Middle School

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Are the Lyrics to Your Kids’ Favourite Songs Too Raunchy For Words?

Are the lyrics to your kids' favourite songs too raunchy for words?

Have you listened to the lyrics of your kids’ music recently?  Really listened?

I asked my daughter if I could listen to her iPod while I went for a run. For years, I’ve been hearing her music, and the music downloaded by my other children, so it’s become background music in our household. But now, undistracted, jogging through the quiet of the local cemetery, I could actually make out the lyrics of the songs. Some were so sexually suggestive, raunchy or violent that, if they were movies, they’d be rated ‘R’ for restricted.
On my return, I confronted my daughter. “Some of those songs have the most disgusting, disturbing lyrics I’ve ever heard. Do you like them? Do you know what they all mean?”
My daughter, 13, scoffed, “Mom, I don’t listen to the words. I just like the songs because of the music.”
Really? Well, whether or not she – or other young listeners – are paying attention to the words, it’s hard to believe the lyrics are not having some kind of impact on our kids.
Sure, some versions are censored with ‘bleeps’ in place of explicitly ‘bad’ words, but even the ‘bleeps’ are sending a signal to our kids, aren’t they? Or is it true, that ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me?’

Two studies present a warning

Some studies suggest that lyrics are having an influence on teen sexuality. A study sponsored by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development tracked the behaviour of teens over three years (2002 to 2004). It found that more of the teenagers who listened to songs with raunchy lyrics (51%) reported starting having sex earlier than those who listened to other types of music (29%).
Dr. Steven Martino, lead author and psychologist at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation, says, “Although we didn’t investigate the process underlying this relationship, we believe that kids who are exposed to a lot of music with degrading sexual content get very specific messages about sexuality. The messages are that women are sexual objects, valued mainly for the sexual pleasure they can provide to men, and that men are relentlessly and insatiably sexual. Teenagers who are often exposed to these portrayals of male and female sexuality are likely to see these as plausible and desirable ways to be.
“One conclusion that can be drawn from our study is that the lyrics of many popular songs may shape children’s views about sex and not necessarily in a way that is healthy. The increase in sexual behaviour at a younger age is a health risk for teens.”
In another study, a team at the University of Pittsburgh looked at a group of grade 9 students. They determined that those teens who were most exposed to lyrics that were rated ‘sexually degrading’ were more likely to have had sex than teens who had less exposure to similar lyrics. The study was published in February, 2009.
These studies seem to support each other. Scary stuff!
Or is it? Is it really possible to single out lyrics as the main factor affecting a teen’s sexual behaviour?

An opposing point of view How to deal with your kids' music and lyrics

Richard Sutherland, who teaches in the Faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary, doesn’t think that lyrics are a factor. “Lyrics are a lot like stories, scripts or poems,” he says. “They’re not necessarily meant to be taken literally. I don’t think that anyone would suggest that the lyrics, on their own, are responsible for making teens sexually active.” Rather, he describes behaviour and musical taste as being linked as part of a ‘lifestyle’.
Cathy Wing, co-executive director of Media Awareness Network, a Canadian non-profit centre for media literacy, agrees.
“In these studies, it is difficult to take into consideration other contributing factors in a young person’s life and environment – critical factors such as family life, parental involvement, mental health, and so on,” says Wing.
She does believe, however, that there is some cause for concern, especially for certain children. At risk could be “young people, either pre-teens or early adolescents, who are just starting to develop attitudes toward relationships and sex.”
An article on the Media Awareness Network’s website says: “Parents should be aware that violent, racist, homophobic or sexist lyrics in much of today’s popular music could have an impact on impressionable young people who are just developing a sense of identity and self-worth.”

A parent’s consensus

And me? Well, with all this on my mind, I sat down with my daughter the other day and reminded her about how I’d felt when I’d listened to some of the songs on her iPod. I told her about the various studies and I explained why I was concerned about what she was listening to. She was defensive at first, feeling as if I were challenging her right to make choices.
Finally, we were able to move into a fairly frank discussion. She shared her perceptions of some of the messages in the songs. We talked about lyrics being part of media, and agreed that it is important to be aware of how all media can affect us, sometimes in subtle ways.
The next day, to my delight, she came to me, iPod in hand, and urged me to listen to the lyrics of some of her favourite songs, eager to demonstrate her taste was discerning and developing.
As well as being just plain fun, it gave me even more insight into her cultural world and persuaded me that she’d taken our discussion to heart. I now feel reassured that, although she is still going to listen to the music of her choice, she will be more thoughtful about its place in her world. Hopefully, words will never hurt her.

Published March 2010

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