Too much media attention focuses on the impact of sex and violence on children. The assumption seems to be that if the media stopped showing sex and violence on television and in films–and now video games are the culprit–the world would be a better place. Sometimes the argument goes further. If the media instead presented quality family and religious programming, children would grow up to be moral people.
Both of these ifs are based on the premise that the media makes us do things that we don’t want to do. The scenario in the 1950s played out like this:
We have two good teenagers;
They listen to Rock ‘N Roll music;
The music stimulates their animal instincts;
They have sex. They didn’t want to; the music made them.
Today the scenario goes like this:
The boy is good;
The boy plays video games;
The boy becomes a crack shot;
The boy goes to school and shoots his classmates;
He didn’t want to; violent video games made him.
I agree that the video games and the music have an impact on children. From the video games…and television…and films, the child learns the signifiers of violence. Similarly, the media teaches us the signifiers of sexuality. Once those signifiers become signifieds stored in our memories, that learning can’t be unlearned this side of suffering a brain injury. However, no single signifier stands alone. Individuals interpret each signifier as part of a mental schema.
The final influence for a given individual to choose antisocial behavior may be the video game or the music. Or it might be the chocolate doughnut. With billions of people in the world, somebody somewhere is likely to be motivated to action by just about anything.
To blame the media for individual behavior is missing the point and simplifies the issues. Just getting the “bad” messages out of the media is not going to create a “good” society.
The media is an influence
The media does have an influence on children; the same impact it has on all of us: 1. The media teaches us the signifiers of the culture and what they mean.
2. The media sets an agenda which directs our attention to the issues that the media managers think are important.
3. The media teaches us ideology by offering us solutions to binary oppositions.
Let us look at each of these points separately and see what the impact could be on children.
Here are two typical sets of signifiers found in our culture.
The images of Jennifer Anniston from Seventeen (August 2000) teach the signifiers of sexuality, feministic and gender. Whether those signifiers have a positive or negative impact on a given individual depends on individual past experience. One person may read her images as cultural definitions of “cute.” A victim of sexual abuse may interpret the signifiers as an invitation to arouse notice. A person who knows the signifiers of pornography may read the images as indicating availability.
The CD cover to the right teaches the signifiers of gender and masculinity. The images create an association of masculinity with violence and weapons.
Both images put signifiers into the culture, set an agenda and offer solutions to binary oppositions to the children to whom they are targeted.
Teaches signifiers. From watching violent films, television, and playing violent video games, we all learn how to be violent. Similarly, we learn the signifiers of sexuality and what those signifiers mean. How we interpret those signifiers is going to depend on our own past experiences. Children who are sexually abused are going to read sexual signifiers differently than children whose parents demonstrate a loving, caring relationship and explain sexual behaviors to their children. Similarly, children who were physically abused or who live in violent neighborhoods also will bring their past experiences to any media experience. In short, the past experiences of children help determine what impact the media’s images have on children.
What this means is that the media can’t make mass murderers or schoolyard shooters, but if a child decides to go in that direction, the media helps teach them how to do it.
Sets the Agenda. An analysis of mass media becomes a bit scary at this point. What are the three dominant topics presented in the media? Sex, Violence and The Consumer Culture. This is what we are telling children is important.
Offers Solutions to Problems. Now things become really scary–at least to me. Let’s look at this media effect in three ways:
1. The media constantly presents the binary opposition of good vs. evil. This is particularly true in many cartoons, such as “Batman” or “G.I. Joe,” or some other superhero scenario. In each case, society is held hostage by evil. The average person can do nothing. Only the superhero can defeat evil through the use of violence. But, there’s a limit to what even the superhero can do. If the good guys destroy evil, then the premise of the cartoon is over. The heroes win but evil continues. Here are the lessons being taught:
Evil exists to destroy good and so the world is a conflict between good and evil. Most of us cannot do anything against evil; therefore, we are easy victims. We must give control over to superheroes who can wage war on evil. Violence is the solution to problems.
2. True love is the solution to all personal problems. Remember the “Jerry MaGuire” line: “You complete me”? “True love” means only one person in the world exists for each person. The current cliche “soul mate” sums up this way of thinking. Here are the lessons being taught:
If there is only “one” person for each person, how do you explain an attraction to another person? Today’s economy constantly puts men and women together in high pressure, stimulating circumstances. We are psychologically and physiologically wired to respond to members of the opposite sex. Sooner or later, most people in our culture will be placed in an interpersonal context that can easily assume the “feelings” of love because body chemistry is responding to the closeness of the other person.
If a person needs someone to “complete” that individual, what happens when the part that needs completing feels incomplete again? The fault lies with the relationship. No doubt all of us need someone some of the time, but a person with serious, unresolved personal issues is probably incapable of forming a healthy relationship in the first place. When the first partner fails to fill the personal hole, then the incomplete person will go in search for another “completer.”
Is it any wonder that so many failed relationships exist? Is it any wonder that so many teens engage in premarital sex since “love” is the solution so often offered by the media?
Why is the media hooked on love? Love motivates us to purchase so many products–from toothpaste to diamonds–so that we can offer our ideal selves to another person instead of the actual people we are. Plus, it is easy for the media to connect sex and love. What was the name of the last new movie you saw where sex didn’t follow once the lead male and female fell in love? As Maslow argues, sex is a strong motivator…strong enough to convince people to spend money to acquire sexual attractiveness, and, by extension, love.
3. Finally, the media offers violence as the method chosen by men. The movie industry presents us with Tom Cruise, Wesley Snipes, Al Pacino, James Bond, and the list goes on and on. In sports, we have Sunday football and Wednesday wrestling. The History Channel presents the heroes of World War II. A & E and Discovery channels prove the power of cops through their programming.
According to the media, such men are heroes. They protect their families. They are honored by those around them. They are rewarded with the most attractive women available. Any boy unwilling to engage in violence can not be a “man.” Girls also have something to learn. They need a “man” to protect them from becoming victims of rape and violence. As cheerleaders stand on the sidelines cheering on the team, they are taught to reward the guys who prove they are men.
The media teaches children the signifiers of sex, violence and consumerism. The media tells children it is important to think about these three things because these are the topics the media most often places into the agenda. Finally, either sex, violence or a product offers a solution to every problem.