One Real Cause of Our Trouble
American society is riddled with problems. Not least is its inability to understand these problems correctly. When pundits assign blame, they seldom find the true culprit. What should we do about the crisis in education? Public discussion of the question generally percolates down to a call for teachers to do a better job. What is causing the high rate of illegitimate births and the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (now known as STD's)? Most of our leaders say it is inadequate sex education. What is responsible for teenage suicide? The common reply of reputed experts is that we are putting teenagers under too much pressure to meet adult expectations.
All these attempts at social analysis are faulty. Americans are wearing blinders to their true predicament. They do not see the real causes behind the wave of troubles sweeping across our society.
The primary cause is our departure from a Biblical world view, but there are also secondary causes. One of the most important is television. Its formative influence on children is profound, both because it is the main source of an alternative to the Biblical world view and because it has replaced traditional childhood experience with a radically new way of interacting with the world. The medical and psychological dangers in television come under eleven headings.
1. Excessive Violence
It has long been known that television fosters violence. Research in the 1950s suggested that violence in the media can trigger an unstable person under stress to commit violence in the real world (1). Certainly, many crimes have been inspired by lurid scenes in popular entertainment. One especially grim example occurred some years ago, when children poured gasoline on their parents' bed while they were sleeping and then lighted it—a crime they had seen in a television program.
In the 1960s, a classic study done by the psychologists Bandura, Ross, and Ross showed that televised violence affects normal children. They compared children who had recently seen a film showing aggression with children who had not. In response to mild frustration, the former were more likely to react aggressively (2). The essential finding of many other psychological studies in the same decade was that within a short time after viewing aggressive behavior in a visual medium, children are more likely to display aggression in unstructured play. It remained to be determined whether televised violence has a more serious impact on behavior.
A host of studies since the 1960s leave no doubt that the effects of televised violence are far-reaching. According to APA Online (Web site of the American Psychological Association), "Psychological research has shown three major effects of seeing violence on television:
- Children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others.
- Children may be more fearful of the world around them.
- Children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others" (3).
The most sobering data have come out of large longitudinal studies, investigating the relationship between exposure to televised violence during childhood and aggressive behavior many years later. Research led by Leonard Eron showed that the effects of watching televised violence at age eight lasted more than twenty years. Children who saw the most violence were more aggressive as teenagers and more likely to engage in criminal acts as adults (4).
Eron testified before Congress that these findings are not restricted to a single study, but have been replicated by many others, including several done in foreign countries. Moreover, the observed effects are not trivial. "The results from study to study are robust. All types of aggressive behavior, including illegal behaviors and criminal violence, had highly significant effect sizes associated with exposure to television violence" (5).
It is now estimated that from 10% to 20% of real violence can be traced to media influence (6). But this statistic is misleading for two reasons.
- Measurable criminal violence is not the only result of violence on television. The constant display of aggression also aggravates lesser forms of friction and strife, so that these are becoming more common in every corner of society, among adults as well as children.
- This statistic considers only the violence traceable to actual viewing of television. But the media also have insidious indirect effects on society. In their unrelieved efforts to overthrow traditional values, they are degrading the moral climate in which all people operate, however much they watch television. Thus, everyone is hemmed in by weaker restraints against antisocial behavior.
As themes of media content, violence and horror are similar, but not quite the same. Horror shows the gruesome effects of violence or any other destructive process. Why then would anyone find horror entertaining? It is especially appealing to adolescents, because they are in a period of life when they are striving for mastery over their emotions. Overcoming terror and revulsion makes them feel strong and grown-up.
The safe world of a story is no doubt a good place for learning how to manage fear. But it is natural and healthy to be fearful of injury and death and to see their results as disgusting. An appropriate response to horror restrains us from bringing harm to ourselves or to others, and creates sympathy for a victim. The ability to see horror as truly horrible makes civilized society possible. Yet, the many ghastly scenes on television and in the movies are so overdrawn as to dull the ability of adolescents to react appropriately. The media desensitize them to horror, making them more callous to evil and its consequences. The result is that they will find it easier to bring horror, or at least pain and sorrow, into the lives of other people.
3. The Cult of Beauty
From the beginning, television has labored mightily to convince viewers that they need to make themselves more attractive. It has offered up a ceaseless stream of ads for hair care products, shaving blades and creams, body soaps, deodorants, and a host of other products designed to enhance the feel, the smell, or the look of the human body.
In the effort to attract viewers and sell products, television and the other visual media constantly offer a gallery of the world's most beautiful people. A modern man sees more world-class female beauty in a single day than his forefathers saw in a lifetime.
As a result of the media's relentless campaign to promote body consciousness, people today are more obsessed with beauty than ever before. But the cult of beauty brings dry rot to the moral foundations of society.
- To be generally regarded as a beautiful person is nowadays often destructive, for in the minds of most people, a beautiful person is a sex object. Such a person may come to see himself or herself in the same way and to take pride in the distinction. The next step is to accept and even cultivate lust-driven attention because it is flattering to self, although it is also a lure into sin. The result all too often is that the person seen as beautiful falls into a licentious life style, allowing him or her to revel in the sordid and self-destructive pleasures that beauty makes possible.
- Many who do not have beauty (or who think they do not have it) are at risk for either of two unhealthy reactions. They may sink into a chronic self-hatred. Or at an unacceptable personal cost they may strive to become beautiful. Today's cult of beauty dictates extreme thinness. Teenage girls believe that the perfect girl is 5' 7" tall and weighs 100 lb. (7). As a result, an increasing number of young girls and even young boys are starving themselves in an effort to gain a fashionable look.
Conceptions of ideal appearance depend strongly on images in the media. Many studies have concluded that the media's exaltation of female thinness, both through the use of thin women to set the standard of beauty and through constant propaganda in favor of losing weight, is responsible in part for the current epidemic of eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia (8). It is estimated that these disorders now afflict about 15% of college-age women (9).
- The cult of beauty distorts social relationships by making physical appearance the chief determinant of social value. Who is most popular or who receives special opportunities depends on who is most good-looking. But looks are a poor criterion when choosing a friend or leader. (One of the worst kings of Israel was Saul, notable for his height and handsomeness.) Also, looks should be a secondary consideration when choosing a mate.
4. Preoccupation with Sex
The Saturday lineup of programs for children and teenagers has adopted the goal of heightening their sexual awareness as much as current standards of decency will allow. Yet the lewdness of these programs pales next to what young people can see on daytime or prime time television.
Sexual themes have risen from a whisper in the 1950s to a deafening roar in the 2000s.
- "The average American adolescent will view nearly 14,000 sexual references per year.
- In a recent content analysis, 56% of all programs on American television were found to contain sexual content.
- The so-called 'family hour' of prime-time television (8:00 to 9:00 PM) contains on average more than 8 sexual incidents.
- A recent study of 50 hours of daytime dramas found 156 acts of sexual intercourse. . . . Unmarried partners outnumbered married partners by 3 to 1" (10).
The data just cited come from a study published in 2001, but already they seriously understate the presence of sex on television. More recent data, from 2005, indicate that the flood of sexual content is still rising.
- The number of sex scenes almost doubled since 1998.
- In the twenty shows most popular with teens, 70% had sexual content.
- 15% of the scenes of intercourse involved a couple that had just met (11).
The effects of sexually explicit content on children (including adolescents) have not been studied as they should (12). The reason is that many people in a position to do the necessary research are philosophically indisposed to admit that such content could be harmful. But there are encouraging signs that the wind is changing. One recent study, for example, garners strong evidence that watching sex on television influences the actual behavior of teens. It increases the chances that they will have sex, and for those who would have sex anyway, it may start them at a younger age (13).
Until more hard evidence is forthcoming, however, common sense should not hesitate to take over where science stops. And by common sense we can be fairly certain sex on television has numerous evil effects on children.
- By giving a child an opportunity to watch what he should shun, and by presenting sexual activity as normal and fun, televised sex breaks down any moral inhibitions he might have either through natural modesty or through training.
- Sex in the media arouses him sexually and therefore engages him directly in immoral activity.
- The pleasure in sexual titillation is highly addictive. One experience of this kind creates the desire for another, and a child will likely be indiscriminate as to where he seeks it. He may seek it through further viewing of television, through pornography, or through actual intimacy with another person. In other words, he may be drawn into some form of sexual practice.
- The increasing presence of nudity on television (and in other media, such as the internet) is a major threat to public decency. Viewing naked people desensitizes children to the shame in public nakedness and destroys their own sense of modesty. Immodesty breeds immodesty.
No one should suppose that sex on television harms only children. It corrupts adults as well, by recruiting them to immorality and teaching them to victimize others.
5. Encouragement of Unhealthy Habits
Pediatricians complain that the media, especially television, are a prime cause of smoking, drinking, and drug use among adolescents (14). The pressures that the media bring on young people to engage in these self-destructive activities are well documented.
- "Alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs are present in 70 percent of prime time network dramatic programs, 38 out of 40 top-grossing movies, and half of all music videos" (15). Moreover, it is often an attractive role model who uses dangerous substances. The implicit message is that these find favor with people who are "healthy, energetic, sexy, and successful" (16).
- "For every 'just say no' or 'know when to say when' public service announcement, teens will view 25 to 50 beer and wine advertisements. Tobacco manufacturers spend $6 billion per year, and alcohol manufacturers spend $2 billion per year in all media, trying to entice young people into 'just say yes'" (17).
Does all the advertising succeed in recruiting customers among youth? Yes. According to one study, the more they have been exposed to alcohol ads, the more they drink (18). According to another study, TV-viewing was the strongest of several factors under scrutiny in its effect upon the age when youth begin smoking. As viewing increased, the age decreased (19).
Another health problem connected with TV-viewing is weight control. Several studies have established that TV-viewing increases the risk of being overweight (20). The effect is apparent as early as age three (21). TV-viewing in early childhood has such long-range effects that it is a risk factor for being overweight in adulthood (22). The excess poundage that television fans acquire is due partly to inactivity and partly to snacking, which may itself be TV-dependent behavior. It is encouraged by the many commercials pushing junk foods.
6. Modeling of Uncivil Speech and Conduct
The talk on television offers almost no relief from uncivil speech. If everything were pared away that is rude, loud, boastful, hostile, insulting, boorish, naughty, disrespectful, manipulative, or unkind, hardly anything would remain. A bad mouth dominates children's programs and just gets louder in adult programs. In sitcoms, people have hardly anything sincerely nice to say to each other. Anyone who doubts that this din of ugly speech affects children cannot be listening to them. It is depressing to hear the conversation of today's typical children. They talk to each other in cutting one-liners.
Yet the offensive behavior encouraged by the media is not confined to speech. For the sake of supposed humor, the media frequently show children acting naughty. Staged or cartoon-mediated disobedience, bullying, yelling, whining, rowdiness, hyperactivity—all set an example for children in the viewing audience. Research has shown that the more a child watches television, the more likely he will bully his peers (23).
Worst of all are the many scenes showing children out of control, in a tantrum perhaps (24). Unfortunately, a tantrum is contagious. One child takes his cue from another, even though the second may exist only on television. The common failure of adult characters on the screen to cope properly with naughtiness merely exacerbates the viewing child's desire to be naughty too.
Children learn civility—indeed, they learn kindness, consideration, and all the other virtues essential to good social relationships—through interaction with loving adults and through adult-supervised play with other children. TV-viewing, by focusing a child's attention upon an impersonal screen, drastically reduces his interaction with other real people (25). One of the indictments that recent research has brought against TV-viewing is that it produces children who are handicapped by poor social skills (26).