Friday, January 19, 2007

Media images and our kids

Published 1.19.2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Why should we care what children watch or read? Are we simply riding a high horse when complaining about parental indifference and the deluge of sex and violence surrounding our kids? Does it border on censorship?

I called a local radio talk show once to comment on the ever-increasing flow of sex and violence polluting our airwaves, and the host's predictable response was something like, "Well, if you don't like it, just change the channel."

Of course I can change the channel, pal. What I worry about is the impact on young people who won't change the channel.

In many communities and particularly in our inner city, teen sex and pregnancy rates are beyond crisis proportions. It helps when Bill Cosby comes to Milwaukee to discuss personal responsibility for part of the population, but the problem is funded by people across all racial lines and economic strata.

Can anyone make a movie targeted at younger people without the perfunctory scenes of two people chewing on one another? (Sorry, I forgot about the artistic value of those scenes and their importance to plot development.)

We know that media images absorbed by youths affect their behavior. It isn't even worth debating. So why do gratuitous images of sex and violence continue to proliferate?

Part of the answer could be analogous to why some of us are overweight. Creators of junk stay in business by appealing to our worst instincts like a craving for delicious and fattening food. And you can't eat just one. So we watch, and our kids watch again and again.

For example, I like boxing, but it is no longer enough to satisfy those who want full contact. We now have mixed martial arts fights where you can flout the "rules" and beat your opponent to a bloody pulp even after the guy lies helplessly. It's unfortunate all that testosterone can't be usefully directed at fighting terrorists abroad and out of sight.

But you still think that what we watch has no impact on our children's behavior?

Nebraska sociologist Mike Hendricks wrote about the impact of the popular 1999 movie "Fight Club." He notes on his Web log that the movie "depicted disaffected young adults competing in bare-knuckle boxing matches in underground clubs" and that since the movie's release, "real fight clubs have been popping up all over the country."

He continues, "Arrests have been made in large cities such as Seattle, Provo and Milwaukee." Hendricks concludes, "There is no record of any fight clubs being in existence before the movie was made. Now it is an activity that is sweeping the nation."

When NBA player Ron Artest vaulted into the stands in 2004 to beat up some ignoramus who tossed a beer at him, the lasting damage wasn't that a game was disrupted. The harm extended to youths who idolize Artest and infer from the incident that this is how real men settle scores.

One way to reduce a growing tumor is to cut off its blood supply. If we discourage others from using their cash to patronize print, video and audio businesses of people we disagree with, like a blood-starved tumor, these "products" will also begin to wither.

One can also support political leaders committed to restoring cultural sanity, such as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), or we can align ourselves with national organizations found at Web sites such as http://www.parentstv.org/

Either way, it's up to us. Then again (pass the dip, please), we can always leave it to someone else.