Children on a Split Screen
Gardner, Marilyn, The Christian Science Monitor
TWO faces of American children are projected by the media, as contradictory as a smile and a scowl. One is disarmingly idealistic, the other grimly realistic.
One face, that of the Fantasy Child, shows up everywhere in the make-believe world of network television. In sitcoms, adorable children and cheerful teens charm their way through minor family crises, solving all problems in 22 minutes. In commercials, cherubic tots with engaging smiles and endearing antics help to sell everything from cereal and carpets to appliances and brakes.
Explaining the popularity of children on television, a video research expert notes that they bring "warmth and security" to advertising. Call it the cute-tyke syndrome, and color it lucrative.
But open the pages of big-city newspapers and a different face stares back - the face of the Problem Child. Week after week, headlines and photos offer grim accounts of students shooting classmates and teachers in school corridors. Other stories focus on such controversial issues as condoms in schools, citywide curfews, and parental consent for teenage abortions. Headlines also paint a dark picture of young lawbreakers: "Sex Offenses by Juveniles Rise in Area"; "Five Juveniles Charged With Shooting at Cars on I-95." Call it the troubled-teen syndrome, and color it menacing.
Even statistical portraits of teenagers tend to focus on negative behavior - how many drink, smoke, use marijuana, and engage in sex. Only infrequently do positive statistics make news, drawing attention to the number of suburban teens who participate in community service, for instance, or the number of urban students who graduate.
News is news. Guns, gangs, condoms, and AIDS deserve serious coverage. But simply focusing on the sensational and the deviant - the "social ill of the week," complete with support groups and hotlines - without giving space to normal achievements distorts the image of American youths. So pervasive are the negative portrayals of children (and parents) in the press, in fact, that "dysfunctional" threatens to become a permanent modifier for "family."
There is a subtle connection between the life that is shown and the life that is lived - to some extent, what you get is what you see. …