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Marva Dawn raises these questions in this book. Dawn challenges congregations, pastors, youth leaders and parents to take a hard look at what is happening to today’s youth. In a society where Christianity is no longer the dominant culture, the task of raising children with Christian life habits, integrity, and faith is far more demanding than ever before.
Is it A Lost Cause? is a wake-up call. Drawing on thirty years of experience working with young people, Dawn encourages congregations, pastors, and parents to embrace the church’s children with the moral authority, motivation, love, healing, hope, and home for which everyone searches. Dawn insists that we can indeed raise our children to look, act, talk, and think like people who are shaped by faith and offers specific suggestions for the necessary formation process.
How can we help but be overwhelmed? The information superhighway is entering our homes; five hundred different television channels are an imminent possibility; the Church's children are exposed to all kinds of new opportunities for media involvement.
We will discuss here not how Christians can influence the television and movie industries—though there is a great need for that to be done in positive ways—but how we and our churches must understand the stakes of our technological times and what Christians must do in the present media revolution to raise children of faith.
Please understand me carefully. I am not criticizing media or technology per se. The problem is that both media and technology share in the attributes of the principalities and powers as elaborated in Chapter 2 and easily overstep their proper spheres. They foster what Fosdick's hymn above decries—the scorning of Christ, the assailing of his ways, the warring madness, the wanton and selfish gladness, the accumulation of things that leads to poverty of soul, and the resignation to evils we deplore. As the media are consumed in our present society, they wreak all kinds of destructive effects that are not readily noticed, but that are physiologically, psychologically, or sociologically documented.
In the brief space of this chapter I cannot thoroughly elaborate the ideas I want to introduce, but will sketch for your further consideration six dangers of media consumption. (Other hazards concerning information overload, violence, and sexual immorality will be discussed in the next three chapters.) With greater awareness of the problems, Christian families and congregations can strategize how to take advantage of media benefits without falling prey to their great perils.
Six Dangers of Media Consumption
1. The most obvious problem with the proliferation of media options, most clearly demonstrated by television consumption, is that involvement with them wastes so much time. In Winning Your Kids Back from the Media Quentin J. Schultze reports that television watching accounts for 40 percent of adult women's free time and 50 percent of men's. Nielsen Media Research informs us that children and teens consume three hours of television daily, and adults more than four hours. Since the average family television set in the United States is on seven hours each day just for broadcast and cable television, think how much time is spent altogether with the media, including videotapes, video and computer games, and the Internet.
Peter D. Hart Research Associates have discovered that 63 percent of U.S. residents watch television while eating dinner, including 76 percent of young people between the ages of eight and twenty-four. What a tragic loss of congenial time for conversation! Reading has decreased by half since the 1960s. Other leisure activities, especially family interactions, have declined comparably. Think what these statistics mean for involvement in the growth activities of the Church, such as worship and Bible study and projects of compassion. Twenty years ago, the average U.S. citizen could read the entire Bible fifteen times in the amount of time spent watching television in one year! What must it be now?
2. Watching television or scanning web pages stifles the imagination. I notice this especially while traveling—children who are saturated with media in their homes cannot manage to entertain themselves when forced to be away from their televisions. I have often had to endure on airplanes youngsters who whine and fuss if they can't have their "Game Boy" and the constant noise of their battery-operated, ping-pong ball-sized basketball shooting games. Their interest in these gadgets flags quickly, however, and then the whining begins again. They often don't know how to play without electronic toys, aren't interested in nature or the wonderful sights outside the airplane window, cannot make up stories (without violence), won't read books, and give up easily if learning requires creativity.
Closely related to the lack of imagination is the loss of attention span. My husband and I noticed this once when playing with our nephew, who was almost five at the time. He is an extremely bright and gifted child, very creative and gentle. While we were playing, however, the television was on—and right in the midst of things, even his own sentences, Erik would suddenly be distracted by some flashing image on TV. It was almost as if he momentarily went into a trance as his face went blank for a minute and he lost his train of thought. Then he would turn away and return to his play. Both Myron and I noticed it separately, and we commented on it later that night because we know that this child has more attention from his parents than most youngsters, reads more books, plays outside frequently, and has learned to do all kinds of things. Think how much television numbs those who do not participate in so many other types of activities. Myron struggles constantly to retain the attention of his students and recognizes that he cannot compete with the rapid, hyped pace of the media. How will we help children learn if we cannot engage them in anything that requires effort, continued attention, and imagination?
3. A much more critical point is that educator of educators Jane Healy has demonstrated thoroughly through her research that children who watch a lot of television develop smaller brains. Without verbal output, constant input fails to bridge the hemispheres of the brain, and lack of involvement with the environment decreases the proliferation of dendrites. Only in conversation and by manipulating things—toys, a musical instrument, one's legs in running—does the brain build new pathways and the information received actually get learned. Thus, Healy emphasizes, the media's bombardment not only causes our children to be unable to think; it also prevents them from actually having the brain space in which to think and learn. She pleads as follows:
If we wish to remain a literate culture, someone is going to have to take the responsibility for teaching children at all socio-economic levels how to talk, listen, and think … before the neural foundations for verbal expression, sustained attention, and analytic thought end up as piles of shavings under the workbench of plasticity.
…Students from all walks of life now come with brains poorly adapted for the mental habits that teachers have traditionally assumed. In the past, deep wells of language and mental persistence had already been filled for most children by experiences at home…Now teachers must fill the gaps before attempting to draw "skills" from brains that lack the underlying cognitive and linguistic base.
We care deeply about the "smartness" of our children, but our culture lacks patience with the slow, time-consuming handwork by which intellects are woven. The quiet spaces of childhood have been disrupted by media assault and instant sensory gratification. Children have been yoked to hectic adult schedules, and assailed by societal anxieties.
You might wonder why this discovery of less brain space caused by a lot of television viewing hasn't been extensively broadcast and why our society isn't "up in arms" to remedy this problem. Certainly none of us wants our children to be less gifted. One reason for our inability to do something about the crisis is that the situation's immensity is masked by the tendency of schools and agencies to "dumb down" tests. Healy proves this by displaying the obvious disparity between a fourth-grade reading test from 1964 and one from 1982. She also reproduces a section of an "Advanced" Reading Achievement Test for ninth grade from 1988—and the "advanced" ninth-grade test is disturbingly simpler than the fourth-grade test!
Of course, teachers know that they are dumbing things down, but society places enormous burdens on them. Parents complain about the teachers if their children are not "doing well" at school, though the teachers could not possibly offset all the bad influences of children's homes. Many youngsters have no background vocabulary or working skills to reach expectations, so teachers are forced to give them passing grades anyway by reducing the requirements. My husband constantly bemoans the fact that his students cannot do the kinds of projects and perform at the reading and testing levels that classes could reach several years ago. Myriads of forces in contemporary U.S. society lead to deficiencies in people's abilities to think, talk, and listen—dysfunctional homes, media assaults, lack of creative play time, and many more factors. The media wouldn't be so bad if none of those other factors existed, if parents followed up with discussions and related activities to help their children process, actively experience, and truly benefit from what is seen or heard.
4. Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death accentuates also that children are less motivated to think because television lulls them into passivity—and this is true even of the supposedly "good" programs. Those who created "Sesame Street" invented it to help children love school, but children learned instead to love school only if it is like "Sesame Street"—with non-sequential learning, no repercussions, and fast-paced entertainment. As Postman reports,
"Sesame Street undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents. Whereas a classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television set is a private preserve. Whereas in a classroom, one may ask a teacher questions, one can ask nothing of a television screen. Whereas school is centered on the development of language, television demands attention to images. Whereas attending school is a legal requirement, watching television is an act of choice. Whereas in school, one fails to attend to the teacher at the risk of punishment, no penalties exist for failing to attend to the television screen. Whereas to behave oneself in school means to observe rules of public decorum, television watching requires no such observances, has no concept of public decorum. Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself.
My husband struggles daily to help his fifth-grade students become both interested in learning and considerate of others, but they would rather play as the television has taught them, and they have no concept of their disruptions of others nor of the repercussions of failing to learn (see #6 below).
5. In connection with what we discussed about obsessive materialistic consumption in Chapter 9, no one can doubt that television and all the developing computer shopping possibilities promote and foster greed. Much of children's programming is driven by the toy manufacturers whose products are flagrantly pushed. I am disappointed that even the public radio station I listen to is increasingly including advertisements under the guise of news reports or comments about particular programming sponsors. I am so grateful that I haven't yet seen any books containing ads!
The American Academy of Pediatrics reports in its booklet on "Television and the Family" that average children in the United States see more than 20,000 advertisements during the 1,300 to 1,400 hours of television that they watch annually, and more than 60 percent of those commercials are for heavily sugared cereal, candy, and toys. Since only about 4 percent of the advertisements concern the healthy food groups of meat, milk products, bread, or juice, children get a very distorted picture of what they ought to eat. Recent studies have shown a direct correlation between the amount of television viewing and children's risk of obesity.
6. The greed fostered by media is just one aspect of the larger problem of muddling our perception of reality. Advertisements play to our emotions (particularly fears and desires) and cause us to act on feelings instead of logic and cognitive skills. Neil Postman elucidates that we really don't know from an advertisement how well an automobile functions because the commercial attracts us, not with facts about the car, but with a cozy scene of a family going on an intimate outing. (We will see some further results of these muddled perceptions in Chapters 11 to 13.)
Jacques Ellul also frequently pointed out that daily news on the media features everything horrible, is shown in such short segments, and changes so rapidly from day to day that it fosters a catastrophic, fragmentary, and inadequate view of the world. A doctor friend of mine who has worked in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia in medical missions keeps reminding me that news reports in the United States do not reveal those situations accurately at all.
I don't have space here to discuss other potential subjects, such as the media's invasion of family privacy, but I have highlighted six infectious dangers, all of which merit further conversation and study. (And further dangers of information overload, violence, and loss of intimacy will be highlighted in the next three chapters.) I pray that this brief sketch is enough to make us deeply concerned—and that we will not take lightly the need for a response of limitations and critique! I believe this is a key time for congregations and Christian parents to be at the forefront in setting limits to media consumption, in deepening family bonds and faith roots for children so that they have moral values by which to weigh the media they observe, and in offering to the world both prophetic wisdom and workable solutions to the problems that the media inherently engender.
We Can and Must Set Limits on the Media
We cannot say it often enough that as Christian communities and Christian families we can and must set limits. Quentin Schultze suggests establishing a three-to-one ratio of family interaction/relational activities and media consumption. Unless we do so, he warns, we will reverse the worldwide, ageless custom of parents teaching their children the wisdom of their faith and heritage, as children instead tutor parents in media-savvy and themselves float aimlessly—without a sense of who they are or what life is really for.
Especially for congregations I want to urge limiting the use of media in Sunday school, for children in our post-Christian culture are now vastly deprived of exposure to many adult models of faith. They need to see the incarnation of God's Word in live people rather than in one more amusing video. An interesting article in The Plough, the magazine of the Bruderhof Christian communities in the United States, described what happened when these intentional settlements, which had always lived without TV, began using videos for educational purposes and once in a while for entertainment. Here is their report:
But the more videos we watched, the more difficult it became to discern which ones were appropriate, worthwhile, or edifying. Dubious footage which might have shocked us months before gradually failed to bother us anymore, and our teenagers and even some adult members began to hanker after each latest box office draw as it hit the rental stores.
The medium itself was problematic, too: it seemed to induce passivity, and the unreal world of images, excitement, and color exercised a greater and greater power of attraction. Watching a video became "the big thing," whether in the classroom, as a special treat at home, or merely as an easy way to occupy one's time. Relationships between teachers and students, parents, children, and siblings, faded before the screen.
Last fall we decided in our brotherhoods to pack away all our VCRs and videocassettes and live without videos. The results were astounding. Creativity blossomed again among the children at school and at home. Singing, playing, and reading together, arts and crafts work, hiking, and socializing replaced the mass isolation of individuals glued to the screen.
None of us, including our children, has regretted our decision or misses the videos we might have been seeing. And our time, minds, and energies have been liberated for worthwhile pursuits.
Plough asked several Bruderhofers for their reactions to our decision to stop watching videos.
Mavis (5th grade): "It was a good idea to stop watching videos, because it lets us think more about Jesus."…
Simeon (10 grade): "I'd rather be birdwatching than watching movies. Not watching videos also gives me more time to practice piano.
I grieve at all the family time and creative potential, the thinking about Christ and the deepening of relationship bonds that are being lost because so much time is devoted to media consumption.
A friend of mine reported that her son asked her to set limits on media involvement when his friends visit because "otherwise they never talk to me." He said that his friends don't know how to quit (as he does because of the creative conversations and interactions of his family), and then they never really visit much. In contrast, the mother of one of my husband's fifth graders has placed both a television set and a telephone in her daughter's room and then wonders why her daughter is not doing well in school.
For the sake of your children's education (and, I might add, for the sake of their ability genuinely to worship) it is crucial to limit their media involvement—for all the reasons suggested by the excerpt above about "Sesame Street" from Postman's Amusing Ourselves to death. Frankly, I don't understand how children—or adults either, for that matter—can stand to waste any time on television when so much of it is so destructive to their moral formation. (I realize that there are some good programs on, but the number of quality programs is frightfully small compared with the amount of time spent by the average family in television viewing.) When I was in elementary and high school, I hardly ever watched the television we acquired when I was ten because there were household chores to do, family games to invent or attempt, guests with whom to converse, myriads of books to read, clothes to sew and other 4-H ventures to complete, sports of every season to play with all the neighbors at the school playground, musical instruments to practice, my paper route and later tutoring and piano teaching jobs to do, science fair projects to create, debate team information to gather, drama lines to memorize, high school clubs and church choir practice to attend, worship and Bible class and youth group activities to enjoy. My husband spent time gardening and drawing and building when he was growing up. Now it seems many children more often listen to instruments on their Walkmans than play them, more often watch sports than engage in them, more often observe activities than discover their pleasures directly. It seems a sadly vicarious life—with not much proliferation of brain dendrites, not much outlet for responsibility and creativity, not much of the deep delights of learning many skills.
Of course, parents will have to sacrifice more time initially to introduce their children to these various enterprises, but ultimately it sets them free from having to hear their children's constant whining about having nothing to do. Indeed, if the children see their parents' enjoyment of different activities, they will be eager to learn; I wanted to learn to play the piano so badly at the age of five that my father merely had to show me where middle C was and hand me a book. Besides, learning a new skill together can be a wonderful opportunity for deep conversation between parent and child about other subjects. I won't romanticize that too much, for certainly frictions can develop—I remember some nasty scenes (entirely my fault) with my mother over 4-H projects—but most of my happiest childhood memories are of moments when Mom or Dad taught me household skills or sports or music. My father even let me collaborate with him and write texts for a few of his choral compositions. What a great privilege it is when children are invited into their parents' work and treated as junior partners with gifts to offer.
It really is a choice, and here we are back to the basic issue: Do parents realize that one of their primary callings in life is to invest time in the training of their children for life? The television set cannot accomplish that, but projects and games and chores together as a family can. Moreover, think what security and esteem children savor when they recognize (even subconsciously) that their parents choose to engage in leisure time activities together with them. I think particularly of one family with whom I stayed on a speaking trip. The father, Jim, spent great amounts of time playing ball with and wrestling, tickling, and holding his four boys. Both he and his wife Kathy are deeply involved in the life of their congregation and the children love to sing the liturgy in the car on their way home from worship! Their oldest son, a pre-teen when I met him, is one of the most spiritually vibrant youths I have ever encountered. It makes me smile to write about this family because in their home my heart rejoiced at the deeply Christian parenting I was observing.
In my attempts to urge parents to substitute family play and creative activities for television watching, I know that many readers might cast off what I write as hopelessly idealistic. As an observer of thousands of young people, however, I must confess that I constantly wonder why so many parents keep serving their children garbage for their spiritual dinner. If we would not feed their bodies with toxic materials, why on earth do we feed their souls with so much violence, sexual immorality, and greed? I cannot imagine letting a small child watch television without my supervision and, as often as possible, my companionship. I cannot imagine letting older children indulge in passive media consumption without any clear and enforced limits, such as Schultze's suggested three-to-one ratio of active family time to passive dissipation.
Personally, I refuse to have a television set in my home and would not make any other choice if we had young children. In order not to speak about this subject uninformed, I continue to sample what is on these days by observing television's offerings in the homes and hotels where I stay during speaking engagements. Almost always I turn the TV off in disgust if I have the choice or turn away in sadness that over time families have become so immune to its escalating immorality or inanity.
About fifteen years ago I shared my house with a family of four and another single woman. We did not have television sets in the house. The parents spent their evenings reading, and the two children were both immensely creative—Hope became a superb pianist and Jess is an extraordinary artist. They both became very active in school activities—Hope was elected princess of her class; Jess was involved in sports. They certainly weren't "maladjusted" because they had no TV. All the families I know who have chosen to go without a television set—and there are quite a few—have said that they have never regretted that decision.
Guidance for the Use of Media
Besides setting limits on the amount of time children spend with media consumption, I want to urge parents to work deliberately as their children grow to strengthen family ties, to develop the children's faith foundations, and thereby to give them constructive guidance as a basis for their own intelligent evaluation of media. We certainly cannot separate our children entirely from media influence, even if we make certain choices about limits. Therefore we can and must root children in the Christian worldview, its morals and values, so that they never explore media without consciously assessing it. Since they will be exposed to various computer and media possibilities in school and by their peers, we cannot isolate them from it. Instead, we can equip them with skills for choosing wisely, with deepened conscience for rejecting what is ungodly, and with Christian insights into the meaning of life and the purposes for which they were created and given time.
When parents watch television with their children, they should stop and discuss anything that is offensive immediately, so that youth understand how directly opposed to the things of God much of our culture is and how vigilant we must be to avoid polluting our minds. For example, one evening in a small city in Iowa the evening Lent service for which I was speaking was much earlier than I'd expected, so that I was back in my hotel room by 8 p.m. I was astounded that seven out of eight stations featured programs during that prime-time hour that were glib about sexuality or downright immoral or else were extremely violent. (The one exception was the public television station, which was hosting an opera that probably would not have appealed much to children unless they had been schooled to appreciate it.) I can't imagine that Christian parents would let their children watch any of those other programs. Thorough discussions would have to have already taken place with the youngsters so that they, too, would be repulsed by shows with such values inimical to those if God. We can't reject immoral sit-coms or movies in a way that makes our children immediately want to sneak out to see them. Youth groups can have movie parties and discuss them under the leadership of someone with a committed Christian worldview who deeply loves young people and can talk with them without rigidity and legalism, but with discipline and integrity.
In our own families, we have to create what Susan Douglas calls a "media skeptic." She gives these suggestions:
Don't think your choices are either no TV or a zombified kid. Studies show that the simple act of intervening—of talking to your child about what's on television and why it's on there—is one of the most important factors in helping children understand and distance themselves from some of the box's more repugnant imagery.
I recommend the quick surgical strike, between throwing the laundry in and picking up the Legos. Watch a few commercials with them and point out that commercials lie about the toys they show, making them look much better than they are in real life. Count how many male and female characters there are in a particular show or commercial and talk about what we see boys doing and what we see girls doing…Real life dads change diapers, push strollers, and feed kids, but you never see boys doing this with dolls on commercials. Ask where the Asian and African-American kids are. Point out how most of the parents in shows geared to kids are much more stupid than real-life parents. (By the way, children report that TV shows encourage them to talk back to their folks.)…
See, I think complete media-proofing is impossible, because the shallow, consumerist, anti-intellectual values of the mass media permeate our culture. And we parents shouldn't beat ourselves up for failing to quarantine our kids. But we can inoculate them which means exposing them to the virus and showing them how to build up a few antibodies. So don't feel so guilty about letting them watch TV. Instead, have fun teaching them how to talk back to it rather than to you.
Douglas's advice isn't specifically Christian, of course, but her examples fit in with our desire to build community, reject stereotypes, increase respect for elders, and renounce consumerism and greed. I especially appreciate her suggestion to "have fun" while we equip our children with discerning evaluative skills. It is not an onerous duty or a terrible burden to help our children reject the ungodly values of the world around them. It is instead a great privilege to empower them for choosing the values of the kingdom of God.
Exposing the Principalities and Powers
Let us also realize that the world around us is desperate for what we know as Christians. One of the best gifts we can offer to our neighbors is a precise awareness of the dangers of technology and the media that are hidden by the advertising hype, as well as the genuine opportunities that new media systems entail. Our faith communities can work together to develop workable limits for families and authentic solutions to the generational clashes that arise when parents care enough to limit their children's media consumption. Many nonbelievers genuinely want to join Christians in preventing the emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual damage their children are exposed to in the proliferation of hazardous media materials.
I am NOT saying that technology and the media are always bad. I use a computer for my theological writing and correspondence, but I impose strict limits on myself because I could spend enormous amounts of time on all the things this machine is capable of doing. I enjoy morally upright entertainments (when those can be found) and find movies helpful for understanding society. I AM saying that the media and technology are inherently dangerous. For reasons given in this chapter and the next three, I decided early in my college years not to own a television set (and fell in love with my husband because he didn't own one either on the same grounds) and have never regretted that choice. I didn't want to train my mind and soul in passivity, time-wasting, greed, violence, sexual immorality, and the numbing of imagination or creativity.
I'm not urging you necessarily to make the same choices. Instead, I am urging you to think prayerfully about this chapter and to discuss these issues with other members of your Christian community. (And three more dimensions of my urgent case against television and media consumption are yet to come.) For the sake of our children, our faith, our service to the world, and our Church, we must be mindful of the perils of our technological milieu and active in giving our world the alternatives and the limits to media our Christian communities can create and set.
For further reflection, discussion, transformation, and practice:
Part One: Learning the Heart of God
Part Two: Having God’s Heart for Our Children in a Contrary World