December 19, 2012

Media Messages

We all know that “reality TV” is the new norm for network television, but what we don’t know is that its effect on children, particularly girls, is extremely detrimental.  The Girl Scout Research Institute conducted a survey of nearly 1,150 girls, ages 11-17, to find what their thoughts were about their favorite types of programming and how television changes the way they think about themselves and their lives.  The findings were disturbing; here is what they found:

Of girls surveyed, regular reality TV viewers* differ dramatically from their non-viewing peers in their expectations of peer relationships, their overall self-image, and their understanding of how the world works. The findings also suggest that reality TV can function in the lives of girls as a learning tool and as inspiration for getting involved in social causes.

Finding 1: Relationship Drama
All of the girls in the study feel that reality shows promote bad behavior.  The vast majority think these shows “often pit girls against each other to make the shows more exciting” (86%), “make people think that fighting is a normal part of a romantic relationship” (73%), and “make people think it’s okay to treat others badly" (70%).

Regular reality TV viewers accept and expect a higher level of drama, aggression, and bullying in their own lives as well. They are considerably more likely than non-viewers to agree that:
­  “Gossiping is a normal part of a relationship between girls”(78% vs. 54%);
­  “It’s in girls’ nature to be catty and competitive with one another”(68% vs. 50%); and
­  “It’s hard for me to trust other girls”(63% vs. 50%).   

Regarding boys, regular reality TV viewers are more likely than non-viewers to say “girls often have to compete for a guy’s attention”(74% vs. 63%).  As well, they admit they are happier when they are dating someone or have a boyfriend/significant other(49% vs. 28%).

Finding 2: Two Sides to Self-Image
In the study, we found that girls who view reality TV regularly are more focused on the value of physical appearance. 
  • Seventy-two percent say they spend a lot of time on their appearance (vs. 42% of non-viewers).
  •   More than a third (38%)think that a girl’s value is based on how she looks (compared to 28% of non-viewers).
  •   They would rather be recognized for their outer beauty than their inner beauty (28% vs.18% of non-viewers).

At the same time, regular reality TV viewers are more confident than non-viewers.
­  This group of girls is more self-assured than non-viewers when it comes to virtually every personal characteristic we asked girls about, with the                           
­  majority of regular reality TV viewers considering themselves mature, a good influence, smart, funny, and outgoing.
­  They are more likely than non-viewers to both aspire to leadership (46% vs. 27%) and to think they are currently seen as a leader(75% vs. 63%).
­  In addition, they are more likely to see themselves as role models for other girls (75% vs. 61%).

Finding 3: Success = Meanness + Lying
The research indicates that regular reality TV viewers emphasize being mean and/or lying to get ahead.  A higher percentage of these girls as compared to their non-viewing counterparts claim that sometimes:
­  “You have to lie to get what you want”(37% vs. 24%);
­  “Being mean earns you more respect than being nice”(37% vs. 25%); and
­  “You have to be mean to others to get what you want”(28% vs.18%).

Even though these findings are negative, there are some positive effects:

Finding 4: Positive Spin-Offs
In the study, the benefits of reality TV most frequently noted by all girls were opening the lines of communication, serving as a learning and motivational tool, and encouraging girls to be active in social causes.
­  Seventy-five percent of girls say that reality shows have inspired conversation with their parents and/or friends.
­  Many girls receive inspiration and comfort from reality TV, with 68% agreeing that reality shows “make me think I can achieve anything in life” and 48% that they “help me realize there are people out there like me.”
­  Seventy-five percent of girls say that reality TV depicts people with different backgrounds and beliefs. Furthermore, 65% say such shows introduce new ideas and perspectives, 62% say the shows have raised their awareness of social issues and causes, and 59% have been taught new things that they wouldn’t have learned about otherwise.

Whatever the television programs – or other media messages - might be, it’s critical that girls have a strong notion of right and wrong, know that what they see on television is largely artificial, and recognize that their actions now will affect their futures.  This is just one of the strong positive findings of our Chrysalis After-School program, and we can be proud that when compared with other girls their age across the state, Chrysalis participants report higher levels of this type of resilience than non-participants.

December 10, 2012

December 7th

The meaning of “December 7” may be different for those of us not old enough to remember WW II and the attack on Pearl Harbor.  It happens to be a day that reminds us of the many Americans now at war, particularly an increasing number of women.

We know that the US Defense Department now bans women from participating in ground combat (although there is now a federal lawsuit to overturn this ban).  But with about 14% of our military personnel being women, a disturbing new finding is that women in general are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than men.  Up to twice as likely, some researchers posit.

Post-traumatic stress disorder did not exist as a “formal” diagnosis until 1980, when it was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Prior to this, the terms shell shock, battle fatigue, or post-Vietnam syndrome were names given to various and severe adjustment problems experienced by recent war veterans.

A recent study at the San Francisco VA Medical Center found that women and men “learn” to fear differently.  This “fear conditioning” is vital to our safety, but in people with PTSD, a simple stimulus might trigger this stress or fear response.  Trash on the side of the road, or the smell of gasoline or fire may get associated with an actual traumatic military experience.  When female and male veterans were tested for reactions ranging from increased heart rate to rapid breathing when shown disturbing or violent images – and several of the images were paired with a slight electric shock,  women had more significant reactions.  The researchers believe this demonstrates that women may learn fear responses from different mechanisms, which may make them more susceptible to PTSD.

Patricia Resick and other researchers in the Women’s Health Sciences Division of the National Center for PTSD at Boston University are also seeking answers.  The group has linked significant diagnoses of PTSD to the types of trauma military women experience.  “In general, sexual trauma is a more significant risk for PTSD than combat or the types of trauma males in the military experience,” she reports.  “Combats, car accidents, or fights are impersonal events; when women are traumatized, it is often caused by the people who are supposed to love or protect them.”  When a fellow officer or commanding officer attacks a woman, the result is much more severe.

Sexual assault and severe sexual harassment - collectively known as military sexual trauma (MST) - is nearly epidemic in the armed service today . Amy Street, an assistant professor of psychiatry who leads a VA support team devoted to the issue, says that VA screenings for MST, mandated since 1992 for every veteran, reveal that 20%  of servicewomen report sexual assaults or severe, threatening harassment, compared to 1% percent of men.  And the numbers, she says, are most likely a gross underestimate. 

Many women veterans report that the sense of betrayal is compounded, and the trauma and shame intensified, when the chain of command fails to act on a reported incident, minimizes it, or even punishes women who report assaults.  Even reservists, the military part-timers who serve two weeks a year and one weekend a month, experience “high and impactful” rates of MST, among both women and men.  “So even people who had other lives outside of the military tended to experience a lot of harassment and assault,” Resick notes, “and even 10 or 20 years later, those experiences were associated with higher rates of depression, poorer functioning, and higher rates of PTSD.”

There’s much more to learn about the compounded effects of PTSD on both women veterans and women in the general population.  Because society doesn’t yet know how to understand the symptoms of PTSD in women, it’s much harder for them to find equilibrium.  And even with support from home, many female veterans also struggle because many do not see them as “real” veterans.

Since PTSD, its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment may be very different for women than for men, it’s our work to raise awareness about this and other issues facing women and girls today.  Thank you for being a leader in this effort.

December 3, 2012


This has been an eye-opening week for us – Brooke and I attended the Governor’s Summit on Bullying on Tuesday, and I’m still reeling from today’s Chrysalis Roundtable presentation, THREATS TO YOUTH ONLINE, presented by Mike Ferjak, Senior Criminal Investigator with the Iowa Department of Justice.  I had heard Mike give a presentation at a mother-daughter event several years ago, and was astounded about how frequently – and how easily – a young person can fall into the throes of a predator online.

Here are just a few statistics:

­  One in five U.S. teenagers who regularly log on to the internet says they have received an unwanted sexual solicitation via the Web.  Solicitations were defined as requests to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk, or to give personal sexual information.  Crimes Against Children Research Center
­  25% of children have been exposed to unwanted pornographic material online.  Crimes Against Children Research Center
­  Only 1/3 of households with internet access are actively protecting their children with filtering or blocking software.  Center for Missing and Exploited Children
­  75% of children are willing to share personal information online about themselves and their family in exchange for goods and services.  eMarketer
­  Only approximately 25% of children who encountered a sexual approach or solicitation told a parent or adult.  Crimes Against Children Research Center
­  One in 33 youth received an aggressive sexual solicitation in the past year. This means a predator asked a young person to meet somewhere, called a young person on the phone, and/or sent the young person correspondence, money, or gifts through the U.S. Postal Service.  Youth internet Safety Survey
­  77% of the targets for online predators were age 14 or older. Another 22% were users ages 10 to 13.  Crimes Against Children Research Center


In his position, Ferjak works for the Iowa Attorney General and has a permanent assignment to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation’s (DCI) Cyber-Crime Unit where he serves on the Federal Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force.  Mike is also assigned to the Attorney General’s Human Trafficking enforcement and prosecution initiative.  He has served as the lead investigator for the Sexually Violent Predator Unit in the Attorney General’s Office, and with his knowledge and experience, is called upon by law enforcement, judicial, professional, community, and school groups across the country to provide up-to-the-minute facts on why this is such a significant problem.

Some predators use the anonymity of the internet to prey on vulnerable children and teens, whose internet access is often unsupervised.  Activities include exchanging child pornography or seeking victims online.  The internet allows them to share images and information about children and to make and stay in contact with them.  Predators are  present on children's chat rooms, frequently pretending to be children themselves.  Some actively arrange meetings with children, going to extraordinary efforts and incurring large travel and other expenses…the stories are endless and shocking.

How are the youth victimized?  By innocently becoming entangled in an online relationship with someone who represents him or herself as a young, attractive, interesting and thoughtful person.  Adults establish "friendships" with children online, then attempt to arrange a face-to-face meeting, potentially to sexually abuse or exploit the child.  They may then make online arrangements for the exchange, sale or purchase of child pornography (the actual exchange or delivery occurs through the mail, hand-to-hand exchanges, e-mail, and other electronic means) , or arrangements between adults seeking sexual access to children and adults willing to provide and/or trade children for sexual purposes.

Ferjack reports there are an estimated 130,000 sex offenders using MYSPACE (precursor to Facebook), and that the average age group sought for sex trafficking purposes is 11-14 year olds.  And 14% of child pornography online involves infants – birth to 12 months old.

If you are a parent, friend, teacher, or interested adult, here are some internet safety tips to deliver to the children in your life:

­  Avoid unfamiliar "Chat Rooms".  Chat rooms are places where many people can gather and discuss various topics of mutual interest all at one time.

­  Don't talk to people online that you don't know.   Offenders can easily fool others.

­  Never use your real name, age, or indication of your gender in your screen name or email address.   The most prevalent internet crime today is cyber stalking.

­  Never post personal information in a user profile.  Public resources available online can lead an offender to learn much more about you through internet searching.

­  Use an up-to-date firewall.   A firewall will block hackers’ “pre-attack probes,” called port scans.  A firewall should also block traffic or communications from a virus that made it onto your computer through your personal information.

­  Use an up-to-date virus scanner.  Most virus scanners will automatically add virus definitions. Update definitions once a week to have the most current definitions to detect the latest viruses.

­  Use Windows Update. Windows Update provides patches for known vulnerabilities in Windows and other Microsoft products.  Windows Update can be automated to check and install patches automatically.

­  Avoid opening email from someone you don't know, even email from known persons with unexpected or unusual attachments.

­  Report any incidents to the internet Crime Complaint Center (

If you are aware of a child you suspect or believe is in immediate risk of being harmed or exploited, contact your local law enforcement agency and report the situation to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at

If you have information concerning a missing child, report it to your local law enforcement agency and contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).

We so appreciate Chrysalis Board member, Lieutenant Joe Gonzalez, for his leadership in connecting this vital information to us and to our friends.  And because there is so much more to online abuse and bullying, we will schedule another presentation by Mike Ferjak to share more information on bullying and social networking.  After the first of the year, we’ll notify you of the time and place.

Please take time to forward this information to friends – there is no reason not to.