I’ll never forget that time when I was twelve when my mom decided to test my reaction to being grabbed in public. We were standing in line at our local sandwich shop when she said she had to use the bathroom and asked me to wait for our food. Moments later, a hand grasped roughly around my upper arm, fingers digging into my skin. My heart leapt into my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I froze.
Turns out, it wasn’t a predator or even a stranger. It was my mother. She never went to the bathroom, instead sneaking behind me to test my fight or flight response. It turns out, I had neither fight nor flight in me, instead terrified into total passivity. My mother was mortified by my reaction. The ride home was an endless lecture: Why didn’t I fight? Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I even turn around?
Sheltered doesn’t even begin to describe my childhood. My mom had this uncanny ability to relate any situation to stranger danger. If I forgot to pick my clothes up off the floor, she’d launch into an hour long lecture about how if those clothes had been a predator, I would have been taken by now. Once, when I was sixteen, I accidentally backed my car into the driver side door of her Mustang. Of course, that offense is basically punishable by death for any teenager but my mom saw it differently. The screaming that followed wasn’t about the car at all instead centering on how not paying attention could end up with me getting abducted or even murdered. For her, it was about being aware – I always had to be aware because danger was lurking around every corner and if I let my guard down, I was at risk.
I’m often thankful for my sheltered upbringing. After all, being perceptive is a good skill to have. I think my family’s obsession with caution kept me out of trouble as a teenager. I never got into cars alone with boys. I didn’t drink or do drugs (it’s hard to be aware when you’re under the influence). I was very careful with who I allowed inside my social group and what we did when we were together. I didn’t even like to stay out after dark which meant my homework was always complete, I got a good night’s sleep, and my grades reflected that.
There are some drawbacks though, especially now that I’m living out on my own. There are times when I hear my mother’s voice in the back of my head, telling me that I’m putting myself in danger. There are certain things I simply won’t do. I won’t be caught dead in a parking lot or at a gas station after dark. As much as I’d love to, I won’t jog in public or on hiking trails because the possibility of being assaulted is very real. I won’t open the door when home alone, even if it’s a mail person. Scheduling home maintenance services is tricky because being alone with a repairman seems risky. Doing things like this is part of adulthood but I’m still stuck in my mother’s protective bubble.
My circumstances aren’t unusual. Many millennial-age adults admit to having overprotective or even helicopter parents. Realizing it wasn’t just me pushed me to do some critical thinking about why parents of this particular generation feel the need to coddle and go to extremes to ‘protect’ their children.
I believe the answer lies in the media. I know, I know. Anytime anything happens in society, the media is first to take the blame. But take a moment to think about how much the media has changed since the 1950s or 60s versus today. My mother grew into her teens with only three available television stations. The news aired at 6 o’clock every night on one of those channels and when it was over, that was that. If you wanted more news, you’d have to read the newspaper or wait until the next day for the early morning news. Then, as my mom entered her late teens and early twenties, television changed. More channels became available. The news was no longer on a single channel and it didn’t air only twice a day. Now there were local and national options. In fact, there was a station dedicated to the news. Now, you could get your media fill almost any time of day. With an increase in options came the necessity to bolster ratings. More than one media outlet meant that consumers had options and in order to keep ratings high, networks were forced to compete with one another. Sensationalizing, spreading unreliable or false information, and extended coverage became part of the media experience.
By the time the millennial generation was born, their parents had experienced an exponential media shift starting at “you’ll get news when you can get it” and moving towards “you can have news whenever you want it.” They saw media coverage increase dramatically in only a handful of years. When they were growing up, they only heard a fraction of what was going on in the world. Now, they were granted almost unlimited access to everything. Murders, rapes, abductions, robberies – every gritty detail. And you can only imagine that gaining internet access during their millennial children’s adolescence only amplified this effect.
I think media consumption became an addiction for some. This is a generation who went without for so long, it felt empowering to have information literally at their fingertips. For my and many other millennials’ families, the news was a fixture in our household. If dinner was on the table, the news was on in the background. We integrated current events into our dinner conversation. My mother quizzed my brother and me on what we would do if faced with the same circumstances we heard about on the news. And like the sandwich shop incident of 2001, she found ways to test the credibility of our answers.
It only makes sense that my mother’s generation would want to shelter their children from a world ready to harm them. To them, the world was going to hell when in reality, an increase in media access and coverage had simply made it seem that way. Who can blame them for feeling this way? Ninety-five percent of news coverage is an ode to what’s wrong with society. And when you have children, you want to protect them from all of those things.
It leaves me wondering what parenting will look like for millennials. Most of us are at an age where we have or are thinking about starting families of our own. We grew up with parents who revered constant media coverage, who were grateful to have access to information they felt was important for raising informed children. In turn, it left many of us sheltered, unprepared for the real world, and distrustful of everyone around us. Media coverage isn’t a novelty for millennials but growing technology does give us more access than ever before. Will we perpetuate our parents’ protective ideals? Or has the unrelenting stream of media present in our adolescence completely desensitized us to the point of leniency? I hope that somehow we manage to find a balance; that we have seen the dangers of and instead use it as a talking point, not a deterrent to letting our children live their lives.