gaggle of girls bounding up the driveway, one with a “Five Guys” hamburger to go bag in her hand (complete with lunch inside) The sign attached read:

5 Guys (with an enormous X though the five) There’s only 1 Guy for me Formal? Yes. No.

Then there’s the ultra-public ‘can you top this’ grandstanding for bragging rights that media pundits LOVE to trot out for ‘outrage baiting,’ like this USA Today story “The Art of the Ask” about a Greenville South Carolina student who hired a private plane for a ‘flyover’ to show her the prom query in the student parking lot.

Think being coupled in an ongoing relationship gives you a hallpass for the ‘ask?’

Not a chance, the heat is turned up further on some of these teens, because after all, they don’t want to disappoint by taking their loved one for granted with assumptions, so they rack their brains trying to come up with the proper ‘aww’ moment to elicit adoration AND wistful peer approval. (example of sweetness: a long-standing flame who literally spelled out the word ‘prom’ in lit votive candles on her lawn, complete with the o in the shape of a heart)

At least those going to prom solo (in a pal pack) escaped the ‘ask’ pressure, though they still had similar prom pressures, right down to the group photos, how to pose, etc. Same with same sex couples. (and yes, Aragon High School in San Mateo had a very purposeful Prom Queen last year, student voted and heavily involved in the Gay Straight Alliance, not a Glee drama moment by any means, Jason Galisatus put forth strong anti-bullying campaigning into play)

My point is this…the stories are varied and multi-layered, but the escalation of cutting through the clutter in an “attention economy” appears to be a profound behavioral driver, or in less research-wonky terms…a core “need.”

School graduations and proms are becoming a public platform for cause-driven themes, identity statements, social media PDA, (public display of affection, or in many cases attention) as forms of Reality TV personified…

…The bar keeps getting raised higher for what’s noteworthy or attention-getting in today’s milestones scaled widely with new media.

Researcher danah boyd’s findings in Publicity and the Culture of Celebrification concluded with a great summary line,

“This doesn’t mean that we should blockade the technologies that are emerging, but it’s high time that we start reflecting on the societal values that are getting magnified by them.”

Are we creating or reflecting in this media mirror? Where’s the health and well-being of youth in all this? Has ‘baiting outrage’ become a part of a media and marketing zeitgeist? What happens when media drives the agenda into a panic point of distortion? (e.g. heavy-handed law enforcement responses and school policy run amok with cyberbullying panics, graduation security searches, dress code finger-wags etc.)

We need to be mindful of the media messaging itself as it opens up a chicken or the egg scenario with this whole ‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’ 15 minutes of fame, attention-grabbing dynamic.

It’s no surprise that each year there’s a new trend d’jour that usually snags the headlines (like the inaccurate statistics on ‘spending surges’ for prom or youth themselves sounding off about provocative gowns) …

It’s usually enough to put parents in a tizzy, followed by authority figures clamping down with behavioral mandates via powerpoint presentations which pretty much serve as an open invite for teens to let out an extra loud rebel yell. (Lather, rinse, repeat. Twas ever thus, developmentally)

While adults should clearly set graduation and prom event parameters, it seems like overkill when schools start to “obsess on the dress” and start giving it far too much heat as if there’s a quid pro quo of liability underpinnings.

It sends a very toxic translation to girls along the lines of: “you can’t wear that or you’ll be raped” which in itself is a sad, dark, objectified statement that bears analysis by turning the female into a siren/victim mythology and the male into an uncontrollable monstrous mass of hormones. (if I were a teen of either gender, I’d be offended by both portrayals sigh)

Admittedly the ludicrous celebrification of sleaze and tease says more about perceptions of what has ‘value’ in our culture as media’s growing sexualization of women continues to take its toll on young psyches, including the self-esteem of young girls.

Yet while girls are being sent whiplash-inducing mixed messages of ‘less is more’ on the skin front, most girls DO know full well via feedback on the social media ‘virtual stage’ what it means to represent their identity via this kind of “persona” and most self-respecting teens will self-rein, even those who do have a proclivity for ‘drama’ or appearance-validating attention.

Youth KNOW if they show up sporting something akin to a Cher costume they’ll be the target of gossipy buzz ad infinitum; so self-selection, self-policing within their own youth culture community is a ‘teaching moment’ in itself…

Besides, kids come up with some very cool ideas to honor each other, build community, and boost collective attention…

In Maynard, Massachusetts, teens took a prom pledge to ‘ban the tan’ and unite in the name of skin cancer awareness, in Ishpeming, Michigan kids contributed recycled Starburst wrappers to help Diane McNease create a stunning eco-gown…(visual above)

…And Suzette Valle noted at her own teens’ prom they created Junior/Senior identity parameters to differentiate the classes, (Jrs all wore short dresses and the Srs wore long ones)

The YPulse youth advisory board offered a vast array of media/marketing influences in this link-laden piece on youth trends, called Prom Comes of Age, How a Night to Remember Has Evolved,

“While not all teen girls are drawn to the revealing dresses that are being shunned at schools, media inevitably plays a large part in influencing what they’ll wear, especially on such an important occasion. According to recent Ypulse research, 68% of female Millennials use magazines for advice or inspiration when shopping, 62% look to TV shows, and 49% turn to models or celebrities…”

Sigh. Just ducky. We’ve got some counter-marketing to do. I’d like to look at that research closer though, as one thing I’ve learned this season, surveys and benchmarks flinging around the interwebs do not necessarily reflect the end user’s reality.

As for graduation? Well, the ‘gift guides’ are already proliferating with benchmarks and surveys flinging around the blogosphere with nary an ounce of ‘who conducted the research’ and what price tag, regional, socioeconomic and psychographics come into play…

And grad night gamesmanship of who’s buying what for whom is already making the rounds in Grand Tour style…

So in the name of knowledge sharing, when we all should be celebrating graduate’s smarts, substance, and cerebral accomplishments, could we all agree to ‘limbo low’ and stay under the raised bar put forth in media stories to use critical thinking skills instead?

If we allow media to define kids before they can even define themselves then it’s only a matter of time before age compression marketing tactics will proclaim that 8th grade is the new 12th grade graduation, 5th grade is the new 8th grade graduation, and pre-K is the new kindergarten which leaves cherub-cheeked toddlers leaping from diaper to diploma.

What’s next…a Hallmark card for graduating from sippy cups to juice boxes?

It can feel like our culture is headed that way when we monetize milestones rather than cherish them.

In the long run, rushing childhood through a series of earlier and earlier ‘firsts’ doesn’t leave much in the way of looking forward to ‘lasts’…and that’s a quick ticket to boring.

Who wants to burn through their bucket list before they even get out of school?

Time for a diploma in critical thinking.

Visual Credits: Lead graphic: Partnership for Learning; Prom in lights photo:; Bragging Rights clip art: U of D; Chicken or the egg, “rivals in one of the world’s longest-running arguments, GuardianUK Photograph by Dennis Novak/Getty Images via Google images, Diane McNease YouTube screenshot WLUC-tv Michigan

Related Reading by Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth

Media HypeFest: Is Prom the New Wedding?

Kids, Media & Intimacy: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

ABCs of Life: What’s Your Gift to Graduating Youth?

Hey Grads! Free Gift for You-Graduation Rap by Josh Shipp ( 2012 version here, um, typo on “success”, dudes)

Project Green Prom Update, Shaping Youth-Teens Turning Green

Project Green Prom: Sustainability (Green Graduations, Party Planning & Beyond)

Celeb Pop Culture: Media’s Tipping Point of Toxicity (archives)

Related Reading Elsewhere: 2012 Tips

Graduation 2012: Top 8 Tips for Parenting the Grad (CS Monitor)

10 Tips for the Graduating Class of 2012 (Forbes)

Tips to Help Parents Keep Kids Safe During Graduation/Summer Parties (Madison Patch)

Top Three Green Graduation Gifts (Alternative Consumer) (story to come on green grads and travel on Shaping Youth)

C0mmencement Speakers 2012: How Schools Land Top Speakers (HuffPo)




  1. Amy, GREAT article! I just read one about *preschool* graduations being all the rage, and how there are now kids for whom high school graduation will be their FIFTH graduation (preschool, K, elementary, middle, high). “Dialing down” of all this hype is exhausting to read about, let alone get your child through or get through yourself. ~Lori Day

  2. Thanks, Lori, it’s long-winded, so I’m working on doing a mini-summary Tumblr version under 1000 words ha. Can’t tell you how nice it is for you to drop a comment tho, as it’s getting like tumbleweeds over here when we’ve all veered over to other social media platforms, like Twitter. Still say it’s not ‘either/or’ as there’s NO way to self-express and link to research in deep dives in 140. It’s my favorite spot for mining data and composing ideas for follow-up stories, but nothing beats good ol’ WordPress to ‘connect the dots’ for more critical thinking.

    Maybe they should hand out a ‘graduation’ diploma for learning to go from 3000 words to 140. ha. 😉

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