The average youth devotes nearly eight hours to media every day. (Why yes, that is more than a full-time job.) Forty-three percent of children ages 4 to 6 have a TV in their bedroom. Seventy percent of teens have their own video game console. And in 64 percent of American homes, the TV is on during mealtime. But whether our media T-shirt dons “I heart” or “I abhor,” the responsibility lies squarely with the “I.”
“The media is like any other tool. You can use it in a positive way or a negative one,” says Brad J. Bushman, a professor in the school of communication at Ohio State University. “Think of it like an ax. An ax can be used to chop wood for the fireplace to keep you warm for the winter—or it can be used to murder someone. It all comes down to the way we choose to use it.”
And we definitely do have choices: television, movies, computers, video games, tablets, books, iPods, magazines, smartphones, the Internet. Each has the capability of enhancing and entertaining our lives, and each can just as easily invite (and glorify) content that is violent, sexual, aggressive, or profane.
What you see is clearly what you get. “The choices we make in media can be symbolic of the choices we make in life,” said Elder Russell M. Ballard, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in a 2003 general conference address. “Choosing the trendy, the titillating, the tawdry in the TV programs or movies we watch can cause us to end up, if we’re not careful, choosing the same things in the lives we live.”
Church Members and the Media
Samantha Murphey is a media maven.
As a child, she was an avid reader who wanted to be a newspaper reporter. She thought about the way stories were told in the programming she viewed, and although “it may sound silly,” she says watching programs like “Boy Meets World” and “Remember the Titans” helped her develop her own creative style.
Now, as a married woman in her 20s, she’s a journalist, blogger, and creator of the website “Scarlett, Called Scout,” which details “girly things, deep things, and girly deep things.”
“Media makes me feel connected to the world beyond my daily human interactions,” says Murphey, who currently resides in Georgia. “It’s a source of news, entertainment, education, and communication.”
But even as someone who’s keyed up by technology, she knows her limits.
“It can make me feel connected, engaged, and edified if I use it wisely—or sapped of energy and motivation if I abuse it,” she says. “The media can be a real timesucker if you’re not careful.”
That fluctuation between feeling edified and feeling sapped by the media is likely common for Latter-day Saints. But the “careful” component is where things get atypical.
“If you take a typical LDS neighborhood, families are pretty consistent with their standards when it comes to things like sex before marriage, drug use, cigarette use, etc.,” says Sarah Coyne, an assistant professor of family life at BYU. “But when it comes to media standards, we’re really all over the place. Some have extremely strict rules, others have no rules at all, and the rest are somewhere in between.”
Why the disconnect?
“A lot of people don’t believe in the studies. They think what they watch doesn’t affect them, so they watch what they want, when they want,” Coyne says. “None of us want to think we are susceptible.
In many ways, it’s convenient not to believe.”
“People tend to think they’re not affected when it comes to things that are harmful,” Bushman adds. “Whether that’s . . . driving fast or watching a TV show—people generally think they are immune. The truth is nobody can escape the consequences.”
So what should we be on the lookout for? The list is akin to the “Sunday School answers,” in that we already know (and know better). Namely, sexual content, violence, profanity, verbal aggression,
substance abuse, and negative body images, which are well known and well documented in their effects.
“When it comes to this kind of content, you’re really taking a gamble—you can desensitize yourself,” says Keven R. Downs, a licensed clinical social worker in Utah. “And that’s doubly true when it comes to
your kids. When they’re exposed to things they’re not developmentally ready for, there’s potential for great harm. You might not see the effects today, but it can come out later in life.”
Equally damaging is content that is subtler in nature.
“Often media’s most devastating attacks on family are not direct or frontal or openly immoral,” Elder Ballard said in that same 2003 conference address. “Intelligent evil is too cunning for that, knowing that most people still profess belief in family and in traditional values. Rather the attacks are subtle and amoral—issues of right and wrong don’t even come up. Immorality and sexual innuendo are everywhere, causing some to believe that because everyone is doing it, it must be all right. This pernicious evil is not out in the street somewhere; it is coming right into our homes, right into the heart of our families.”
And it’s something members are catching onto.
“I’m not most offended by a specific type of objectionable content, but by objectionable content that is subversive,” Murphey says. “Often writers or producers infuse harmful political or commercial messages into their works but do so subtly, so that viewers are influenced without even realizing it. It’s much more effective, and therefore much more dangerous, than overt offensive messages. Blatant offensive content can be scarring and can cause an erosion of spirituality, to be sure, but subtle offensive content can cause paradigm shifts that are deep-rooted and binding.”
What’s more, it’s not just the quality of programming we need to watch out for—it’s quantity. According to The Kaiser Family Foundation, 66 percent of American kids own a cell phone, and they spend more time watching TV on their phones (49 minutes a day) than actually talking on them (33 minutes a day). Almost 50 percent of kids use media while doing homework. And the Media Violence Resource Center reported that the video game industry made $20 billion in 2010 thanks to the 300 million video games that were sold.
“There’s such an addictive quality to the media,” Downs says. “And it can have some seriously powerful consequences.”
Chief among them? Being devoid of the Spirit. “The Spirit can’t dwell in homes corrupted by damaging media content,” Coyne says. “It just can’t.”
Not “Just” Violence
One area that should be singled out is violence—if for no other reason than it’s typically downplayed.
“Violence is everywhere—it’s in fictional TV shows, in our news programs, and even in our kids’ cartoons,” says Coyne, who has conducted numerous studies on the effects of media violence. “There’s a general desensitization going on. We’re not accustomed to seeing sexual content at a young age, so we tend to be more aware of that when we see it later in life. But when it comes to violence, we’re just used to it.”
And she’s not kidding. According to the Media Violence Resource Center, by the time the average U.S. child starts elementary school, he or she will have seen 8,000 murders on television. For every 10 minutes of playing video or computer games, boys between the ages of 8 and 18 will see between two and 124 acts of violence. In video games rated as Teen or Mature, players will see more than 180 violent acts every 40 minutes, or 5,400 violent acts per month.
“It’s unbelievable to me that people don’t see how harmful media violence is, especially when the research is far more clear than any other area,” says Bushman, who is well known for his research on the
effects of violence in the media. “It’s what I’m most concerned about.”
So how harmful is all this violence, really?
“It can increase our aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and even increase our blood pressure,” Bushman says. “It can also decrease feelings of empathy and compassion.”
“Some kids who have been exposed to horror films have shown the same symptoms of children who’ve been traumatized,” Downs adds.
Equally dangerous (and often confusing) is when even the media’s “heroes” are using violence as a way to solve problems.
“I really don’t like violence because it is so glamorized in the media,” says Natalie Hollingshead, a Utah mother of two. “Even the so-called good guys on TV or in movies use a lot of violence, and I think it’s gradually numbing viewers. The violence is so elaborate that it is ‘cool,’ which really worries me as a parent.”
And it’s not just physical violence, either. Relational aggression can have similarly damaging effects.
“The media is overflowing with awful examples of how to speak to and treat other people,” says Coyne, who conducted a study on the effects of the aggression we witness in reality TV. “We need to be careful of every program we bring into our homes.”