We asked four teenage girls to keep a diary of their viewing. What they told us was alarming Augustine Vale is good looking, sassy and bright. At 15, she's a typical well-educated teenager studying for her GCSEs, with the usual rows with her parents about homework. But her mother, Viviane, says Augustine has a major problem that has divided the family.
She believes her daughter is dangerously hooked on a toxic diet of junk TV and crude popular culture. But when it comes to youth TV, she's like an addict,' says Viviane. The messages that shows such as Gossip Girl, The Girls Of The Playboy Mansion, Desperate Housewives and Skins give out is that to get ahead you must be thin, be a sexual predator and treat your friends as ruthlessly as your enemies.
It is dangerous and disturbing. The cast of U. If The Country Diary Of An Edwardian Lady recorded a vanishing world of charm and beauty at the turn of the last century, this diary, which we could call The Cultural Diary Of A 21st-Century Teenager, records a world where girls are hearing one message loud and clear: It is also a world where on-demand viewing, as a result of DVD recorders, digital packages such as Sky Plus and the availability of programmes online, has made age-inappropriate material available around the clock.
The 9pm watershed is unworkable as a parental guide or teenage warning. These four girls' diaries bear no resemblance to the broadcast schedule. They are watching X-rated shows over afternoon tea. All are dominated by celebrity and reality shows, dieting and modelling programmes, crude dramas aimed at adults and soaps.
Most of the shows are American. Of the girls we monitored, Augustine watched the most TV - four hours a night. But that is less than the national average, which is five hours a night. Along with 80 per cent of teenagers, she has a TV and computer in her bedroom. If we are not careful, it can drown out other, more nurturing influences at this critical age of development.
Perceptively, she says programmes about body shape depress her. All the evidence is that watching programmes about body weight and beauty can damage a young girl's self-esteem.
Her mother limits her viewing to two hours a night, though she does have a TV in her bedroom. Girls are aware that their mothers would prefer them to watch Jane Austen films, but they prefer trashier alternatives Olivia is goal shooter in her school netball first team and bright enough to win a place at grammar school.
Living TV, who broadcast the series, say Jade's condition has increased awareness of the issue among teenage girls, but others have criticised the show for including her as a way of once again promoting size zero models. I like to talk about them with my friends at school. But there can be real problems associated with watching too much of it. We are serving up our daughters a diet of junk Much of it is age inappropriate. The drip, drip, drip of it undermines self-esteem. If a girl has a secure sense of self because she has been loved and valued by those around her, she'll weather this onslaught of body image insecurity.
Should year-old Olivia really be watching this? Paris Hilton's British Best Friend is a favourite with many young girls But on closer inspection, the series - in which young women are given tasks such as shopping for Paris and 'keeping her secrets' - has disturbing echoes of the worst aspects of the school playground, with contestants resorting to bullying and victimising each other in their determination to win.
And yet they are rewarded for their excesses. What sort of message is that for a pre-teen? And, like junk food, the girls who devour it do know that what they watch on TV and read in gossip magazines is bad for them - the earlier it starts, the more damaging it is. The Inbetweeners is an award-winning Channel 4 comedy series.
It was watched by all three of the older girls, as was Skins, the Channel 4 drama about troubled teens. Both programmes are post-watershed and include references to graphic sex as well as bad language. In the 15 minutes of The Inbetweeners I watched, there were 35 references to sex acts and 12 four-letter expletives - nearly one a minute. Eleanor Hayward, 17, our third diarist, particularly likes The Inbetweeners, but says she wouldn't want her year-old sister to see it.
Her programme choices, between studying for three science A-levels, leave her father, Martin, an eminent surgeon at London's Heart Hospital, dumbfounded. Just as we are trying to persuade our daughters to work hard, they see the rewards associated with being a glamour model glorified,' he says.
I can see the irony in these programmes. That's what adults don't understand. She's not a role model. She's just an entertaining distraction. Her mother, Lindsey, will not allow her to have a TV or computer in her bedroom. Here's a typical Thursday night's viewing: The family eat together, which is why they have invested in a DVD recorder so these programmes don't impact on family life. So if all their friends watch Skins, we will have it on, otherwise they will just go to someone else's house to see it.
The screwball American comedy set in a hospital also proved popular but it might not always be suitable for younger girls Here is her TV viewing diary for a typical Monday: All of Chloe's TV choices are U. It follows rich girls as their parents arrange their 'super sweet' 16th birthday parties. It usually involves stretch limos, gifts of new cars and hysterical catfighting over party invitations. Most nights Chloe also read adult glamour magazines. Though there are publications aimed at her age group, she chooses to buy those marketed as adult.
Chloe says she finds Bliss, Sugar and Miz too young, which is in itself genuinely disturbing. The average age of the Bliss readership is 15, yet this month's edition features a glamorous and 'inspirational' spread about three teen mums and their children, without once mentioning that sex with an underage girl is illegal. Two of the girls were 14 and 15 when they became pregnant.
Other features included an interview with a star from Skins, promoting a post-watershed programme to a pre-watershed age group. Ed Mayo, chief executive of Consumer Focus, the Government's consumer watchdog, has recently accused the magazines of pushing the envelope and warns that parents would be shocked by much of their content.
He believes these teen magazines are responsible 'for the early sexualisation of children'. But is he right? What effect does this deluge of material have on the young girls who choose to watch and read it?
Girls are being shown female role models who are highly sexualised, trivial in their thinking and lacking core relationship skills, and that's an issue. Teenage girls do need to see some of it because it is part of our adult world.
But they do need to question it and to see how shallow it is, too. If they don't have those, it can do real lasting harm. But if influences are strong in the first decade, you need to have faith they will survive. Is it really helping them and the rest of their generation to grow up to become the sort of women we'd like them to be? Will this toxic diet have long-term consequences for today's teenage girls? We can only hope that the values recorded in their teenage cultural diaries don't become the realities of their adult world.
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