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Too Much, Too Soon
A defense of innocence and age-appropriate content
The human species is geared toward maturity, it’s as inevitable as death, at least biologically speaking. No one can remain an infant or child forever. This long journey towards adulthood entails different dimensions such as physical, social, hormonal, and intellectual aspects that can not be rushed. It is indeed quite a long journey, considering the human brain isn’t fully developed until about age 25, with room for some individual variance.
While our scientific understanding of the human brain has progressed to recognize that maturity is reached later rather than sooner, our demands of children are moving in the opposite way. We seem to assume, as a society, that children “can handle it” when it comes to all sorts of social media and current events exposure, some even go further and assume that children actually need it, in order to toughen up and become fully prepared adults. This line of thinking really doesn’t have a leg to stand on. What our recent habits as a modernized American society have instead shown, is that children and adolescents suffer greatly with early exposure to inappropriate content, such as sexual or implicit sexual conduct and violence on television, on social media, and even in ads and radio. Various studies confirm that teens are highly susceptible to being influenced by media and having it shape their values and behaviors regarding sex behavior (1, 2). Recent studies even show that about 1 hour to 2 hours of daily unsupervised television viewing by school-aged children has a significant negative effect on academic performance, especially reading (3; 4).
While the overwhelming evidence points to reducing childrens and teenagers’ exposure to inappropriate content, it seems that unless such content is explicitly marked rated-R, that rarely happens. Parents that are cautious about preserving the tender young years and innocence in their children are often accused of being overprotective and not exposing their children enough. There is, of course, a balance that should be sought in bringing up children, one that prioritizes preserving their innocence and childhood while at the same time recognizing that as they grow and mature, later rather than sooner, they will be able to handle information and content that is appropriate to their life stage and maturity.
Now, there is something to be said of when a child becomes an adolescent. There are wide cultural differences since in the United States the teen years start at thirteen (hence the “teen’), but in other countries in Europe, a child with 13 years old is still very much considered a child. Around 15 or 16 years, is when a child is considered a teenager in most countries in Europe, although there is some indication that this tendency may be shifting towards a younger age, perhaps influenced by social media exposure. It seems that in this respect, Europeans have it right in recognizing the beginning of adolescence later and around 16 years old, instead of prematurely at 13 years old. A younger start to adolescence, at 13, also implies that adolescents will remain adolescents for a much longer period, considering the brain typically continues to develop until around age 25.
What does this mean, practically speaking? It means that since 13-year-old American (or Canadian) kids are “considered’ adolescents, they are allowed to see, to do, and to experience behaviors and content, well before their European peers, who will experience them at a later age and with increased maturity to digest such exposure. This approach seems to be the most beneficial for children and teenagers, with many parents already recognizing it and taking steps to challenge the early adolescence narrative. It also seems to be the more intuitive and natural parental approach, just as a plant needs time to grow deep roots before it can withstand the harsh elements, so do children need to be given time to form their personality, values, and beliefs before being hastily pushed into the adult world.
1. Mass Media, Sex, and Sexuality. Brown JD, Greenberg BS, Buerkel-Rothfuss Adolesc Med. 1993 Oct; 4(3):511-526.
2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Committee on Public Education, American Academy of Child and Adolescent psychiatry, American Psychological Association. Pediatrics. 2001 Jan; 107(1):191-4.
3. Strasburger VC. Does television affect learning and school performance? Pediatrician. 1986;38:141–7.
4. Rice ML, Woodsmall L. Lessons from television: Children’s word learning when viewing. Child Dev. 1988;59:420–9.