Beavis and Butt-head are back. The cartoon aired on MTV from 1993 to 1997 and had parents up in arms. These were the days before iTunes, iPods and iPads. Middle schoolers and teens were glued to the TV, eager to catch the latest music video. An added bonus was being able to watch a cartoon show that featured two teenage delinquents who also spent their time watching TV, uttering the phrase that raised parental hackles: “This sucks!”
More than ten years later, Beavis and Butt-head seem—dare we say it— cute, even quaint. No, they aren’t exactly Beaver and Wally, but their antics, which appeared so outrageous more than a decade ago, are more likely to produce yawns from a more sophisticated young audience. Beavis and Butt-head now spend their time watching Jersey Shore where real people, rather than cartoons, exhibit shocking behavior.
Beavis and Butt-head serve as a case study in how our opinions change about what we find outrageous. And the characters also provide a lesson to parents that reacting to every Beavis and Butt-head bump in the road is, in the long run, not the most effective way to protect adolescents.
In 1997, promoting our book, The Roller-Coaster Years: Raising Your Child Through the Maddening and Magical MIddle School Years, Margaret Sagarese and I did TV interviews and traveled around the country talking to parents. Beavis and Butt-head served as a lightning rod for parents’ concerns about their children being adversely influenced by the media. After a five year-old set fire to his family’s mobile home killing his two year-old brother, the boy’s mother later claimed her son had been influenced by Beavis’ fire-obsessed behavior. Parents pointed to the incident as justification for banning MTV in their homes. There was lots of talk about parental controls, blocking certain shows or cable services from the family television.
We didn’t discourage parents from monitoring what their children watched on TV, but we knew that method would eventually fall short. We encouraged them to teach their children media literacy, to watch all media with a critical eye, never taking for granted that what they were seeing was the truth or acceptable. We told parents to watch TV with their children, gently interjecting their opinions whenever possible. That advice still holds. “Why do you suppose Snooki feels she needs to drink to have fun?”
We learned a lot about adolescents writing our book (and we also had first hand experience parenting our own children), and we knew that this technology-obsessed generation would frequently find a way around any barrier that parents put up. (We used to joke that only a ten year-old would be able to program the family’s VCR). We also knew that technology was advancing at frightening speed and that parents would soon find it overwhelming to keep track of everything their children were using. I once had a “discussion” with a TV producer who insisted that he would continue to read all of his daughter’s emails, even if doing so took him hours and he violated his daughter’s privacy.
MTV is no longer on most young people’s radar. And cable is no longer the only medium that parents have to contend with. Teens these days are even more tech-savvy than their 1997 counterparts. These young people are armed with smart phones that take photos, iPads, iPods, and, of course, computers. They go on Facebook, Tweet their friends, upload their videos on YouTube and send hundreds of texts a day. If they want to watch TV, they can access Hulu from an iPad or computer, or even go directly to the show’s website. They can also watch millions of videos on YouTube.
How do parents monitor all of this? Quit their jobs? Give up exercising? Stop sleeping? None of the above.
Stop focusing on the technology—focus on the children. Adolescents may have many voices streaming through their earphones, but the voice they will really pay attention to is the voice of their parents. We used to tell parents that the middle school years were “the last chance years,” the last chance parents have to teach children values. Ten to 15 year-olds still depend on parents for their everyday needs and they are still listening even though they appear to be tuning parents out.
Technology provides many more ways to reach out and touch others. But what is unacceptable face-to-face—taunting someone, spreading rumors, bullying—is also unacceptable when using technology. Cell phones and computers don’t come with proper use manuals. Parents are the ones that need to provide that information.
Beavis and Butt-head are supposedly in high school but rarely attend. They make crude jokes, hurt others, and show little remorse for their actions. That hasn’t changed during their more than ten year hiatus. They still have no parents to teach them right from wrong. And in their words: “That sucks!”
Charlene Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of eight books for parents of young adolescents, including The Roller-Coaster Years: Raising Your Child Through the Maddening and Magical MIddle School Years,