Teen mags give girls information they need

November 03, 1998|By Susan Reimer

THE CROWDED FIELD of teen magazines has another new entry in Girl. It hit the newsstands in August, joining the scramble for allowances all over America by crowing that it will celebrate multiethnic, multicultural, multisized girls.

But just like market behemoth Seventeen, and fellow newcomers Teen People, Jump and Twist, it is the same old mix of beauty and boys. The fact that some of the models are wearing size 12 or 14 or are Asian or African-American was lost on an informal readership sampling, namely my 12-year-old daughter and her collection of face-glitter fashion heads.

The editors of Girl, who had success launching Mode, a fashion magazine for larger women, say they want to be there for the "real" teen-aged girls, whose fragile self-esteem apparently needs more propping up than mother's on the eve of the 20-year high school reunion.

But these magazines are less about public service journalism than they are about marketing to a niche.

Teen-agers are the fastest-growing population segment under 50; as the new millennium begins, there will be more of them in this country than members of any other age group. And no group parts with money faster than teen-aged girls, who could walk into Pep Boys and walk out broke.

Everyone wants to be there for this demographic group.

These magazines' exploitation of this vulnerable age, with their junk food content of hormones, hunks and horoscopes, offers plenty to dislike.

But it is their sexual content that freaks me out. Headlines such as: "Why I stopped having sex." "Can you read his body lingo?" "Why some guys are hard to hook." "The Big V; common questions about virginity made simple."

More so than when we read them over Cokes at the soda fountain, these magazines are about relationships, sexual health and the decision to become sexually active. And the girls who want to read them won't be 17 for at least five more years!

"They crave these magazines," says my friend Susan, whose seventh-grade daughter gets copies from friends because her mother won't write the check for a subscription.

"The information is good, but it is the wrong age for the information. I really don't want my 11-year-old reading this stuff."

We fear, I think, the loss of innocence that comes with sexual knowledge, but also the unseen pressure that it places on middle-school girls who are already in a ferocious hurry to be teen-agers.

We fear that these mature -- sometimes raw -- messages about clothing, relationships and life will jade them and drain them of the cheerful energy that makes them so appealing at this age.

But we may just be wrong.

"Kids at age 10 and 12 have a tremendous interest in what it is like to be a teen-ager," says Dr. Leon Rosenberg, director of the Johns Hopkins Child and Adolescent Mental Health Center.

"It is true with boys, but you are more impressed with it in the girls because they talk more about it. It is natural."

Little girls used to imitate mother, smearing their faces at her makeup table and trying on her dress clothes.

But the information explosion has put the world at their doorstep. There is so much more to imitate, and these magazines are part of it.

"Parents are fooling themselves if they think their 12-year-olds aren't thinking and talking about this stuff," says Rosenberg. "If it is sensibly written and they read about it, they might be willing to talk to you about it."

At that point, Rosenberg says, parents can put the imprint of their values on the information the kids are reading. But that won't happen if parents pretend that information isn't out there.

"Your child should know your values and she can't if you are hiding this stuff from her."

According to a report in the May 1997 Columbia Journalism Review, a trade publication of the media, teen magazines that once focused on fashion, beauty and entertainment now regularly cover nutrition, health, fitness, career, sex, relationships and, most importantly, sexual and reproductive health. And overall, they do it responsibly and well, the magazine said.

More notable, however, is the CJR finding that 69 percent of readers report they use teen magazines for information on sex, birth control or ways to prevent sexually transmitted diseases because they don't get it from other sources.

That's us they aren't getting it from. There is more to fear from that, I think, than from the Seventeen table of contents.

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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