April 8, 2007

Cultivation and Enrichment: Suggestions for Improving the Developmental Psychology Program at USC

The mission of the University of Southern California is "the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit." In 2004, the university wisely realized that to stay true to its mission in a time of technological growth, globalization, and competition, a new strategic plan needed to be devised, the introduction to which states: "Our focus on increasing academic excellence, on hiring the best and most creative faculty, and on encouraging pathbreaking research, must continue to underpin all of our future activities.... At the same time we must acknowledge the fact that conditions in the world are changing ever more rapidly. Thus, more flexible strategies must be developed which will enable USC to accelerate its progress under evolving external circumstances." The document calls on USC to become one of the most influential research universities by conducting research that has an impact on the community, the nation, and the world; creating a significant global presence; and focusing educational programs to meet the needs of qualified students worldwide through curriculum, admissions, support services, and more. As a way to advance this ambitious agenda, the USC College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences created the Dean's Prize in order to challenge students to propose ideas that would make the educational experience at USC College even more fulfilling. In response to this challenge, I have come up with several suggestions that I believe would enrich the experience of students studying developmental psychology at USC. Furthermore, I believe that, if implemented, these additions could have a significant impact on society.

As evidenced by my previous two posts, I am devoted to the notion that today's adolescents constitute the future of our world. They will become the leaders of the next generation and their actions will determine the course of our society. However, as I have discussed, many adolescents are not receiving the support they need to reach their full potentials. Maybe this is happening because they are simply being forgotten in the academic and professional worlds. In today's dizzying environment of technological and global growth, educational programs are becoming more and more focused on careers that will advance these trends. The 2004 strategic plan notes that, "As the twenty-first century opens, the external environment for higher education is quickly changing in significant ways.... After five decades of relative stability, policies are shifting toward a greater emphasis on research that directly addresses practical issues in the national interest." These "practical issues" are assumed to be with respect to technology, international relations, and politics. I disagree with this assumption. In my
opinion there could be no issue more practical than ensuring the ideal development of the leaders of the future.

This is the crucial time at which a decision must be made by the university to go along with the narrow national plan of shifting education to focus on science, technology, and politics, or to think outside of the box and focus on other areas that are not so obvious but that will have a significant impact on the world. Currently, USC offers six majors within the Rossier School of Education. A psychology major at USC College, however, offers only three classes devoted to development. While this is much better than the one course offered by New York University, three class
es is not enough to stimulate interest in someone to become an educator or a mentor. Many psychology professors offer extra credit for participation in JEP, a program in which students like the one on the right go to classrooms in the less fortunate surrounding area and teach youth. Keri Valentine, an administrator at a local high school for adolescents who have served time in a juvenile detention center, stated in a USC News article that, "The kids look up to [the JEP participants]. We have some tough students here. But they listen to the USC students and don't bring up their negative activity when they're here." The article recounts the story of a student named Mariela Membreno who was pleasantly surprised at the support she recieved from her USC mentor Anne Cecconi. Most USC students choose not to participate in JEP like Cecconi did because a few points of extra credit is not worth hours of their free time. My idea: turn JEP into a class. Offer one or two units of actual credit for taking JEP as an elective class. This would make participation more worth the time for students, and I believe that participation would increase a great amount. With a little more outreach from caring people like USC students, the adolescents can be pulled out of trouble and may still have a chance to become leaders.

What else can be done to ensure that education in development remains stimulating? The adolescent development class that I am currently taking could be much more interesting since, like most psychology classes at USC, there is a lecture twice a week during which the students take notes, along with the occasional PBS video clip. I feel that so much more could be experienced and learned about in the class. Whatever happened to field trips? Let us get out there in the world and learn about adolescent development in person. A hands-on educational experience would be meaningful because listening to someone who has seen something and actually seeing it are two very different phenomena. If my class went to study in the community the issues I have discussed in my posts by meeting teenagers affected by those problems at local schools or juvenile detention centers, the students could very well be moved to do something proactive to help solve them. Involvement, participation, and stimulation are key to getting USC students to choose careers and activities that will help reverse the negative trends gripping many of today's adolescents. USC can make a local, national, and global impact by encouraging its students to actively participate in the fight to save our future by saving our adolescents.

April 1, 2007

Reclaiming Purpose and Passion: Why Dr. Dawna Markova Deserves a USC Honorary Degree

With graduation quickly approaching, this week I am discussing an important figure in the field of adolescent development psychology and why I believe she should be given a USC honorary degree at commencement this spring. The woman I am speaking of is Dr. Dawna Markova. Through noting her in my previous post, I learned that Markova is a fascinating woman, the type of professional that I aspire to be. In short, she is the Superwoman of adolescent development. The honorary degree, USC's highest award, is given to "honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities, whether or not they are widely known by the general public." Dr. Markova has certainly distinguished herself as a scholar and humanitarian.

Faithful, scholarly, skillful, courageous, and ambitious: the qualities of a Trojan. Dr. Markova possesses each of these qualities beautifully.
She is faithful to her cause, helping people all over the world learn with passion and live purposeful lives. Her places of business have varied from third world classrooms to corporate boardrooms. Markova could not be more scholarly, having PhD's in psychology and education, and having written seven books that have been published in ten languages. Her entire career is dedicated to education and the pursuit of personal fulfillment through learning. She writes on her blog, "As a learning junkie, nothing is as compelling to me as the light that is emitted from a person when learning is occurring. It has always been my handhold in the darkness... Learning is so much more than a transfer of information. It can mean wholeness, empowerment, actualization, liberation." I think that Dr. Markova must be rather skillful, courageous, and ambitious to have achieved all of her successes. It is not common for a psychologist to also be a teacher, volunteer, author, speaker, consultant, CEO, poet, parent, grandparent, and cancer survivor.

What does Dr. Markova have to say to the graduating generation? I believe she has more to say than can even be expressed in the time given for a speech. In an interview with Leverage Points, Markova says, " I think that the fragmentation and disengagement we're experiencing now comes, in large part, from the fact that we're living in a culture that doesn't cultivate wisdom...If you don't cultivate a garden, you don't get fruit... We can help each other develop strategies for bringing tomorrow into today's choices by falling in love with beautiful, dangerous, mysterious questions that can't be answered, by reminding one another that what matters to us is important, and by remembering those who stand behind us." In this small slice of Markova's wisdom, I find inspiration. Markova believes in the future, in progress, and above all she believes in learning.

While Dr. Markova may seem like an obvious choice, having been a keynote speaker at hundreds of events, no other professional in my field could be more qualified to receive a USC honorary degree as a Doctor of Humane Letters. She is the epitome of an outstanding citizen, dedicating herself to society in everything that she does. In one of her books, I Will Not Die and Unlived Life, Markova writes, "I will not die an unlived life. I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire. I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me; to make me less afraid, more accessible; to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise. I choose to risk my significance; to live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom and that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit." If Markova could inspire every member of the graduating generation to approach life the way she has, the world would be a better place.

March 20, 2007

I Believe in the Future: The Importance of Recognizing the Adolescents of Today as the Adults of Tomorrow

This week, inspired by This I Believe, a "national media project engaging people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values and beliefs that guide their daily lives," I decided to write about a core belief of mine that influenced me to study psychology and the development of adolescents. Essentially, I believe that adolescents are the future and that they must be given every opportunity and every bit of support possible to equip them with the necessary tools to succeed. My posts thus far have focused on negative trends taking place within the world of adolescents, and the buildup of these disturbing events helped me to realize that the adult world is simply failing to encourage some adolescents reach their full potentials. I of course acknowledge that there will always be forgotten children, and that not every young person is destined to become a scholar, doctor, lawyer, or politician. However, I still believe that some of the disconcerting phenomena among adolescents that I have written about so far can be reversed with a little bit of guidance and effort.

I was born into a family of two parents and four teenage half- siblings. My memories are of playing with them, attending their sports events, and thinking that they were not so much older than me. My brothers and sisters virtually disappeared when they went to college, but I failed to notice because I was a child beginning to focus on my own life. The thought that my siblings were off becoming adults never entered my mind. Suddenly one day I realized that the same four rambunctious teenagers I had once played with had become a leading attorney for Yahoo!, a psychiatrist, a stock broker, and a business manager. Not to mention my two half- sisters are wives and mothers. At that moment I made the connection between adolescence and adulthood. In the blink of an eye, from my perspective, four carefree teenagers blossomed into responsible adults with important positions in society. I was struck by the realization that I too would one day grow into a mature adult with the power to make a difference.

Forgetting that the future of society rests in teenagers' hands is all too easy for middle- aged adults. To them, teenagers seem too immature and naive to ever be leaders. 17th century British statesman and author Lord Chesterfield once said, "Young men are apt to think themselves wise enough, as drunken men are apt to think themselves sober enough." While adolescents sometimes act like they know more than they possibly could, is this state of mind not better than the state of mind that they know nothing at all and are comple
tely lost and hopeless? Is a confident teenager not more likely to succeed than one with no self-assurance whatsoever? No offense to Lord Chesterfield, but I do not think that is the case. Rather, I believe that adults should foster confidence over a lack of it. A confident teenager will not be afraid to strive toward his or her goals and will stop at nothing to achieve them, and these are the type of people that will serve as the best leaders of the future. Why are today's adolescents dragged down by eating disorders, violence, and risky behavior? These issues will most likely lead the affected adolescents to be much less effective members of society in the future. I believe that they are not being given the correct combination of expectation, encouragement, and opportunity to avoid these setbacks.

In an earlier post, I mentioned Diana Baumrind's definition of four styles of parenting. The authoritative style is characterized by high responsiveness and high demandingness, and is proven to lead to responsibility, self-assuredness, creativity, and academic success. If all parents studied Baumrind's types of parenting and tried to model themselves after the authoritative parenting model, many adolescents would be more confident, responsible, and successful. Indulgence, permissiveness, and excessive rigidity in parenting lead to decreased self-confidence, decreased achievement, and increased occurrence of risky behaviors. Because of this, parents must realize that the way in which they parent directly affects the futures of themselves, their children, and the rest of society. Dr. Dawna Markova, a prominent psychologist and educator pictured on the left, wisely quotes her grandmother by advising that, "What you must do is help your children love to learn and find their spot of grace. In this way they will be able to develop their gifts and share them with the rest of us. You must help them recognize and honor the different gifts of others who are also unique and needed." Markova seems to agree with Baumrind's school of thought that parents are charged with helping their children become successful individuals in society by encouraging them to strive for the highest goals.

The future as manifested by adolescents is not only in the hands of parents. The government must also take responsibility for giving adolescents optimal opportunities to grow into mature, capable adults. The No Child Left Behind Act has made
some efforts to optimize education by making schools accountable for achievement on tests, but the act is highly controversial among educators who are skeptical of the homogenization of education required. Educator Steve Araboa likens NCLB to a football program by saying, "All teams (students) must win the championship. If a team does not win the championship, they will be on probation until they are the champions, and coaches (teachers) will be held accountable. If, after two years, they have not won the championship, their footballs and equipment (state and federal funds) will be taken away until they do win the championship." Because of these drawbacks to NCBL, it is currently undergoing revision to make the act more flexible. Forcing schools and adolescents to adhere to such strict curricula is a mistake. As evidenced by Araboa, teachers are losing interest in education, and so are the students.

Markova said that parents must help their children love to learn, but how can children love to learn if the teachers are disenchanted and the material is cut and dry? The government should take a look at some of the essays on the This I Believe site, such as an essay by Henry that proposes that boys should be given educational video games because that is what they love to do. According to Henry, "Instead of catering to boys' learning styles, many U.S. schools are force-fitting them into an unnatural mold. Girls can tolerate the sit-still-and-listen program better than boys." Henry proposes teaching students through activities they already enjoy rather than trying to force them to love traditional education. Adolescence is a crucial time of identity formation. The legislators need to ask themselves if they would rather have robots or real people leading the nation in twenty years. Individuality should be embraced and encouraged rather than squelched, as it has historically been in this great nation of democracy. Even in the modern world of advancing technologies, artists and musicians are needed just as much as scientists and doctors. Failing to fund artistic programs in schools, as well as ignoring each child's unique gifts and flaws, is a grave error that will lead to a somber and unmotivated set of adults in the future. The government, as well as parents and the community, must recognize that the adolescents of today are the leaders of tomorrow. They have the right to every tool and opportunity necessary in ensuring their futures, as well as everyone else's.

March 4, 2007

Nature Plus Nurture Equals Inhibition: Stress Genes Combine with the Environment to Make Kids Shy

The February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science contained a study by Nathan Fox (pictured) that found that kids who are consistently shy while growing up are especially likely to be raised by stressed parents and to possess a gene associated with stress sensitivity. According to an article on PsychCentral, this means that the genetic factor that causes parents to be stressed can be passed down to their children, and the behavior of the parents combines with the gene to make the children more socially withdrawn. Fox says that, "Moms who report being stressed are likely to act differently toward their children than moms who report little stress." The American Institute of Stress reports that the many effects of stress include forgetfulness, increased irritability, overreaction to petty annoyances, and excessive suspiciousness. These are all behaviors that would have a significant impact on a child by making the child feel afraid to aggravate the stressed parent. If the parent is too overwhelmed to be supportive of the child, social development will be significantly impaired. This conclusion is supported by Diana Baumrind's parenting dimensions and styles. Baumrind theorized that there are two dimensions of parenting: demandingness and responsiveness. The four types of parenting are authoritative, authoritarian, permissive/ indulgent, and indifferent. The authoritative parenting style has been found to be the best style of parenting across cultures because it is high in both responsiveness and demandingness, which means that parents have high expectations but also give their children a high level of support. Children who have been raised by authoritative parents tend to be responsible, self- assured, creative, and successful in school. The behaviors discussed above that go along with stress seem to fit the authoritarian parenting style, which is low in responsiveness but high in demandingness. The combination of high expectations with low levels of support cause children to become passive, dependent, and lacking of self- assurance, intellectual curiosity, and social skills. This personality profile fits that of someone categorized as shy. In summary, a parent who reports being stressed is most likely to take on an authoritarian parenting style and therefore cause his or her child to become shy.

Of course, those risks are just the ones that exist before genes are thrown into the mix. While the authoritarian parenting style associated with stress can definitely put a child at risk for becoming shy, Fox found that among children exposed to a mother's stress, it was only those who had inherited the short forms of the genetic alleles who showed some forms of stress sensitivity. Fox said, "If you are raised in a stressful environment, and you inherit the short form of the gene, there is a highe
r likelihood that you will be fearful, anxious, or depressed. Another fact that makes the genetic component of stress and shyness so important is that all parents of adolescents are somewhat stressed. Parents with adolescents report less satisfaction with their marriages and relatively high levels of personal stress, and parents with adolescents who challenge them report lower levels of life satisfaction. The truth is that conflict within the family is a very normal part of adolescent development. As adolescents become more cognitively skilled and independent, clashes with parents over mundane issues such as school and lifestyle are inevitable. Also, most parents of adolescents are close to forty years old, which means that many of them are going through significant developmental changes of their own. Rosalind Gould concluded that, for adolescents, this phase in the family life cycle is a time of boundless horizons, but for parents it is a time of coming to terms with choices made when they were younger. The bottom line here is that all families are marked by conflict and stress during adolescence, but not all children turn out to be shy. Children who become shy over development most likely do so through a combination of these everyday stresses and genes.

February 24, 2007

Sport Killing: Teens Victimizing the Homeless

On Tuesday. February 20, a CNN report noted the increasing frequency of what criminologists call "sport killings," teenagers beating and murdering the homeless. According to this report, in 2006, 122 homeless were attacked and 20 were murdered by a group of teenagers described as "largely middle- class teens, with no criminal records, attacking the homeless with bats, golf clubs, paintball guns." I commented on two blogs discussing this disturbing trend in teenage violence. The first, at NC Mental Hope News, is an objective summary of the CNN report. The second blog, "Sport Killing Brought on by Lack of After School Programs?" at Voteswagon.com takes a political and cultural look at the etiology of teen sport killing. My comments follow.

My comment at NC Mental Hope News:

Thank you for such a thorough post. This CNN report certainly unveils an extremely disconcerting and all too unnoticed trend of violence among teenagers. Reading this made me wonder if these teens like Billy Ammons, Tom Daugherty, and Brian Hooks, pictured left, really get lost in the moment and fail to realize what they are doing, or if they are calculating and cold individuals who simply enjoy battering the defenseless homeless. Evidence that the teenagers get swept away by the violent fantasy before they realize what they've done can be found in the American Psychological Association findings that violent video games and music can increase aggression. This finding may also explain why the sport killers are almost entirely boys, since boys are found to play violent games and listen to violent music more than girls. There are also many individual, family, and community risk factors that can predispose a young person to aggression. However, I find it hard to believe that these teenagers have no idea that they are committing horrific acts as they humiliate, beat, and sometimes kill our nation's homeless. If teens simply could not help themselves, they would all be out killing homeless people. I think evidence for premeditation and awareness of the acts lies in Billy Ammon's statement that the beating of Norris Gaynor "felt like teeing off."

My comment at Voteswagon.com:

This is a very interesting and thought- provoking view on the cause of the increasing frequency of teen sport killings. I do not think that most people would tak
e this sort of political and cultural look into teen violence. I agree that the teenagers of present America are suffering due to cut-backs in after-school programs and supervision. This theory is backed up by an American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology article, in which Robert W. Blum states that, "Too many kids- rich and poor- are left to their own devices. Kids need structure to grow and to be healthy." Blum found that academic performance, amount of structure during free time, and family relationships play a much larger role in teenage risky behavior than do race or family income. According to a survey by the Afterschool Alliance, during the 2005/2006 school year, 75% of after-school programs operated at or above maximum capacity, and 87% of respondents said that there were children in their communities who needed after-school programs but had no access to them. The survey also reports that fewer than half of the respondents felt secure about their funding for the next two years, and only 20% felt secure about funding for the next three to five years. Does this mean that the sport killings will only continue to become more and more frequent? A report released today by the Alliance announces that President Bush plans not to increase funding in 2008. Rather, there will be $981 million in funding out of the requested $56 billion, and forty- four education programs are targeted for elimination. If Blum is correct, it seems that, with this further cut- back in after- school program funding, the amount of unsupervised teenagers will continue to rise, along with violent and risky behaviors such as sport killing.

February 19, 2007

Who Has Been Stealing from Mom's Medicine Cabinet: Teens Frequently Caught With Their Hands in the Medicinal Cookie Jar

A report released on Wednesday, February 14 by director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy John Walters, pictured right, concluded that teenagers' use of prescription drugs is remaining stable if not increasing even though their use of marijuana has declined in the past three years. A PDF version of the report is available at the ONDCP website. Walters' office found that 2.1 million teenagers abused prescription drugs in 2005, and the most commonly misused drugs are stimulants such as Adderall, painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin, and anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax. In an article in the University Daily Kansan, a college sophomore named Sarah describes her former addiction to Adderall, saying, "I took it pretty much before every single test, any time I needed to concentrate and get something done. I'm a really big procrastinator, so it was really easy when I took it because I could just knock something out in an hour."

Adolescents taking stimulants regularly to improve school performance
and cut down studying time is much more dangerous than they know. NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, reports that stimulants can have serious consequences including cardiovascular failure and lethal seizures. Painkillers, or opioids, also sometimes have extreme side effects, examples of which are respiratory depression and death. Anti-anxiety drugs, or central nervous system depressants, such as Xanax, often cause withdrawal symptoms such as seizures.

These statistics are not meaningful until they are put into the context of how teenagers feel about prescription medication misuse. A study released on January 24 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America found that 40% of teens and 37% of parents thought that teen abuse of prescription drugs was safer than abuse of illicit street drugs. Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of the partnership, stated, "This is a case of misinformation and poor attitudes - teens seeing few health risks associated with intentional abuse - teamed with easy access at home and via the Internet. Together it's a potentially lethal combination." What is causing this scary increase in teen abuse of prescription drugs? Psychiatrist Richard Friedman believes that the media may have a great deal to do with this trend. In an article for the New England Journal of Medicine, Friedman writes, "Expenditures by the pharmaceutical industry for direct-to-consumer advertising increased from $1.8 billion in 1999 to $4.2 billion in 2004. One effect has been to foster an image of prescription drugs as an integral and routine aspect of everyday life."

Inundating teens with advertisements for prescription drugs does not send the appropriate message. It is easy to think, "What harm could it do? I just need some sleep." Another cause of the rise in teen prescription drug abuse is easy access. In the New England Journal of Medicine article, a college student named John states that, "Prescription drugs are a lot easier to get than street drugs. Kids can get then on the street, from parents and friends, or on the Internet." Aside from these personal avenues to prescription medications, teenagers also have a very easy time getting the drugs from doctors. An 18-year- old named Claire told Friedma
n, "You can always find a doctor who you can convince that you have a sleeping problem to get Ambien or that you have ADD to get Adderall."

To help reverse the increasing frequency of teenage prescription drug abuse, Friedman suggests educating doctors about the signs of addiction and also addressing the issue directly with teenagers, since they underestimate the dangers of using stimulants, depressants, and anti-anxiety prescription medications. The ONDCP took measures February 20th by releasing new guidelines for prescription drug disposal, which calls for putting unused or expired prescription medications in undesirable substances, sealing them in plastic bags, and throwing them away or taking them to pharmaceutical return locations. If people keep up with these guidelines, as well as the educational measures suggested above, teenagers should experience much more difficulty in obtaining these potentially dangerous prescription medications. The bottom line is, the medicinal cookie jar needs to be under lock and key, and teenagers need to know that there are consequences to sticking their hands in it.

February 11, 2007

Teen Dating: Disturbing Violent and Electronic Abuse Trends

We all know that domestic abuse exists. Husbands and wives abusing each other physically and emotionally is shocking and disturbing, but it has been happening for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. However, there is a new, even more disconcerting trend taking place. Teenagers are physically abusing and basically stalking each other through use of cell phones and online accounts. This startling phenomenon is made worse by the fact that many teenagers are afraid to report abuse and do not know who to turn to. In honor of National Teen Violence Awareness and Prevention Week (February 5-9), new programs are underway encouraging the prevention of and education about teenage dating abuse. The first program is that of Sarah Van Zanten, pictured right, a 17 year- old from Palo Alto, California who is touring the Bay Area to educate others her age about her own terrifying experience with violence in teenage relationships. Sarah is a part of the second project, a hotline called "Love is Respect," funded by Liz Claiborne, the Office of Violence against women, and the Domestic Violence Hotline to help teenage victims of the fairly recent trend of abuse via cellular phones and the internet. I found two very interesting blogs, one addressing violence in teenage relationships, and the other addressing wireless emotional abuse. My comments on these two blogs are below.

Comment on Zendo Deb's blog about teenage violence:

To answer your opening question, boys (and girls) are getting their violent inspiration from all of those sources. Abuse tends to be a familial trait passed down through the generations, so boys are likely to hit their girlfriends if they are used to their dads hitting their moms. They are also desensitized somewhat from violent video games and movies, and they feel pressured to conform to their peers. I found a more recent study (2004) from the Department of Justice that reports that females 20-34 are now at the highest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence. Nonetheless, the statistic from TRU that 1 in 3 teenagers know someone like Sarah Van Zanten who has been physically abused is staggering, and that is only if the victims have told anyone. I congratulate you on noting that violence does not discriminate socioeconomically. In 2005, 15% of all intimate partner homicides took place in suburban areas, just under the 20% in rural areas. Teenagers need to know that socioeconomic status does not protect them from violence.

Comment on Poppy's blog about high tech student abuse:

Thank you for such a thorough post. These statistics are shocking to say the least. The technological prowess of today's teenagers certainly makes it easier for them to be in constant contact with each other. However, with the amount of sleep teenagers need (about 9 hours), I'm shocked that 24% are able to contact one another every single hour between midnight and 5am. According to a report by the National Center for Sleep Disorders Research, that disturbance in their sleep pattern is very unhealthy for them, since they are not getting any REM sleep, necessary to proper cognitive functioning. Such behavior could easily wreak havoc on a teenager's academic performance, not to mention the fact that they must be text messaging each other constantly throughout their classes (10-30 times per hour). The fact that parents are not all that aware of their teens' relentless communication with their partners is not very surprising. As adolescents get older, they spend more and more time with their friends and less time with their parents. What is worrisome is the point when these cellular relationships become obsessions. Teenagers should not have to fear repercussions from their partners for not responding to the fiftieth text message that day, nor should they hide this physical and emotional abuse from their parents. At least now they will have someone anonymous to call for advice, thanks to the new National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, loveisrespect.org.

February 3, 2007

Adolescent Autonomy Threatened: MySpace to Give Parents Access

In January, MySpace.com announced that it would soon give parents access to their children's information on the social networking site. According to the United Press International, free software named "Zephyr," set for release this summer, will allow parents to see the name, age, and location their children are displaying on MySpace. A parent would see something like the image on the right, but it would be the page of the parent's child. This move to give parents more access is apparently an attempt to prevent being sued by thirty- three U.S. attorneys general. MySpace is giving parents what they want because MySpace does not want to lose money. Unfortunately, MySpace has forgotten about the teenagers' privacy. On the surface, the decision to allow parents to see their children's MySpace names and ages seems harmless at the least. After all, law enforcement officials report that dozens of teens have been molested and some murdered by people they first met through MySpace. The problem is that the information parents will be allowed to see (name, age, location) cannot help them stop their children from meeting dangerous people online, unless of course a teenage girl decides to call herself "I want to be raped." Teenagers will continue to meet dangerous people online, and parents will gradually be given more and more access until their teenagers' web pages are no longer private forums. During human development, it is necessary to achieve certain salient developmental tasks in order to adapt in a healthy manner and move on to the next stage of development. The salient developmental tasks to be achieved during adolescent development are intimacy in friendships and romantic relationships, academic achievement, and autonomy from one's parents. The adolescent must gradually move away from the parents in order to create his or her own identity. In "What to Know About Teen Independence," Kathleen Boyce Rodgers, a former assistant professor of Family Life, reports that, "Adolescents need to explore their world more independently so they can learn to feel confident in themselves and their abilities...They may begin to experiment with new ways to dress; or spend more time with friends and less time with family." Naturally, parents struggle with their teens' newfound independence. They are tempted to remain protective and controlling. Contrary to common belief, this is not in adolescents' best interest. Rodgers advises parents to monitor the behavior of teens without being intrusive, to let teens practice decision-making with minimal parental guidance, and to provide opportunities for teens to be independent within a safe environment.

The truth is that MySpace is a safe environment. The victims of sexual assault who met their attackers on MySpace had
to agree to meet these strangers in person. MySpace is simply another place for predators to find victims. It is not any different than the mall or the park. We have all been taught "Don't talk to strangers." This mantra needs to be revised to say, "Don't talk to strangers whatsoever, whether you are online or at the mall." Teenagers that fall prey to predators online are not victims of poor security, but rather victims of poor education. While parents constantly checking their kids' MySpace pages will do nothing more than aggravate teenagers struggling to achieve autonomy, pro-actively educating these same teenagers may save their lives. Furthermore, evidence shows that most teens use MySpace responsibly, not hap- hazardly. A 2006 Pew Internet & American Life Project survey of 953 American adolescents ages 12- 17 found that 66% of teens with MySpace profiles allow only approved friends to access their profiles. Moreover, most teens knew the difference between private and public profiles, and most of them who reported using MySpace to make new friends were actually referring to friends of friends that they had met, not strangers. Steve Jones, pictured on the left, is a communications professor who studies new media at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Jones states that, "One of the things to take away from this report should be a sense of 'the kids are alright.' It's clear that teens are not just willy-nilly using social networking sites and making themselves vulnerable to predators." Jones admits that there are some teenagers who are careless and some even invite trouble, but the independence of the responsible adolescents should not be intruded upon by overly concerned parents. Contrary to what most parents believe, teenagers not wanting their parents to see their web pages does not mean that the teenagers are hiding anything. They are simply trying to use MySpace for the purpose that the name suggests, to have a private place to express themselves and exert their growing independence. The money and time being spent on creating software for parents to annoy their teenagers by nagging them about their MySpace names would be much better spent on software or programs to educate adolescents about the dangers of online predators.

January 27, 2007

Disordered Eating in Adolescent Girls: Why American Pop Culture Can Be Deadly

I once had a friend called Girl. At age sixteen, she ate what she wanted, but she was a ballet dancer, so she was always watching her figure. Then one day she met Boy. Girl and Boy began dating, and before long Girl's friends noticed she was losing weight. At first, we said, "You look amazing!" However, Girl got to the point at which she would no longer eat anything between seven in the morning and three in the afternoon. She was starving, and when I told her to eat, she said, "I will stop being hungry after a few days, and my stomach will shrink. Besides, when I get home, I will eat a whole meatball the size of my fist." Friends constantly asked me if Girl was okay; she was so thin. I truthfully answered that I was not sure. When Girl said that she could not find a dress for Homecoming because she looked fat, I asked her what size she wore, and she replied, "Size one." I was tired of telling my good friend to eat while she wasted away, and I hated her boyfriend for encouraging her anorexia. Worst of all, even with her unhealthy appearance and obvious psychological instability, I was jealous of her. Why? She looked like the women in the magazines. She could wear whatever she wanted and look "cute." Such is the power of the pervasive images of thinness in American society today.

According to
the Eating Disorders Coalition, a 2006 study by the Renfrew Center found that forty percent of nine- year- old girls have dieted. Another study by Margo Maine indicates that nine percent of nine- year- old girls have vomited in order to lose weight. Girls in America are becoming concerned about their weights at younger and younger ages. What makes American adolescents so obsessed with body image? While studies show that adolescent eating disorders are caused by many factors including genetics and a psychological need to have control, the fact that eating disorders are occurring earlier and more frequently suggests that the environment, particularly the media, is the leading cause of these disturbing diseases. Celebrities such as Nicole Richie and Lindsey Lohan (right) have been on every magazine cover imaginable, pictured under headlines such as, "How She Lost the Weight: You Can Do It, Too!" Adolescents are constantly bombarded with glorified images of rail-thin celebrities and models. Magazines, catalogs, television shows, billboards, movies, and concerts are all venues of extremely thin women. While follow- up magazine issues tend to contradict themselves by stating that these same celebrities have become too thin, the psychological damage to adolescent girls has already been done. In a culture that produces clothes that look best on thin figures, a culture that equates thinness with beauty, what else are young girls supposed to think other than, "I need to be thin."

The truth is, not everyone is physically meant to be a size two. Each person's body has what is called a set point, the weight at which the body is genetically predisposed to remain. Naturally, adolescence is accompanied by biological changes including weight gain. Beginning to associate with boys, used to their stick- thin pre- pubescent bodies, and surrounded by the increasingly thin images in the media, young girls panic when they start to gain weight and try to fight the process by starving themselves or purging. What they do not realize is that after adolescence their bodies will most likely thin back down naturally to their set points. What if a woman's set point is simply higher than the "standard" in the American media? This means that she is doomed to have low self- esteem about her body. She will probably attempt to fight her set point for her whole life, possibly taking extreme measures such as starvation, obsessive exercise, or purging.

Lynn Ponton reports that, in America, "Ninety- five percent of all women do not have the ideal body type portrayed by the media, and up to sixty percent of all women and girls eat in a dysfunctional fashion." While suggestions have been made to turn the increasing frequency of eating disorders in America into a political matter, the advertisements continue to feature unrealistically thin women. In September 2006, models who measured below a Body Mass Index of 18, such as the model on the left, were turned away from Madrid's fashion week. The regional government said that the fashion industry had a responsibility to portray healthy body images, because, "Fashion is a mirror and many teenagers imitate what they see on the catwalk." Letizia Moratti, the mayor of Milan, Italy, is also planning on putting similar restrictions on Milan's fashion show. This Wednesday, fashion bosses from Milan, Paris, London, and New York met to discuss ways to address eating disorders, but the only plan the New York representatives agreed to was to "launch consultations with designers aimed at encouraging the use of healthy- looking girls."

Will American policy- makers ever feel responsible enough for the public's health to adopt the policies now in place in Milan and Madrid? Is it possible for America to change its way of thinking to find healthier bodies more attractive? While healthier body images in the media would not completely eliminate eating disorders in American adolescent females, they would certainly help most girls to feel better about their bodies. Young girls need to know that the models are the women who are not normal, weighing approximately twenty- three percent less than the average woman. When it comes to eating disorders, most people are not aware of the serious physical effects, shown in the chart to the right, including malnutrition, dehydration, muscle atrophy, high or low blood pressure, diabetes, kidney infection or failure, osteoporosis, poor circulation, and heart failure. People also do not know that eating disorders carry the highest mortality rate of all the mental illnesses (up to 20%). The bottom line is that the American government must take these risks into account and begin treating eating disorders as a federal responsibility, or the media will continue to feature too- thin women, and American females will continue to obsess over their bodies. Nine- year- olds will continue worrying about their images to the point where they vomit to lose weight. They will continue breaking under the pressure of the media to be thin until many of them die.