A staple of teen and children’s TV at this point is the “very special episode” format that takes ripped-from-the-headlines issues and stories and brings them into the world of characters your kids already connect with. While your memories of these PSA kind of stories may be at-best cheesy and at-worst cringe-y, it’s somehow always really satisfying to see the media geared toward kids trying to help them frame these important conversations. And, if nothing else, they are always a great jumping-off point for the difficult but unbelievably necessary conversations we all want to be having with the young people in our lives.
As we’ve reported extensively here at SheKnows, the trend of vaping among teens has been prevalent in the news cycle over the last year. Stats show that something like one in four high school students reported vaping within 30 days of being surveyed (typically using fruity or mint-flavored products that have mostly been discontinued) and a number of states have started filing lawsuits against E-cigarette companies for targeting underage users in their advertising.
The soon-to-premiere episode of Raven’s Home — the sequel series to That’s So Raven that follows the titular character’s adventures as a mother (and, yes, one of her kids is psychic too — talk about a karma baby!) — titled “What About Your Friends” explores what happens when Raven’s son Booker experiences peer pressure from friends trying to get him to try vaping (though he is informed about the risks and isn’t into it). SheKnows caught up with Raven-Symoné ahead of the episode airing to talk about the episode, the different kind of pressures young people encounter and the importance of telling stories that tackle issues kids and their parents care about.
“Everyone at Disney Channel wants to make sure that this show is touching the minds and social issues that go on within the teen community and in the family unit. One of the things that — I think plaguing is a strong word — but that’s going around that’s negatively impacting people that are watching the show or their family members is vaping,” Raven told SheKnows. “And so way back, on That’s So Raven we did an episode on smoking. You have Lizzie McGuire, the episode on body image problems and Andy Mack dealing with all types of problems left and right. I thought it was definitely good that we’re tackling vaping because it is something that’s going on in the community that needs to stop and hopefully people watching the show will understand that and help change the dynamic of it.”
In the episode, you get to follow Booker as he deals with friends who claim he’s the owner of a vape found on school premises and Raven’s POV as a mother who wants to understand exactly what her kid is going through. Because Raven plays a mom who has to reckon with her child navigating a world of peers, friends (and not-quite friends) and the possibility that he may be trying something harmful like vaping, we asked what it was like to get into that headspace: “It was easier than I thought it would be —and I remember when my mom had the conversation with me about smoking and my brother and I just kind of imagined what it would be like, but the words were on the page already.”
Raven said that this kind of storytelling has to be handled with care to resonate with kids and that it helped to know that they had a strong team of writers and producers who were committed to really getting the story right — with honesty, sensitivity and care for the characters and the viewers who might actually find themselves in these kind of situations. That’s also why the team decided to do a separate special message following the episode where the actors get the chance speak to the audience about the episode and why the issue is so important.
“We have the points of view of the tween himself. You had the point of view as the mother and you get to see the friends — there’s a lot of different ways. You can see in the episode that it’s the Raven’s Home cast and our version of the story — and to do that well when it comes to something as serious as no smoking, something that’s bad for your body. We have some amazing writers on this show and they spelled it out to the T. We have wonderful people that we worked with that really helped to curate the message within the script,” she said. “And hopefully that’s what the viewers are going to [take away] this time. And with the talented kids on our show, I think they portrayed honesty and truth to the best of their ability. And you know, they’ll learn about it too.”
How can you use this episode to talk about vaping with your kid?
This episode lands at a time where a lot of parents and kids are grappling with the same question: How do we talk about vaping and the various risks that come with the habit in a way that really resonates kids and teens?
Cara Natterson, M.D., a pediatrician and author of a number of books about young people and health (most recently Decoding Boys) also told SheKnows about some of the challenges in having these vaping conversations (and other conversations about potentially dangerous behaviors) in a way that’ll stick.
“In my opinion, the biggest hurdle is where tweens and teens are in their brain development. Young brains are not fully mature, so they have an imbalance between the part driving impulsive, feel-good decisions (this part works very well in the teen brain!) and the part thinking through the long term consequences of a particular choice (this part lags behind during the teen years),” Natterson said. “This imbalance may make it more likely for a kid to try something compared with an adult. And then you have to layer on top of that the fact that the hardwiring inside the young brain is not yet fixed in place. This means that not only are younger people more likely to try vaping, but when they do they may be more likely to get hooked.”
But, ultimately, Natterson says the key is to have clear, informed communication from the start — let them know why this is a concern and have a more in-depth dialogue than a “because I said so” or “I know you’re not doing this” sort of back-and-forth.
“I am a huge fan of not talking down to kids. Meet them where they are but educate them in a really clear way. Let them know why you don’t want them inhaling nicotine, THC, or any of the dozens of chemicals found in vapes. Explain addiction. Teach them that they are being manipulated by big tobacco companies who profit off of their habit,” Natterson said. “Kids don’t like to be manipulated, so this argument tends to go a long way. If a parent isn’t educated about the risks of vaping, this is a great opportunity to get educated together. Find a reputable source online and read some articles or watch some videos and then talk about them.”