I’ve been writing about the Christian approach to pop culture and entertainment for close to two years now.During that time, I have several times had people claim, either in comments on my writing or in personal discussions, that certain kinds of trash in media, whether it be nudity, profanity, or worldview issues “don’t affect” them. I find it interesting that people claim that. Because scientific studies – secular scientific studies, no less – prove that they do. Allow me to explain.
Social scientists have been studying media affects for several years. Studies like this became popular as early as the 1920s, when many people, especially parents, were worried about the effects that gangster movies might be having on their children. There were some errors in the assumptions of some of these early studies, but they paved the way for some truly remarkable studies carried out by a social scientist by the name of Dr. Gerbner. Dr. Gerbner was originally focused on finding out if violent depictions in television had any impact on people’s behavior (it does, by the way, although not to the radical degree that some claim). Later, however, he developed a theory that shows unequivocally that entertainment shapes our worldview—media cultivation theory.
A lot of Dr. Gerbner’s research involved children. These studies did not. Instead, when studying media cultivation, he studied adults. What he found was that heavy viewers of television described reality is being very close to the world that is depicted on television. Light viewers, on the other hand, did not. This is exactly why Dr. Gerbner said that media “bends, blurs, and blends” our perception of reality, especially because television is not real life. People aren’t dying for sex three times a day. Not everyone sleeps around with strangers. Everyone doesn’t swear one hundred times in two hours. But because this is what we’re seeing on television, and because it shapes our worldview, then all of a sudden those activities, and especially ones that we might say “aren’t so bad” seem completely acceptable and even good. This is why Dr. Gerbner said that whoever controls the stories of a culture, controls that culture.
And this isn’t the only study done on media effects that reveals worldview-shaping properties. Dr. Susan Sarapin, who was once a professor at Purdue University, did a study that revealed that people who watch violent cop dramas such as CSI and Cold Case believed in greater amounts of crime in the real world, especially when compared with people who did not watch those programs.
Even more troubling is the fact that media doesn’t only affect worldview; it affects behavior. Think I’m wrong? Then how do you explain the study done in 2008, when researchers found a correlation between time spent viewing sex on TV and pregnancy before age 20? Or the fact found in NurtureShock (one of the most influential books about parenting ever written, was on the New York Times Bestseller List for six months) that more television watching among kids led to more insults and bullying? What about Dr. Leonard Berkowitz, who found that violent media makes individuals more likely to respond to frustrating situations in an aggressive manner?
I’ve been saying this for a long time, and yet nobody seems to listen or pay attention. You cannot keep on saying that media doesn’t affect you because, to be frank, it’s a lie. The opposite claim, however, that media affects us so deeply that we ought to be very cautious with what we set before our eyes, is not only Biblically sound, but scientifically defensible.