Q: Recently, my teen-age son bought a couple of CDs with lyrics that contain a lot of objectionable references to sex and violence. We're afraid that letting him have this kind of music will suggest that we condone the songs' messages. Should we let him buy more of these in the future?
A: Rock music and its lyrics have always caused disagreements between parents and teen-agers. Since such music carries an important symbolism for teen-agers, setting them apart from their parents, it must, to varying degrees, invite disapproval from adults. But implicit in your question is that somehow this kind of music will have a negative influence on his behavior.
While this is certainly a legitimate concern, there is little evidence that music chosen by adolescents exerts any effect on their behavior.
First, music is often used merely as background while the teen-ager is doing something else, such as chores, homework or talking on the phone. Second, teen-agers generally respond that it is the music itself rather than the lyrics that attracts them. Not surprisingly, therefore, less than 30 percent of teen-agers in one study knew the lyrics to their favorite songs. Other studies show similar findings and indicate that the level of comprehension is lowest among younger teens and more complete among college-age students.
Teen-agers and parents often interpret the lyrics of the same song in quite contrasting terms, with parents tending to have more negative interpretations of the lyrics.
There are some data that suggest that teens who listen to certain kinds of rock music are more likely to report higher rates of problem behaviors than teens who prefer other types. However, it is impossible from these studies to determine which came first: the problem behaviors (like smoking) or the interest in the music.
If you object to a particular CD, we suggest you use its purchase as an opportunity to raise your concerns with your son. Share your perspective about the music and elicit his. You may find that his interpretation of the content is quite different than yours. The discussion can serve as a means to assure that your son understands your values and beliefs and your expectations about what constitutes acceptable behavior on his part.
Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.