Keeping an Eye on the Media, for Kids’ Sake

Church Urges Parents to Watch Over What’s Being Watched

NEW YORK, FEB. 7, 2004 ( Parents who tuned into the Super Bowl last Sunday received a sharp reminder about how far media standards have fallen. The halftime entertainment, organized by MTV, and the vulgarity of many television commercials drew criticism from numerous family groups.

The Federal Communications Commission is already looking at increasing the maximum fine for indecency, now only $27,500. Proposals pending in Congress range up to a tenfold increase in fine levels, the Washington Times reported Wednesday.

Concern over the lack of morality in the media is at the center of the Pope’s message for this year’s World Communications Day, to be celebrated May 23. In the message, released late last month, John Paul II acknowledged that modern media have enriched “the lives not only of individuals, but also of families.”

But he also warned that “families today face new challenges arising from the varied and often contradictory messages presented by the mass media.” The Pope invited families to reflect on how they use the media, and to be more attentive as to how the media treat themes related to the family.

The Church’s concern, explained the papal message, is rooted in the evangelical teaching that “it is from the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (cf. Matthew 12:34-35).” In this interior dimension of our hearts we can either grow or diminish in our moral status in the way we choose to speak, and the external influences we allow ourselves to be exposed to. Thus, our use of the media needs to be marked by wisdom and discernment, explains the message.

The Pope expressed particular concern over how the media depict marriage and family life. This does not mean that family life should be portrayed as without defects — it’s not — but in the midst of these problems it is necessary to “make an effort to separate right from wrong, to distinguish true love from its counterfeits, and to show the irreplaceable importance of the family as the fundamental unit of society.”

Unfortunately, family life is presented without any moral or spiritual context, the text said. Instead, sexual activity outside marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality are all seen as positive, the message observed.

Life without TV?

The Pope has good reason to caution parents about what their children are watching. In Britain, research carried out by the broadcasting standards commission in 1996-2001 showed that television is constantly on in many households from morning to night, the Guardian newspaper reported last June 10.

Most parents said they were unwilling to cause trouble by asking children to turn off the television. “The children in our study couldn’t imagine life without it. Some were amazed that turning off the television might be a consideration,” commented Kam Atwal, the research manager in charge of the study.

The researchers found that children — aged 4 to 15 — spent 2 hours and 23 minutes a day watching TV. Only half an hour was dedicated to children’s programming; the rest went to soap operas and other entertainment programs.

Another British survey, based on interviews with 750 parents, found that one in three children under the age of 6 watches television in the range of 2 to 6 hours daily, the Telegraph reported Sept. 3. Researchers also found that a third of children under 3 have a television set in their bedroom.

TV viewing in itself isn’t necessarily bad. Dr. Brian Young, a child psychologist at Exeter University, said that children could benefit emotionally and mentally if they watched programs with their parents. “It can be positive, constructive and enjoyable as long as parents explain the meaning of what they are watching,” he told the Telegraph.

From age 6 months

Children’s viewing habits are not much different in Ireland. The country’s broadcasting commission reports that children aged from 4 to 6 are watching adult dramas and violent police programs, the London Sunday Times reported Dec. 14. Those aged 7 to 10 enjoy watching a “hard-hitting prison drama” and the adult cartoon “South Park,” while 11- to 14-year-olds regularly stay up until 11 p.m. and later to watch adult shows. Overall, Irish children spend between 2 and 3 hours a day watching television.

“Children don’t just watch kids’ programs, they watch adult ones as well, and from a very young age,” commented Margaret Tumelty of the broadcasting commission. “They are also watching television at times later than the 9 p.m. watershed, and this raises the issue of parental responsibility.”

Similar tendencies prevail in the United States. A study published by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that even babies are now exposed to the media for hours every day, the New York Times reported Oct. 29. More than a quarter of children under 2 have a television in their room.

During an average day, 59% of children ages 6 months to 2 years watch television. Add in figures for videos and DVDs, and the median daily time they spend watching some form of media is just over 2 hours. Based on what parents said, the reported estimated that more than a third of infants live in homes where the television is on almost all the time, even if no one is watching.

And television isn’t just found in homes. It is increasingly finding a place in the car, the New York Times reported Nov. 21. A study by market researchers J.D. Power & Associates found that 65% of drivers with children expressed interest in buying rear-seat entertainment systems.

That figure could easily rise with the latest advance of in-car satellite TV. One company has recently started to offer a selection of 300 channels on three screens embedded in the front headrests and dashboard.

Some observers doubt the influence of television on children’s behavior. But such doubt is not shared by advertisers, according to data published Nov. 11 by the Wall Street Journal. A study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest revealed that fast-food and snack companies doubled spending over the last decade, to $15 billion in 2002, on advertising their products to kids. The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group linked these ads to the growing problem of childhood obesity and urged Congress to enact laws curbing marketing to kids.

Guidelines for use

The Pope’s message contained a number of recommendations regarding the media.

— Media professionals should know and respect the needs of the family and be prepared to resist commercial pressures or the demands to conform to secular ideologies.

— Public authorities have a serious duty to uphold marriage and the family for the sake of society itself. They should set in place regulatory policies and procedures to ensure that the media do not act against the good of the family.

— Parents, as the primary and most important educators of their children, are also the first to teach them about the media. They need to train their offspring in the moderate, critical, watchful and prudent use of the media. This also means they should be educated not to uncritically accept or imitate what they find in the media.

— Parents also need to regulate the use of media by planning its use, strictly limiting the time children devote to media, and making entertainment a family experience. Parents also need to give good example to children by their own thoughtful and selective use of media.

Points worth considering before the next Super Bowl.

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