Contributor: Corynn Wilson
The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” could not have been more perfect for the first music video to air on MTV in 1981, merging television and music to create the ultimate pop culture phenomenon. Proceeding through the 80s, MTV served as a transformative, youth-targeting source of hit music that soon became the leading market for artists and record companies. MTV’s market became such a straight ticket to the youth’s influence (thus its sky-high value) that its content evolved through the next two decades from a “kind of video jukebox,” Steve Johnson writes in the Los Angeles Times, to an abundance of teenage-directed advertisements, campaigns, and most importantly, television shows.
MTV’s “Total Request Live,” or “TRL,” supplied the fading music video craze with a last hoorah in 1999 by creating a viewer-voted countdown of the top videos with intermitting appearances from the latest up-and-coming artists, hosted by the infamous Carson Daly. This point in MTV’s history is about where my experience begins at age six. My older sisters were eight and twelve, and my single mother was working full-time while also going to graduate school part-time. Needless to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of supervision during the after-school television watching.
My eldest sister loved to be up on the latest trends so MTV was the ultimate gateway to the newest songs and pop culture news that drove kids’ styles and interests. The UPN Entertainment president Dawn Ostroff recognized its significance in the culture in 2004 by declaring that “MTV is a great barometer,” demonstrating with “reality TV. ‘The Real World’ was one of the first staples…. you can see how it is really starting to affect broadcast TV.” “TRL” was our shared and most favored interest, featuring Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, and various rap and R&B one-hit wonders, but the channel’s content was not limited to poppy, suggestive, extravagant music videos. Spring break specials set on beaches were infested with flawless, half-naked teens hosting the music video countdown and other much less musically relevant programs, showing a constant party of lavish lifestyles and unrealistic means.
An important disclaimer concerning my early exposure to the graphic, idealistic images of MTV is that I was not obsessed or even particularly intrigued by the content. I much preferred playing outside and making up ridiculous games. On our basic cable, MTV was just one of the channels on our list to scroll through, along with Nickelodeon, Disney, Lifetime (oh yeah, “Golden Girls” taught me the tooth fairy didn’t exist), Cartoon Network, and Animal Planet. A concerned parent’s or Dr. Phil’s opinion would consider these networks an assortment of acceptable and unacceptable for children. What is this poor child to do with exposure to both the socially appropriate television content and the horrific corruption of sex and violence without any flashing warning signs and direct orders against inappropriate shows?
Well, I believe the disclosure of such shows results in an advanced cultural awareness. Children’s culture involves all the imaginative, both cute and gross, simple and incomprehensible things that are far from any other age group’s grasp, creating a distinct social network of understanding between the participating children. What happens, then, when the content aimed at older viewers becomes available to kids far too young? Can the different range of cultures be integrated and create an uncomfortable understanding between adults and children?
In my experience, the answer is no, if given the proper environment. Certain family situations can unfortunately expose children to the mature content television is notorious for, such as the flashy music videos and exorbitant party scenes on MTV. However, these children can live in a home with a strong work ethic, family bond, and moral emphasis on education, individuality, and the resulting personal achievement, which juxtaposes the potentially bad influence. Making the distinction between an imperfect yet pleasant reality and the fantasies television like MTV creates is crucial for children’s early development of judgment and rationality; a child isolated with the information and ideas, however, will be left to use an underdeveloped sense of judgment. This fact is generalized and produces the fear that parents have for any exposure to questionable content. Watching siblings’ or parents’ reasonable reactions to a program, as in my case, significantly helps a child to understand the dissociation between watching and doing, thus reducing the impulse to mimic the behaviors seen on television.
The iconic MTV exposes violence, sex, substance, and unrealistic ideals to its viewers, presenting a serious risk to childhood development. However, seeing as how I’m not pregnant, anorexic, or haven’t required rehabilitation yet, the negative effects are not necessarily guaranteed to harm children.
 Robert Pittman, “The Man Behind The Monster,” Los Angeles Times, 28 July 1991, 7.
 Steven Johnson, “Commentary; A Siren’s Call; MTV’s focus has shifted away from music to such jolting, tasteless original programming as ‘Undressed’ and ‘Jackass,’” Los Angeles Times, 26 March 2001, 18.
 Pittman, 7.
 Michael Schneider, “Television: Nets Hip Hop to Teen Beat: MTV-Groomed Youth Bop to Primetime with Talent Deals,” Variety 393.12 (Feb 9, 2004-Feb 15, 2004), 30.