Lyrics & The Health of Teenagers

The Boston Public Health Commission deemed Usher as the least healthy artist of 2010, with his singles “Lil Freak” and “Hot Tottie” topping their list of Top Ten Unhealthy Relationship Songs of 2010. The list also includes Eminem featuring Rihanna’s “Love The Way You Lie,” Ke$ha’s “Your Love Is My Drug,” and Justin Bieber featuring Sean Kingston’s “Eenie Meenie.” How do you determine if a song is unhealthy for teenagers?

“It’s technically a very rigorous process,” said Casey Corcoran, director of Start Strong, an initiative of the Boston Public Health Commission that focuses on the well being of local adolescents. According to Corcoran, the main five components of unhealthy songs are drama (unhealthy conflict—such as yelling and resentful arguing), possession or obsession, disrespect, sex as the main part of the relationship, and manipulation. The Start Strong team of 24 students that were recruited from healthy relationship community centers throughout Boston and range from 15 to 18-year-olds, chose popular songs from the Billboard Top 100 chart and examined the lyrics in co-ed pairs to determine if these toxic elements were present, then scored them up to fifty points according to their intensity.

Corcoran and Start Strong developed a “nutrition label” listing these criterion. The label was created after a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics was released stating “now there is strong enough evidence that song lyrics have a real, measurable effect on adolescent’s physical, emotional, and mental health” said Corcoran. “So we thought we need to give them tools to make informed choices about their media diet,” Corcoran said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics argues that music plays a principal role in the socialization of adolescents, and explicit lyrics about drugs, sex, and violence can be dangerous. Teenagers who are exposed to these lyrics are more likely to engage in risky behavior, such as promiscuity and drug and alcohol abuse. Boston University psychology professor Kathleen Malley-Morrisson said the repetitive nature of lyrics can contribute to the desensitization to the feelings of others or justification of aggression towards a partner.” According to the AAP, 85 percent of American 8 to 18-year-olds listen to music everyday on an average of 1.5 to 2.5 hours per day, and that parents should monitor what their teens are listening to.

Corcoran agrees that most parents of teens are unaware of what their children are listening to and how it can potentially affect them. “We don’t expect people to sit down and use this label every time they listen to a song, but they need to be having discussions about what the songs mean,” Corcoran added. Parents have responded to the tool, considering it a “conversation starter.” Corcoran said he hopes the enduring effect of the project is not that the music industry will change to become less negative, but that young people will critically evaluate music and therefore make healthier relationship decisions.

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