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)? 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:

  1. Children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others.
  2. Children may be more fearful of the world around them.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

2. Horror


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.

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 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 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.

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.

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).

Footnotes

  1. Joseph T. Klapper, The Effects of Mass Communication (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1960), 158.
  2. Roger Brown, Social Psychology (New York: The Free Press, 1965), 396.
  3. APA Online, http://www.apa.org/pubinfo/violence.html, 1.
  4. Ibid., 2.
  5. Leonard D. Eron. "Effects of Television Violence on Children," Testimony before Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, May 18, 1999, 3.
  6. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education, "Children, Adolescents, and Television," Pediatrics 107 (February, 2001), 423-6.
  7. Linda Smolak, Michael P. Levine, and Ruth Striegel-Moore, The Developmental Psychopathology of Eating Disorders: Implications for Research, Prevention, and Treatment (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Ass., 1996), 235, cited in "The Media and the Development of Disordered Eating," http://students.depaul.edu/~pdanesh/link4.html, 1.
  8. Liz Dittrich, "Media References," http://www.about-face.org/resources/refs/media.html.
  9. Bernie DeGroat, "Media Influence Eating Disorders," The University Record, October 22, 1997, http://www.umich.edu/~urecord/9798/Oct22 97/media.htm, 1.
  10. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education, "Sexuality, Contraception, and the Media," Pediatrics 107 (January, 2001), 191-4.
  11. Dale Kunkel, Keren Eyal, et al., Sex on TV 4, Kaiser Family Foundation, November, 2005.
  12. American Academy, "Sexuality," 191-4.
  13. Rebecca L. Collins, Marc N. Elliott, Sandra H. Berry, David E. Kanouse, Dale Kunkel, Sarah B. Hunter, and Angela Miu, "Watching Sex on Television Predicts Adolescent Initiation of Sexual Behavior," Pediatrics 114 (September, 2004), e280-9.
  14. American Academy of Pediatricians Committee on Communications, "Children, Adolescents, and Advertising," Pediatrics 95 (February, 1995), 295-7.
  15. AAP News Release, "Article Underscores Media Impact on Children and Adolescents," http://www.aap.org/advocacy/archives/janmedi.htm, 1.
  16. AAP, "Television and the Family," http://www.aap.org/family/tv1.htm, 1.
  17. AAP News Release, "Article Underscores Media Impact on Children and Adolescents," http://www.aap.org/advocacy/archives/janmedi.htm, 1.
  18. Thomas N. Robinson, Helen L. Chen, Joel D. Killen, "Television and Music Video Exposure and Risk of Adolescent Alcohol Use," Pediatrics 102 (November, 1998), e54.
  19. Klaas Gutschoven and Jan Van den Bulck, "Television Viewing and Age at Smoking Initiation: Does a Relationship Exist between Higher Levels of Television Viewing and Earlier Onset of Smoking?" Nicotine and Tobacco Research 7 (June, 2005), 381-5.
  20. AAP, "Television and the Family," http://www.aap.org/family/tv1.htm, 1; R. Jago, T. Baranowski. J. C. Baranowski, D. Thompson, and K. A. Greaves, "BMI from 3-6 y of age is predicted by TV viewing and physical activity, not diet," International Journal of Obesity 29 (2005), 557-65.
  21. Julie C. Lumeng, Sahand Rahnama, Danielle Appugliese, Niko Kaciroti, and Robert H. Bradley, "Television Exposure and Overweight Risk in Preschoolers," Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 160 (April, 2006), 417-22.
  22. Russell M. Viner and Tim J. Cole, "Television Viewing in Early Childhood Predicts Adult Body Mass Index," Journal of Pediatrics 147 (October, 2005), 429-35.
  23. Frederick J. Zimmerman, Gwen M. Glew, Dimitri A. Christakis, and Wayne Katon, "Early Cognitive Stimulation, Emotional Support, and Television Watching as Predictors of Subsequent Bullying among Grade-School Children," Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 159 (April, 2005), 384-8.
  24. AAP Media Resource Team, "Writer Bytes . . . Dramatizing Children's Behavior Problems," http://www.aap.org/mrt/beh.htm, 1.
  25. Elizabeth A. Vandewater, David S. Bickham, and June H. Lee, "Time Well Spent? Relating Television Use to Children's Free-Time Activities," Pediatrics 117 (February, 2006), e181-91.
  26. Kamila B. Mistry, Cynthia S. Minkovitz, Donna M. Strobino, and Dina L. G. Borzekowski, "Children's Television Exposure and Behavioral and Social Outcomes at 5.5 Years: Does Timing of Exposure Matter?" Pediatrics 120 (October, 2007), 762-9.