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Indoor Tan Ban for Minors: Will It Help?
Expert discusses the law and the culture of tanning
When Nutley mom Patricia Krentcil was charged in late April with bringing her 5-year-old daughter into a tanning booth, many were shocked by the color of her skin, which went far beyond an ordinary tan. Krentcil was dubbed a “tanorexic’’and the case sparked support for a New Jersey bill to ban children under 15 from using tanning beds unless parents are present during the consultation and tanning session. Teens 16 and over would be barred from tanning indoors on consecutive days. Salon owners would be fined $1,000 for a first offense and would face a five-day loss of their license for a third offense. The legislation was approved by the senate health committee last month.
Kathryn Greene, an associate professor in the School of Communication and Information, has researched why adolescents use tanning salons and is working with Jerod Stapleton at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and Smita Banerjee at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to craft messages that will warn them of the increased of skin cancer that results from even infrequent use of tanning beds. For teens, the risks are higher because their bodies are still developing, according to Greene. Greene spoke with Rutgers Today about the personality profile of a salon tanner; an American beauty standard that prizes Caucasians with tan skin and the best way to tell teens about the health risks of tanning booths.
Rutgers Today: What did your research reveal about the type of teens who use tanning salons?
Greene: We were interested in people’s appearance-based motivations. There are people who know that indoor tanning is potentially harmful but they think, “I have to look great for the prom, or my sister’s wedding.” In one study, we tried to look at whether some types of “problem behaviors” clustered together. A problem behavior is anything that puts people at risk, such as driving 20 miles over the speed limit, biking without a helmet or smoking. People who engage in those behaviors are also more likely to tan. Sensation seeking is a personality trait that is related to the desire for novel experiences. People high in sensation seeking might do things like bungee jumping or riding roller coasters. People high in sensation seeking are more likely to use indoor tanning. Men, in general, have higher levels of sensation seeking and many risky behaviors, but relatively few men use tanning salons. Indoor tanning is a also peer culture. We find that people who use tanning beds hang out with people who use tanning beds, so they also overestimate the use of tanning beds among peers.
Rutgers Today: Has Jersey Shore helped or hurt the reputation of tanning salons?
Greene: People have very different reactions to that show, including how our state is portrayed. What’s interesting about that show for tanning is that if you find Jersey Shore to be a particularly horrible model of interpersonal relationships and risk taking, including normalizing drinking and violence, then you might think tanning beds are a bad thing and think, “I don’t want to look like those people.’’ To those who find the characters on Jersey Shore appealing -- perhaps younger people – tanning beds may seem normative and a regular part of “being cool” and popular. Some younger people see tanning as a part of growing up, being an adolescent/emerging adult and “looking good.”
Rutgers Today: How do perceptions of tans as beautiful or desirable contribute to the problem?
Greene: Tanning is rooted in perceptions of beauty and attractiveness that are grounded in cultural beliefs. I got tired of hearing women say “I look thinner when I’m tan,” or “I look healthier.” So we did a classic experiment where we took a picture of a male and female and manipulated the skin color from light to medium and dark. Women didn’t see differences in weight or attractiveness based on tanning level, contrary to expectations. Unfortunately men thought that the women looked thinner, prettier and healthier when they were more tan. If women tan because they want to be more attractive to men, we need to change that belief system for men and target them for campaigns.
Rutgers Today: Do you think a law restricting minors from using tanning beds without permission would be effective?
Greene: It might be helpful, but in other states the compliance with the law is poor. Investigative reports indicate significant non-compliance. For example, youth go in and say, “I’m 16.’’ They see your ID, you show them a supposed note from your parents and they let you in. This type of legislation has the best chance of being effective if paired with significant fines and penalties for salons found to be violating regulations. This is a different approach from our work, focusing on people’s decisions to use the tanning beds.
Rutgers Today: What type of message is most effective in reaching young teens?
Greene: It’s hard to get adolescents to think about the future, but a narrative message that’s anecdotal has more impact, than say a story about someone who tanned in a salon only a few times and several years later noticed a growth, now has a scar, and when she wears a short-sleeved shirt, everyone notices the scar. We can highlight where people have skin damage on their face, show the acceleration of wrinkles. That works better than what you learn in health class about the statistics: how tanning causes premature aging of the skin and many people die of melanoma. People don’t engage with just the facts and the figures the way they do with someone’s story. There was also some talk on emphasizing that that tanning looks fake, and there’s nothing wrong with playing up the fact that a certain celebrity has beautiful fair skin or emphasizing cultural diversity. Why not promote multiple beauty ideals?
Media Contact: Carrie Stetler