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What Influence Does Music Have on Our Kids?

What Parents Can Do To Ensure Their Child Is Not Exposed To Inappropriate Or Explicit Music

Can music really influence a teen to the point of committing rape, murder or suicide? Organizations such as the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) say it can, yet musicians and the Recording Industry Association of America state that music is not that powerful.

As today's music is more diverse than ever, issues concerning lyrics, song titles, album and CD covers – as well as the artists themselves – have become the center of controversy. But who should decide what's best for teens?

The Controversy

In the 1980s, various religious and parents' groups waged a campaign to limit the variety of musical messages that were available to America's teens. This campaign included the PMRC calling for warning labels on recordings that offered lyrics, themes or imagery related to sexuality, drug or alcohol use, extreme violence, rape, the occult and suicide. As a result, in 1990 the "Parental Advisory - Explicit Lyrics" warning label was initiated. However, no standards or criteria of what was considered "explicit" were given. As a result, the recording companies were left to decide what was appropriate for teens on their own.

Hundreds of "warning" labels are used on various albums and CDs every year. The red box "explict" warning can also be seen on various singles and albums when downloading music on services such as Apple's iTunes. Used to provide parents with information related to the content contained within, these labels are thought to prohibit teens from purchasing music that may contain lyrics, imagery or language that may be unsuitable. However, most teens don't feel they work.

"I don't know of any teen who looks at a warning label on a CD and then says, 'I better not buy that because it may be inappropriate for me,'" says Alec Shoemaker of Chester, Va. "I think the warning labels are for the parents more than they are the teens. If parents see the warning label on a CD they were going to buy for their teen, they'll put it back. But if a teen likes the music, they will buy it whether or not there is a label on the cover."

Parents hold another view on the effectiveness of warning labels and feel their use prevents music from being censored while providing a safety net for teens. "Music, like writing, should not be censored," says Karen Jenista, a homemaker from Colorado Springs, Colo. "Control should be at the parental level. As much as I may not like some lyrics, etc., the artists have the right to sing them. In that light, I think the warning labels are sufficient, much like the ratings of movies. If an artist's recordings have a warning label, the parents don't buy it for their teens. Mission accomplished."

The Cause and Effect

For decades, music has been blamed for antisocial or inappropriate behavior in teens. Examples include Ozzy Osbourne's "Suicide Solution," AC/DC's "Shoot to Thrill," and Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper." These titles are just a few that have been said to cause American teens to commit suicide. "Some rock artists actually seem to encourage teen suicide," says Susan Baker, the vice president of the PMRC. "In Centerpoint, a small Texas town, a young man took his life while listening to the music of AC/DC. He was not the first."

Dr. Gail Gross, a licensed psychologist in Houston, Texas, states that although consistently listening to or singing dark, depressing or inappropriate lyrics can have a negative effect, these are not directly responsible for the behaviors themselves. "Teens who are said to commit suicide or acts of violence as a result of a song they listened to do not do these things as a result of the music," Gross says. "These types of behaviors stem from a much deeper problem and should be addressed as such – not as a result or influence of a song and its lyrics."

According to a report by the Arts Censorship Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, a direct link between antisocial behavior and the exposure to the content of any form of artistic expression has never been scientifically established.

"There have always been very explicit images through art over the years with no evidence that any of it causes or fuels the presence of inappropriate behaviors," says Rebecca Batties, executive vice president of programming and marketing for Under Ground Online, a popular online site for teen music. "Today's society is extending upon what has always been there in culture. Just as the musicians or artists of the 50s talked about falling in love, having a good time, sex and rebellion, today's musicians and artists are doing the same but just using the trends and styles of today to do it. The difference is that no one blamed the arts for antisocial behavior then and they do now."

The Concern

In the midst of all the controversy, what can parents do to ensure their child is not exposed to explicit or inappropriate music? According to Batties, there is only so much a parent can do. "Teens are not with their parents twenty-four-seven," she says. "They go out with their friends, they go to school, they may work and they may be at another parents house. So, unless your child is confined to his or her room, they will be exposed to what you find obscene, inappropriate or explicit."

As concern grows regarding teen exposure to explicit song lyrics, the amount of conflict between teens and their parents grows, too. By discussing the issues that these song lyrics convey, parents can ensure that they are teaching their teens right from wrong.

According to Gross, it is not the explicit lyrics that should be of concern; it is whether or not the teens know what behaviors are inappropriate. "Parents begin teaching their children right from wrong at a very early age," she explains. "When they hit others, throw things, run out in the road or reach for a hot stove we tell them, 'no' or explain why these things are wrong. These lessons continue as a child grows and by the time they are in their teen years, they know that things such as using drugs or alcohol, beating someone, rape and murder are wrong. And if they know these things are wrong – and parents reinforce these life lessons – music, music videos and song lyrics are not going to make them practice such acts."

There are many things that teens will experience that are of a subjective nature – meaning it may appear to be or mean something different to different people. Batties states this is true of music as well. "It's a matter of judgment." she continues. "While these lyrics offer a very vivid imagery of sex, violence or otherwise, they are done so as poetry. Although most parents would and do not see it as poetry, most teens see it as a means of personal expression and find that poetic. Parents need to understand that their influence is far stronger and more important then that of any band or performer today or tomorrow."

With each era comes a new generation of teens. With each generation of teens comes a time of rebellion. With each new rebellion comes new music. With new music comes controversy. This is how it has been since Elvis first shook his hips on the Ed Sullivan show and this, more than likely, is how it will continue to be.

According to Batties, the most important part of dealing with teen rebellion and music is to think back in time. "It is really important for parents not to forget what they were like when they were young," she says. "Parents often forget that when they were teens they would look at their parents and promise themselves that they would never complain about the music their kids listened to or that they would never say the things their parents said to them. But now, they are, because they have forgotten what they once were. Remember?"

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