Influencers, Accountability and the Global Cost to Youth

April 7, 2013 Update:   This topic will be the opening plenary at the newly rebranded public health conference today in S.F., livestreamed here: at 4pm Pacific time/1pm ET.

I can’t wait to hear this panel, as I’ve got questions out the wazoo in terms of opportunities for education, producers’ ratings baiting w/scripts, social norming and accountability, and facts vs fiction…plus the ongoing often missed opportunity to educate through Hollywood on STDs/HIV using media as a conduit.

Representatives from the CW Network and ABC Family will both be there to address “Pop Culture vs Real Life” and the subtitle in the program is: “Teen Characters & Idols: Depth, Relevancy, and Opportunity”…Asking really important questions, as their program states: Did you ever wonder:

  • Who is behind the storylines in popular broadcast and digital TV shows, movies and books?
  • Are the characters and story arcs true to life and representational?
  • How are LGBTQ teens portrayed?
  • Should true-to-life shows and books that cover abortion, sexual assault and dating violence contain warnings?
  • What is the effect when major tween idols, like Selena Gomez, leave Disney to become young adult actresses?

“Listen in on a conversation with young adult authors, screenwriters, digital media makers and young adults themselves about the whys and hows of character development and the interactions between media, scripts and real life.”

Oh, I will…Believe me, I definitely will…Huge opportunities here that producers can/should address with accuracy for education, as I wrote in this Hollywood and Health piece: Kids Prime Time TV Health Cues Ingested For Better or For Worse. Hope to see you there!


Mar. 24, 2009 Sometimes you have those head shaking moments that make you wonder why you’ve chosen a David and Goliath career path that smacks of self-righteousness to some and plain ol’ common sense to others.

I’m having one of those moments this very second, partly because I’ve been at the Focus on Youth Sex Tech Conference and am thinking about the accountability of “influencers” when a voice rings far and wide and young lives are literally at stake…

…And partly because I took notes for analysis (a bit similar to these) regarding the ‘season finale’ last night of the pregnant 15-year old on ABC Family’s ‘Secret Life of the American Teenager’ in a nod to pop culture ‘bonding,’ and an attempt at media literacy deconstruction of  ‘influencers.’

Who is even definable as an influencer? Parents? Educators? Youth Peers? Church leaders? Rock stars? Celebutantes? Marketers? Media? Are you? Am I?

Teens often take a hit for being ‘irresponsible,’ with peers and media as prime ‘influencers…’ yet in this past week alone we’ve witnessed über-influencer Pope Benedict XVI en route to Africa take a strident anti-condom stance on the HIV/AIDS problem and heard him ‘up the ante’ by implying the distribution of condoms, even aggravates the problems. (CNN video here)Say what? Think of all the teens and young people hit with that level of misinformation en masse.

Media flurries of worldwide outrage prompted the Vatican to alter the transcript in the ‘Holy See’ so that it now reads that condoms merely “risked” aggravating the problem.

Well, dear Catholic members of my extended family, mea culpa in advance for toe-stomping here, but the mere implication that condoms contribute to the HIV/AIDS problem is absurdly reckless!

subsahara25 million people in Africa have died since the early 80s, and about 22.5 million Africans are currently living with HIV, so when church dogma can fly in the face of public health, seems to me those big bad balloons are not the ones to be cited in a blame game, much less fingered as culprits in a ‘deficit of ethics.’ (Pope Benedict’s dictum on the world economic crisis)

Now I could go down the rabbit hole with recorded interviews showing he used the word “preservativi” and not “profilattici” and all the foibles of language translation and skewed coverage, but to me, semantics boil down to ‘you say tomato I say tomahtoh’ because his intent is universally clear no matter how much wiggle room you give the verbiage…

As Jon O’Brian of Catholics for Choice said, “Where there is doubt there is freedom and Catholics can now make up their own minds as to whether they can use them or not.”

Well that’s just ducky.

african-girlI dare say those women and children in Africa don’t remotely have the advantage of that level of elective choice, especially those subjected to the country’s warfare and control and abuse scenarios, as we’ve seen in depth in our own advisory board member Michealene’s  documentary Tapestries of Hope.

Even the Catholic Review has a rather ‘damning’ transcript, in an attempt to put it all in context.

Sure, I’m glad the Pontiff backpedaled a tad so devout followers could “color outside the lines” as usual…but that doesn’t negate the focus of this piece, which is about misinformation, mass media influence and distribution of information as it impacts global youth.

To me, his actions smack of irresponsibility of the highest order with zero regard for the damage and toll on Sub-Sahara Africa already devastated and hardest hit by AIDS and HIV than any other region of the world, according to the United Nations and World Health Organization.

So how does this impact youth in the Western media sphere?

secret-life-logoWell, ironically, if we were keeping a scoreboard on responsibility it might be ‘teens ten, adults bupkiss’ this week, if you count the producers of ‘Secret’ which hail from the Seventh Heaven series of yore…and seem to be trying to ‘clean up their act’ of portraying casual sex prevalence/proliferation in high school by partnering with a pregnancy prevention public service announcement as a bit of an afterthought.

I don’t count the sullen morality dialog in ‘lessons learned’ mode as a way to impart a safe sex message, and there’s nothing ‘casual’ about the absence of STI prevention, with 1 in 4 teens now living with a social disease…

If they want to embed a public health message in the media, great, but ‘everyone’s doing it’ sure doesn’t qualify as one, as there’s a notable absence of ‘safe sex’ messages despite the seemingly  pervasive access and casual participation portrayed by teen characters among multiple pop culture channels.

We don’t have to look at religious dogma to see how this is putting massive stress and pressure on kids, as they weave their way through adolescence wondering what’s ‘normal’ guided by media as ‘super peer.’

Talk about painting a twisted teen reality becoming falsely perceived as normative when it’s mythological at best…

Media portrays teens as if they’re dropping their jeans right and left, having a go at ‘rainbow partiesfor oral sex behind the local cinema or gawd forbid in the school bathrooms, and setting the U.K. 13-year old father story as a dialed down demographic benchmark.

Thankfully, (parental exhale self evident) this apparently is not the normative benchmark media would make it out to be.

At least it doesn’t jibe with the facts presented by 400+ health professionals, advocates for youth, educators, researchers, and teens themselves at the ISIS (Internet Sexuality Information Services) “Sex::Tech 2009” summit yesterday.

Sure there may be considerable experimentation, and moreover, peer pressure driven by media norms of portrayals that aren’t doing teens ANY favors, but the research/reporting corollary doesn’t hold up in the media maelstrom. And get this:

condom-useThe U.S. CDC YRBS report shows that of the 35% of sexually active high school students surveyed nationwide, 61.5% of the students used condoms in 2007 (UP from 46.2% over a decade ago in 1991) and in cities, the number was even higher at 68.1%…

Guess what teens? Based on the 35% CDC figures, that means:

The majority of teens are NOT sexually active! (65%)

Put THAT in your peer pressure pipeline…

All that media-messaging blather on TV and at the lunch table webisode gossip updates is unmitigated hooie in the name of ‘selling entertainment’ if these 2007 CDC facts remain viable.

Not to minimize the rise in teen pregnancy, the flat-lining of condom use and stats of 1 in 4 teens contracting an STD…These are HUGE concerns…

I don’t want to project a ‘false sense of calm’…

I’m simply trying to point out that some of this pervasive ‘push’ is media-driven, making it all the more irresponsible. (especially when teens themselves appear to be making responsible choices if given comprehensive sex education!)

The CDC also noted teens in urban locales showed almost 70% of teens in cities are behaving responsibly in ‘safe sex’ mode, though condom use has leveled off.  Further, in our ‘Taking on the Hype’ session yesterday, they mentioned that in the U.K Centre for Sexual Health reported teens are twice as likely to use condoms as adults!

Ah, but where’s the story in THAT, right?

afyAs for the use of condoms and AIDS/HIV prevention overall, Advocates for Youth has an entire section of accurate info on preventive practices and condom use that debunks the Pope’s messaging fallacies.

So WHY is there such a disconnect between the evidentiary data, and what’s being reported and produced in Hollywood? Why aren’t teens crying foul?

How do we sort out the very real problems without minimizing OR sensationalizing the media messaging?

What works and what doesn’t in comprehensive sex education with teens?

It’s getting harder to keep a keen eye on the perception versus reality issue, and tighten up the reins of responsibility to frame these issues accurately…

I have a few theories that won’t surprise regular readers very much, and may even get a smirk and a shoulder shrug….That’s right…

Show me the money motivator…follow the financial trail…

dollar-signMedia, marketing, and music industries have major culpability here in the ‘money talks’ arena.

By perpetuating stereotyped portrayals of teens in a ratings game drive to gain market share, there’s a VERY  dangerous ‘chicken or the egg’ behavioral zeitgeist in play…and I for one find it wildly irresponsible.

The vapid values purveyed to kids as normative behavior is not only guiding but CREATING needless peer pressure within youth culture among teens who may ‘buy into’ the shock schlock of ‘everyone’s doin’ it’ when they simply ARE NOT, or moreover, don’t necessarily WANT to be, but are bombarded in media/peer pressure of a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality.

Seems to me, the exploitation of youth via media producers and the inherent lack of accountability is on a par with the Pope’s antics, because I’d argue profiteers of the rating game media agenda are using the ‘sex sells’ ploys even skewing perceptions of research data itself.

Example? At the SxTech 2009 Conference the ‘fact vs. fiction’ session cited the now infamous Nov. 18, 2008 Tyra Banks ‘teen sex survey’ of 10,000 anonymous teenage girls/young women discussing risky teen sex findings.

Those of us who work with youth regularly tended to roll our eyes at the Tyra talk, as it falls into the ‘shock schlock’ category of media punditry that ALL needs taken with a HUGE grain of salt.

tyra-imageRegardless of her popularity with teens, Tyra is FAR from a Johns Hopkins qualitative analysis or the CDC, ya know?

And can I just point to the lil’ ol’ ratings game and profit motive of this media and marketing analysis, folks?

Tyra is an ENTERTAINMENT show, people! Stay out of the research and science genre and we’ll all stay out of modeling, fair? Scary thing is, MSM ran with it big time. (that would be ‘mainstream media,’ since the MSM acronym at the SxTechConf has an entirely different meaning in healthcare)

From The Today Show to network news mentions, these teen ‘truemors’ immediately morphed into ‘findings’ in classic ‘it must be true’ phenom that media power and influence wields so haphazardly.

In an instant, Tyra’s ‘study’ latched onto a perception of credibility since it was picked up as ‘news’ and deemed authoritative by the sheer massive numbers.

This type of ‘voice it first, qualify/revise later’ is very akin to the Pope’s powerful presence, if you catch my drift on the need for circumspect verbiage and the accountability factor when it comes to mass media influencers and youth.

I’m not discounting the masses in a RANDOM sampling by any means, I think it’s the full focus/Tyra audience that refutes the validity of that one as “average girl” for me…

It DOES show the massive risk of an entire slice of girls (e.g. Tyra fans, and there are many from all walks of life, moms included, so I can’t discount that either!) and also contributes to ‘lunch table angst’ of the pass around factor.

Kids who may not be ‘Tyra devotees’ will still ‘hear about it’ at school and perhaps take it to heart as the new normative benchmark of edginess…Not very helpful, media darlings…

One of the most succinct comments about the Tyra data came from the site,

gurl“These numbers weren’t reflected in ANY of the research that I have come across…

A study done by the well respected Kinsey Institute, found that only 25% of girls were first having sex at 15. This doesn’t quite sound like the “average” Tyra claims.

Additionally, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) done by the CDC put teen condom use at 62%, not 52%. That same survey (this time on behavioral violence)  found that 35% of students had been in a physical fight–a far lower number than the 50% found by Tyra…

…So what’s up with the discrepancies? Basically, the quality of the research is to blame. The thing that Tyra failed to highlight was that all of her survey respondents were self-selected.

…That means the only people who responded were either girls who watched Tyra or those who went to her website. Any researcher will tell you that Tyra’s method is not a good way to get an accurate sample…

…What these results tell me is NOT what the majority of American girls are doing. What they tell me is what the majority of Tyra watchers who bother to fill out surveys in their free time are doing.”

Zing. Spot on. Ding. Ding. Ding!

She hammered that media carnival bell right up to the tippy top of the tower…Give that smart young woman a prize! (or better yet, an internship with Shaping Youth, we need you here, pretty please?)

gossip-girl-imageI guess if I were a teen I’d be a bit peeved that media was consistently painting me as an irresponsible twit, a hormonally crazed ‘gossip girl,’ or any other plethora of inaccurate stereotypes all in the name of gleaning drama-rama eyeballs for the almighty greenback. Bleh.

Admittedly, ‘what sells’ ideology is my favorite punching bag on the lack of accountability front because profiteering keeps rearing its ugly head, spoon-feeding a steady diet of sex (but not sexuality) objectification and sexualization (but not intimacy, authentic connection).

Younger tweens are getting damaged (psyches, self-worth) as shown by the APA data on early sexualization.

Meanwhile, older teens are feeling unnecessary pressure and  not getting ‘credit where credit is due’ in terms of abstinence OR safe sex.


Could it really be all this edgy age-compression angst to rush childhood is just about media and marketing for ratings and profit? I find that a bit unfathomable…And yet…

On the Advocates for Youth site alone, the compilation of facts from multiple sources debunk many a myth on teen sexual behavior, including the whole 13-year old papa outcry that flies in the face of CDC data above that once again shows numbers have gone DOWN in the last decade of kids experimenting with sex under 13. (10.2% in 1991 and 7.1% in 2007)

Then there’s the notion that oral sex is being used casually as ‘starter sex,’ or a ‘replacement’ for intercourse when the conference statistics showed the vast majority of teens experience both concurrently as intimacy deepens…NOT as an either/or proposition as a rule.

So who’s right, the researchers? Youth masses? The media?

We can’t all be statistical spinmeisters …

Why do we have shows portraying a teen proliferation of sex, sex, sex everywhere, then think media moguls can slap a PSA and an informational URL on the backside of a hit show saying ‘be careful’ and be good to go? (more on this in my post tomorrow)

It makes it appear like there’s some big teen party going on that real life teens aren’t experiencing or privy to, as kids flock with fascination to the torrid plot lines and steamy sensationalized drama enabling the hackneyed ‘sex sells’ formula to trundle on…

Seems to me, it’s ALL influence peddling…

camel-orbsWhether it’s ABC Family’s Secret Life of an American Teenager, R.J. Reynolds’ dissolvable nicotine or the Pope visiting Africa, the influence is used to glean ratings, sell product or market mindshare.

Problem is, these behavioral benchmarks are directly bumping up against the best interests of youth and public health.

The higher the credibility, popularity, and mass appeal the greater the responsibility one should have with the messaging being put out there.

Hear that networks? Vatican? RJ?

Every one of these entities could easily self-rein if they simply chose to look at the trickle down impact with macro-accountability, and take steps to uphold the Socratic oath of “doing no harm”…But they haven’t. And it looks like they won’t.

Not media. Not marketing. Not even the Pontiff himself.

Mindshare seems to have trumped youth health and well-being. And that’s just not right.

As poet W.S. Merwin said, “We are asleep with compasses in our hands.”

Wake up time!

Related Resources

Managing the Media Monster (Influence of Media)

The Kinsey Institute: FAQs on Teen Sexual Activity

CDC-YRBS National Trends in Risk Behaviors

CDC: 1991-2007 Trends in the Prevalence of Sexual Behaviors

TV/Internet: Advocates for Youth Factsheet-Sexual Health Info

The Media Project: Enterainment Industry Resources on Sexual Health

Amplify Your Voice (Youth-Driven/Sexual Health Activism) SxTechConference 2009

SxTech 2009 Summit  (Internet Sexuality Information Services)

ISIS-Inc/Blog: Technically it’s about Sex (Data blog)

Visual Credits: Catholic Review Larissa, 11, stands beside a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI painted with Cameroon’s national colors, outside the Basilica of Mary Queen of the Apostles in Yaounde, Cameroon, March 15. The pope will lead a vespers service at the basilica March 18 on his fi rst papal visit to Africa. CNS photo/Finbarr O’Reilly, Reuters”, HIV/Aids visual: UCT Press, Tyra photo by Stephen Lovekin via’s FB site,



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