Monday, June 27, 2011

Which Boyfriend Are You in the Mood For Today?... What the Internet is Teaching Kids

I’m always intrigued to speak with young children about how they experience the “online world.” While I was working at the art studio a few days ago, a bunch of eager children hijacked my computer to check out the latest games on The first screen that popped up asked the girls, “Which boyfriend are you in the mood for today?” While the online world may be a place for young people to try on different roles without real world consequences, what happens when they take their fantasy roles into the real world? For example, are men disposable in the real world if girls can choose a new one each day based on their moods in an online program? Are they being exposed to mature roles they aren’t ready for or are they learning to explore their sexual identities?

When I first saw that “boyfriend game” I was taken aback and ready to criticize it, but I know from many hours of working with kids that they are smart and inquisitive. They receive conflicting messages constantly about what it means to be “sexy” and “sexual.” Peggy Orenstein brought up a great point in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter about the way young girls are taught to look and act “sexy” but are not allowed to actually partake in “sex.” Are young girls to blame for mimicking the dance moves of their favorite musicians? The look is separated from the act. Once again, reinforcing the fact that young girls don’t have sexual desires. So could the online world be an empowering place? I’m hesitant to use the word “empowering” because of the incidences of cyber bullying.

After they “chose” which boyfriend they were in the mood for, the girls engaged me in a discussion about what I disliked the most about Justin Bieber. It was clear that these girls were over “Bieber fever.” I suggested, “Well, I don’t like his songs very much.” One girl chimed in, “Justin Bieber is a girl. He is female. That’s why I don’t like him. He looks like a girl.” I asked her more questions behind her reasoning about Bieber’s femininity. She responded that it was about the way that he dressed, looked, and he sang like a girl! This was a clear example to me of children assigning particular characteristics to men and women. A man possessing feminine traits is problematic in their worlds because they already have an idea of how men and women are supposed to act. For these girls, a man being stereotypically feminine is “wrong” and it’s a point of ridicule. The girls then dressed a Justin Bieber avatar on as an old grandfather.

In a few sketches on his talk show, Jimmy Fallon has ridiculed Bieber's image. Take a look!

Yes, this conversation was amusing, but then it took a turn for the worse when the girls began dressing other famous pop stars like Lady Gaga and Adele. They obsessed over their looks changing their hair and makeup. So that’s what all girls think about, right? They just care about the makeover and maintaining the perfect hairstyle? That is one reason why we need to be asking these questions about what online sites are teaching kids. Are they expanding gender roles or limiting girls to a world of shopping and perfect and “pure” bodies?

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