Life Matters —The Newsletter of the Respect Life Office of the Diocese of Rockford
By Patricia Pitkus Bainbridge
Associate Director, Respect Life Office
The tenth annual “TV-Turnoff Week” is scheduled for April 19-25th. While the mere thought of fasting from television may at first appear to be an impossible task for many, it is definitely one for serious consideration.
The television set has become an essential fixture in 98% of homes in the United States. Forty-one percent of those households have three or more sets. Over 50% of American children have a television set in their bedroom and the average household has the television on for nearly eight hours each day.
And while there are certainly some programs worthy of our time, much of what is offered up on a 24/7 basis via the television is downright evil. Typical fare includes the presentation—with overt or tacit approval—of non-marital sexual activity, co-habitation, homosexual activity, extra marital affairs, pornography and abortion as options in the smorgasbord of personal choices. What used to be considered evil is now considered good and vice versa.
Personal autonomy is exalted and traditional morality is rejected. On those rare occasions where characters who espouse time-honored views are included, they are usually portrayed as ignorant, over-bearing, and out-of-touch with reality. If they are presented in a more moderate way, the implication is still clear that they are not to be taken seriously.
Shape or Reflect Culture?
For years, people have pondered whether television (and other media) shapes or reflects culture. The general consensus is that the media now reflects a culture that it helped to create.
Most people are totally unaware that television influences their thinking and behavior. In fact, most would vehemently deny it. In May of 2002, the Kaiser Family Foundation (a pro-abortion, "non-traditional family” group) released the results of its survey on teens, sex, and TV that found that 72% of 15-17 year olds “believe that sexual content on TV influences the behavior of kids their age ‘somewhat’ or ‘a lot.’ Interestingly, just 22% think “it influences their own behavior to this degree.”
Vicky Rideout, a vice president at Kaiser, said “this survey points to the incredible power of TV in teens’ lives...we’re not saying TV causes teen pregnancy.. and we’re not trying to get sex off of TV…but we are saying that we need to pay attention to the messages TV is sending about sex, because the teens themselves are definitely paying attention.” Sadly, Ms. Rideout ignores the obvious—while TV does not cause teen pregnancy, it does influence teens to mimic what they see and that behavior does frequently result in pregnancy.
Teens are also paying attention to the messages being sent about a number of other issues including abortion, marriage, and traditional families. Surveys like the one just mentioned are not really needed to understand the power of the media.
The March 18, 2004 edition of the Chicago Tribune printed an article entitled, “Hip hit shows drive language: from badabing, to yada yada, TV makes mark.”
Allan Metcalf, professor of English at MacMurray College, reports “Popular television shows certainly spread fads and perhaps intensify them, or even initiate them.” A study by a linguistic professor at the University of Toronto found that “‘Friends’ is in the vanguard of changes in the way Americans talk” and that the public “absorbed Friendspeak like a sponge.”
Although not mentioned in the article, there is no doubt that young people also absorbed the trivialization of sex and the rejection of traditional morality they observed on “Friends.”
Adults Not Immune
Bob Smithouser, of Focus on the Family, writes, “When ‘Vanilla Sky’ came out, it just so happened that Tom Cruise’s character in that movie ordered a certain drink, and that drink became the hot item at clubs across America… If adults are that likely to go into a bar and order something simply because Tom Cruise did, how much more susceptible are teen-agers who are still trying to figure out who they are, where their boundaries are?”
Corporate America spends billions of dollars each year advertising products because they know their ads have an effect on the attitudes and behaviors of consumers. Politicians buy air-time during election years because they know name recognition counts.
There is no doubt that media influences the attitudes and behavior of the general public, especially young people. Alcohol and cigarette ads were banned from television because it was understood that they were encouraging teens to smoke and drink.
Once banned from television, ads for birth control (targeting the young) are beginning to appear all too frequently. With the majority of media moguls personally rejecting traditional morality, it should come as no surprise that they use their venues to further their own values—or lack thereof.
Numerous studies have shown a link between behavior and what is seen on television. While this could result in a positive outcome with benefits to both individuals and society, the content of much of what is seen on TV today leads to the negative. And let us not forget that children are especially vulnerable to what they see and hear on television.
Neil Postman, in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, opined on how people adjust to what they see on TV. He said that “the loss of the sense of the strange is a sign of adjustment, and the extent to which we have adjusted is a measure of the extent to which we have been changed.”
Ozzy or Ozzie?
MTV’s popular show “The Osbournes” reflects Postman’s thoughts. This “reality show” attracts more than 6 million viewers per episode and was awarded an Emmy for outstanding nonfiction reality program. Many young people are watching this show and there is no doubt that their attitudes and actions are being influenced by what they are seeing and hearing.
The Osbourne teens are high school dropouts who nevertheless have unlimited access to money. They come and go as they please. There are no rules, no boundaries and no real consequences to their bad choices. The message heard is: do whatever you want and you will be rich and famous.
Every episode of “The Osbournes” is so filled with “bleeped” vulgarities (the Parents Television Council reports an average of 136.5 instances per hour) that it is often difficult to follow the conversations. As Postman suggested, “The Osbournes” fans see nothing strange about the show. In fact, those who do object to the content on these shows are often the ones branded abnormal.
In 1952, ”The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was the closest thing there was to what is now referred to as “reality” television. There was no vulgar language, the parents did not physically assault one another, no one drank or did drugs, the teens showed respect for their parents, and materialism was not promoted or portrayed.
The Nelsons, as well as most of America fifty years ago would have found the Osbourne’s behavior shameful. As Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation wrote, “what Americans would have found absolutely intolerable only a few years ago, a majority now not only tolerates but celebrates.”
What to do?
We can and must be more vigilant about what our children are seeing on television and at the movies. We can begin by turning the TV off during the week of April 19-25tth. Then, we can get rid of any TVs that are in our children’s bedrooms and finally, put limitations on the amount and type of TV they are permitted to view.