A FAMILY GUIDE TO DEVELOPING MEDIA WISDOM
Copyright 2003 by Dr. Ted Baehr and Dr. Tom Snyder
Storytelling and Mythmaking
Stories matter deeply. They make a profound difference in our lives. They bring us laughter, tears and joy. They stimulate our minds and stir our imaginations. They help us to escape our daily lives for a while and visit different times, places and people. They can arouse our compassion or empathy, spur us toward truth and love, or sometimes even incite us toward hatred or violence.
Different kinds of stories satisfy different needs. For example, a comedy evokes a different response from us than a tragedy. A hard news story on page one affects us differently than a human interest story in the magazine section or a celebrity profile next to the movie or television listings. While different kinds of stories satisfy different needs, many stories share common themes, settings, character types, situations, and other recurrent, archetypal patterns. They may even possess a timeless, universal quality. For example, many stories focus on one individual, a heroic figure who overcomes many trials and tribulations to defeat some kind of evil or to attain some kind of valuable, positive goal. By looking at the differences among stories, we can examine the motifs, meanings, values, and principles that each story evokes. By looking at their common patterns, we can gain insights into truth, reality, human nature, and the spirit of the imagination. Every story also has a worldview, a way of viewing reality, truth, the universe, the human condition, and the supernatural world. For example, a story can have a redemptive Christian worldview that shows people their need for salvation through a personal faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or it can have a secular humanist worldview that explicitly or implicitly attacks Christianity. By examining their worldviews, we can determine the cultural ideals and the moral, philosophical, social, psychological, spiritual, theological, and aesthetic messages stories convey, as well as determine the emotions they evoke.
That leaves us with an important question, however: How are we to judge whether a particular movie or television program is appropriate for our families or children? By what standards? Furthermore, how can we protect our families and church members from all the bad which is out there while at the same time finding the good?
Thousands of scientific studies and case studies have shown the powerful influence that the entertainment media has on people’s cognitive development and behavior, especially children, teenagers and young people, who represent the biggest audience. In fact, by the time they are 17-years-old, children will have spent at least 40,000 hours watching movies, videos and TV programs, playing video games, listening to music, and reading popular books and news stories, but only 11,000 hours in school, 2,000 hours with their parents, and 800 hours in church if they regularly attend! That’s about 2,353 hours of media consumption per year for the average child. Of those 2,353 hours each year, our current figures indicate that up to 20 percent of them, or about 471 hours, will feature a solid, strong or very strong moral worldview, and up to 7 percent, or about 165 hours, will feature a solid, strong or very strong redemptive or Christian worldview. Just who is teaching our youth can be seen by the following chart:
Thus, by the time he or she is 17, the average child will have spent at least 40,000 hours watching television, movies and videos, but only 2,000 hours with his or her parents and only 1,000 hours in church, if they attend every single week!!!! In other words, the entertainment industry may have a bigger impact on children and society than parents and churches.
Early in 2001, the Surgeon General of the United States agreed with four top medical groups, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as well as countless psychological and neurological experts, that violence in the mass media is contributing to increased violent behavior among children and teenagers.1 Not only that, but many scientific studies from other sources, such as education professor Diane Levin, author of REMOTE CONTROL CHILDHOOD? COMBATING THE HAZARDS OF MEDIA CULTURE,2 and psychologists like Dr. Victor Cline, Dr. Stanley Rachman, Dr. Judith Reisman, and Dr. W. Marshall,3 have found that viewing sexual images in the media has led to increased sexual activity among children and teenagers and increased deviant behavior, including rape. Furthermore, a recent Dartmouth Medical School study of New England middle-school students, reported by the National Cancer Institute, found that viewing drug use in movies and TV programs leads to increased drug use among children.4
A new long-term study released in 2002 proved, once again, the negative effects of today’s popular visual media on children, teenagers and young adults. Published in the journal SCIENCE, the study found that teenagers and young adults who watch more than one hour of television, including videos daily, are more likely to commit violent crimes and other forms of aggressive behavior. The study, led by Jeffrey G. Johnson of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, followed children in 707 families in two counties in northern New York state for 17 years. Adolescents and young adults who watched television for more than seven hours per week had an increased likelihood of between 16 and 200 percent of committing an aggressive act in later years. The study found a link between violence and viewing any television, not just violent programming. “The evidence has gotten to the point where it’s overwhelming,” Johnson said.
In other words, movies like HANNIBAL, FROM HELL, SCREAM, AMERICAN PIE 2, JASON X, QUEEN OF THE DAMNED, AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER, and the HARRY POTTER series, and television programs like JACKASS, THE SOPRANOS, THE WEST WING, TEMPTATION ISLAND, and WILL & GRACE, can have a tremendously negative impact on the lives of many children and teenagers, as well as their parents, families, friends, and teachers. These types of movies and programs are nothing more than VISUAL TERRORISM.
The Solution – Media Wisdom
In light of all this conclusive evidence of the effect of the entertainment media, it seems ever abundantly clear that parents need to teach their children and teenagers how to be media-wise, intelligent consumers rather than just passive couch potatoes.
There are four pillars of media wisdom:
- Understand the influence of the entertainment media;
- Understand your child’s cognitive development;
- Understand the grammar of the entertainment media; and,
- Understand your moral, spiritual values and teach them to your children.
The first one, understanding the influence of the media, may be titled, “Breaking the Bonds of Denial.” As Dale Kunkel, professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, points out, after thousands of intensive studies in this area, only one significant researcher still denies the influence of the media, and that researcher last did real research in this area in the mid-1980s. In the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, CBS President Leslie Moonves put it quite bluntly, “Anyone who thinks the media has nothing to do with this is an idiot” (Associated Press, 05/19/99). Thus, the American Psychological Association’s report on media violence concludes, “There is absolutely no doubt that those who are heavy viewers of violence demonstrate increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior.”
The entertainment industry is made up of seven major studios and many independents. The major studios consistently control 95% or more of the box office. They also control most of the other mass media of entertainment. The seven major studios also control the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which rates the movies according to age groups – G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. Because the major studios control the organization which rates their movies, the past few years have seen an increased expansion of the PG-13 and R ratings so that increasing amounts of explicit sex, nudity, violence, foul language, vulgarity, and other immorality can be marketed to your children and teenagers.
Those seven studios are run by executives who administrate, finance and distribute movies. It is important to keep in mind that the industry is made up of a small number of key “players” (as Hollywood terms them), but their decisions affect not only the US, but the world as well, because there are many areas of the world that have come under the influence of Hollywood and its picture of the American experience. Thus, with regard to movies, there are about 30 financial and studio people who can green light projects and about 300 key players who consist of executive producers, as well as a few directors and actors, who can easily get movies made by the major studios.
Each idea for a movie, however, originates from an executive producer (and/or a production company, who could have deals going with several studios). In a sense, each movie is an independent unit that is brought together by an executive producer who attaches to the project the director and stars and seeks financing from investors as well as the studios. The studio’s major role is that of distribution, getting prints to the theatres and doing the publicity to bring the audiences there. Production and distribution budgets for major movies are now averaging more than $76 million according to the Motion Picture Association of America, which is owned by the major studios. One movie in 2000 had a $250 million cross-marketing budget, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Executive Producer, thus, is the initiator and the motivating factor to getting a movie made. The movie starts with the story idea and the script. Sometimes writers are commissioned to write a script from an idea that a producer has, but often the writers write scripts they would like to have produced and “pitch” the idea to the producers. The Director takes the script and the budget and, working with the actors and his crew, turns the idea into a reality on celluloid. In many cases, the Director is a hired hand but often a director will also be a writer and a producer.
Of course, the media is not the whole problem, but only one part of the equation that could be summed up with the sage biblical injunction found in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.'” (NIV) This is the message of the Surgeon General’s Report released on youth violence. Bad company corrupts good character, whether that bad company is gangs, peer pressure, or violent, vulgar works of popular culture.
“Breaking the bonds of denial” also means noting that there is a lot of good media out there, which we honor every March at the MOVIEGUIDE® Annual Faith and Values Awards Gala and Report to the Entertainment Industry in Los Angeles. Since we started the Annual Faith and Values Awards Gala 10 years ago, the number of movies with worthwhile moral, redemptive and even Christian content has more than tripled! We can alert you and your families, including the children, teenagers and young adults in your household, about the better and best movies and television programs that are out there in the world of the entertainment media, movies like TOY STORY II, MONSTERS, INC., THE ROOKIE, THE PRINCESS DIARIES, MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, EVELYN, ON THE LINE, RETURN TO ME, REMEMBER THE TITANS, SPIDER-MAN, NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, MY DOG SKIP, SHREK, JOSHUA, SIGNS, WE WERE SOLDIERS, CHICKEN RUN, JIMMY NEUTRON: BOY GENIUS, and THE BASKET, and TV series like TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL, JAG, DOC, and 7TH HEAVEN.
The second step in media wisdom is understanding the susceptibility of children at each stage of cognitive development. Not only do children see the media differently at each stage of development, but also different children are susceptible to different stimuli. For instance, you might not want your younger children seeing SPIDER-MAN, MONSTERS, INC., SHREK, EVELYN, or THE LORD OF THE RINGS movies , while TOY STORY II, STUART LITTLE 2, JIMMY NEUTRON: BOY GENIUS, and the SPY KIDS movies are safer for them. Or, you might want your teenager to avoid a movie like THE FAMILY MAN or WE WERE SOLDIERS, but allow them to see something like THE PRINCESS DIARIES, RETURN TO ME, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, EVELYN, NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, or MINORITY REPORT. As the research of the National Institute of Mental Health showed many years ago, some children want to copy media violence, some are susceptible to other media influences, some become afraid, and many just become desensitized. Just like an alcoholic would be inordinately tempted by a beer commercial, so the propensity for susceptibility plays an important part in what kind of media will influence your child at each stage of development.
The third part of media wisdom is understanding the grammar of the media so that you can deconstruct and critique what you are watching by asking the right questions. Children spend the first 14 years of their lives learning grammar with respect to 16th Century technology the written word. They need to be taught the grammar of the 21st Century technology. Thus, they need to know how aspects of different media work and influence them, and how to be able to ask the right questions such as, Who is the hero? What kind of role model is the hero? Who is the villain? What kind of message does his character convey? How much sex and violence is in the mass media product? What is the premise, or proposition, that drives the narrative? What worldviews and values are the movie or program teaching? How does the movie or program treat Christians, Jews, religion, and political ideologies like conservatism, liberalism, socialism, fascism, Marxism, and environmentalism? Does good triumph over evil? Would you be embarrassed to sit through this movie or television program with your parents, children, God, or Jesus Christ?
As we noted in our Introduction, there are not only different types of stories, there are also recurrent, archetypal, universal, and transcendent patterns, motifs, images, character types, themes, values, and principles within stories. Some kinds of stories are more visually-oriented while other stories are more literary or theatrical. Also, most stories embody the cultural ideals of a people and their society and give expression to deep, commonly felt, even transcendent emotions and rational or irrational ideas. Every story also has a worldview, a way of viewing reality, truth, the universe, the human condition, and the supernatural world. The theology of the storyteller or storytellers helps shape the worldview of the story. Thus, every worldview has a doctrine of God, a doctrine of man, a doctrine of salvation, a doctrine of the church, a doctrine of history and the future, a doctrine of the nature of reality (including a doctrine of Nature or Creation and a doctrine of supernatural forces), and a doctrine of knowledge (including a doctrine of truth).
The HARRY POTTER movies, for instance, has a selfish, occult, New Age worldview that subtly encourages children to dabble in witchcraft and sorcery. As such, it indirectly, and sometimes directly, teaches a nature-based, polytheistic religion that confuses the spiritual world of God with the natural or physical world, that has no doctrine of salvation or forgiveness for sin, that believes human nature is basically good instead of inherently sinful as the Bible and Christianity teaches, that hates the Christian church and the “muggles” or “mundane” people who make up that church, that mocks a belief in Heaven and Hell and in divine justice from a personal, rational God, and that promotes an epistemology or doctrine of knowledge that rejects rationality in favor of a belief in emotional decision-making and magical thinking.
In May of 2002, a nationwide poll of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19 revealed that 41 percent of American teens, roughly nine million 13- to 19-year-olds, are very interested in the occult, supernatural content of the HARRY POTTER books and movies. Of that number 53 percent of the teens most likely to be exposed to that occult, supernatural material are between the ages of 13 and 14, 50 percent are “A” students, 49 percent describe themselves as “stressed out,” 49 percent attend a youth group frequently, and 45 percent are Caucasian. The study was conducted on behalf of WisdomWorks Ministries. This poll clearly shows the dangers of letting your children consume such cultural artifacts as HARRY POTTER without the proper parental and spiritual guidance.
In contrast to HARRY POTTER, THE LORD OF THE RINGS reflects the biblical, Christian understanding of reality. In Middle Earth, there is a clear distinction between right and wrong and accountability to a sovereign, holy God who is Lord of the universe. In LORD OF THE RINGS, wielding vast supernatural power is seen as a temptation that should be shunned and best left up to God. THE LORD OF THE RINGS also provides your family with characters they can emulate, characters like Gandalf, the kindly supernatural being who dispenses wisdom and has a good sense of humor, not unlike God or Jesus Christ. He states, “We cannot change what has been. It is what we do with the days we have that matters.” Furthermore, he tells Frodo, “Don’t be so free to deal in death and judgment.” In other words, don’t try to play God, which is the opposite of the “do what thou wilt,” occult philosophy of HARRY POTTER. Or, characters like Frodo himself, who humbly takes up the cross of “ring-bearer” so that he can stop the forces of darkness from controlling awesome powers of evil.
Finally, your children need to understand your values to be able to use those values to evaluate the answers they get from asking the right questions. If the hero wins by murdering and mutilating, your children need to apply your own values, which may or may not see the hero’s actions as heroic or commendable. Families have an easier time with number four, because they can apply their deeply held religious beliefs to evaluate the media. Even so, media literacy and values education are two of the fastest growing areas in the academic community, because educators realize that something is amiss. Therefore, Dr. Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, speaks all around the world at national education associations and presents his deeply held Christian beliefs as the yardstick he uses to evaluate the questions that need to be asked. When he speaks to Christian groups, he trains and equips them to immerse themselves in a biblical worldview so that they can help their children and grandchildren, and themselves, to know before they go, so that they can choose the good and reject the bad.
Of course, there is much more to teaching media wisdom. Reading to your children five minutes a day is a most effective tool, according to University of Wisconsin research. Many parents may want to think about reading the Bible to their children. As Jesus Christ said, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 in the Hebrew Scriptures, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Having your children prepare their own rating system, and then letting them adhere to it is also helpful, as is having your children review the media they consume by writing up their answers to the right questions listed in Number Three above. You might also want to encourage your children to create their own stories, plays, paintings, sculptures, movies, and television programs.
As Theodore Roosevelt taught, if we educate a man’s mind but not his heart, we have an educated barbarian. Media wisdom involves educating the heart so that it will make the right decisions.
Thus, the best way to develop media-wisdom is not just to reject the bad, but by choosing the good. To help you do this, you might want to remember the following general questions, which provide a great guide to your viewing pleasure:
Questions to Help You Make Wise Media Choices
- What kind of role models are the main characters?
- Do the moral and spiritual statements and themes agree with a biblical worldview?
- Are real consequences to sin exposed?
- How are relationships and love portrayed?
- How are Christians, religion, the church, the family, and God portrayed?
- Does the language honor God and people?
- If violence is included, how is it presented?
- How much and what kind of sexual activity is implied and/or depicted?
- How appropriate is this material for my family and me?
Note: For more information on these issues, get a copy of Dr. Ted Baehr’s book THE MEDIA-WISE FAMILY, which is available at amazon.com or by calling toll free at 1-800-899-6684. Condensed audio and video presentations of THE MEDIA-WISE FAMILY are also available by calling 1-800-899-6684. We also have a DVD version of the video presentation, which includes many other goodies. Parents should also check out our websites at www.mediawisefamily.org and www.movieguide.org.
Dr. Ted Baehr is founder and chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission and publisher and editor-in-chief of MOVIEGUIDE®: A Family Guide to Movies and Entertainment. Now in its 17th year of publication, MOVIEGUIDE® is published approximately every two weeks throughout the year and is available by making a donation at our toll-free line, 1-800-899-6684, or by writing to us at [email protected] or at 2510-G Las Posas Road, #502, Camarillo, CA 93010. Every year, MOVIEGUIDE® publishes a video guide to the previous year’s movies. MOVIEGUIDE® also broadcasts weekly and daily programs on radio and television. Dr. Tom Snyder is editor of MOVIEGUIDE® and author of MYTH CONCEPTIONS: JOSEPH CAMPBELL AND THE NEW AGE (Baker Books, 1995) and has a doctorate in film studies from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. outside of Chicago.
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1 See “Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children,” Congressional Public Health Summit, July 26, 2000, www.aap.org. MOVIEGUIDE® is happy to provide copies of this statement and other articles and position papers.
2 abcnews.com, 04/09/01.
3 Dr. Ted Baehr, The Media-Wise Family (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1998), pp. 87-110. Also, please contact us for articles on the effect of sexual content in the mass media of entertainment.
4 Press release, National Cancer Institute, 03/23/01.