"More than ever, fitting in isn't about who you are but about what you have — cell phones, laptops, personal Web pages — at younger and younger ages. The values of the marketplace challenge, if not outright undermine, the values of parents. What should you do? I tell parents to pick their battles and be realistic. By allowing your daughter some choices, you can create opportunities for thoughtful conversations without alienating her."
Author, Odd Girl Out
The world of today's girls doesn't look like the one you grew up in.
Their world is defined by media and technology and the logos on their clothes, by online social networking and what's on TV, by music downloaded and shared, and by a barrage of clever advertising promoting clothes and products that many girls feel they've just "gotta get."
Our PBS Parents panel of experts likens the combination of tantalizing marketing and interactive activities to a "Girl Net" that's woven into every aspect of girls' lives. While some of the activities in this Girl Net enrich and expand their lives in positive ways (particularly when it comes to reaching out to friends online and using the Internet for positive expression and research), experts are concerned by the myriad messages marketers aim at girls through this Girl Net and how this influences girls' behavior and self-image.
"From the time girls get up in the morning until they go to bed at night, marketing now permeates girls' lives, from the logos on their clothes and underwear, to the ads they watch on TV and online, to the toys and products they just have to have," says Diane Levin, Ph.D., author of So Sexy, So Soon. "The concern is that girls are being fed the message that how you look and what you buy determine both your value and how you should spend your time. In addition, this marketing content contains sexual images and messages young girls can imitate, but can't yet understand."
Experts at the American Psychological Association confirm these concerns. Their recent study, "The APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls," reports that the unrealistic messages girls are exposed to on TV, in print, movies, music and online can harm their self esteem, possibly contributing to higher rates of depression and the development of eating disorders.
According to Levin, "Highly sexualized images in the media blur the boundaries between what it means to be a girl and a woman. These images often dress girls in sexy clothes (meant for adults), and women in little girls' clothes. They focus on appearance and sexiness for young girls and suggest that sex occurs outside of caring relationships — without love, intimacy or emotion."
The media marketing pressure begins in preschool and increases through middle school as girls gain more buying power. At this stage, a girl's participation in the Girl Net can determine her social success. How plugged in to media she is, what she wears, and how many gadgets she owns can affect her popularity and status. The reality is that most of these products and interactive experiences are fun — it's hard for many girls to see them as a problem, let alone find their way out.
So what should parents do? Turn off the TV and the computer and stop girls from shopping? No. As Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., co-author of Packaging Girlhood, notes, "The train has basically left the station in terms of targeting girls with products, entertainment and Web sites. Our ultimate goal as parents is to educate our girls about these realities, in order to raise media-literate girls who live in this world with open and thoughtful eyes."
To achieve this goal, Brown, Levin, and other experts recommend that parents take a close look at the Girl Net, examine its reach into girls' lives, and figure out how to monitor, limit, and discuss it. In this way parents can begin to help their daughters make wise choices about what they watch, wear and consume, to recognize the power of marketing and to not get caught in its net.