Are young people being exposed to too much too soon? 

This is not a political article. It’s not an article about religion or censorship. It’s an article about the way the world around us is shifting and changing, about the role that you and I both play, and about what we should do (or not do) to stop it.

Recently BBC conducted a study that showed young people (ages 2-18) are being exposed to too much, too soon on television and the Internet. Too much violence. Too much sex. Too much profanity. And it’s having negative effects on minds and hearts of the generation coming behind us.

Let’s talk about sex.

It isn’t just about adolescent and pre-adolescent boys having access to pornography, although that’s part of it. Pornography is damaging. You don’t have to be a “super religious” person to believe that. Secular studies everywhere are confirming: pornography has the capacity to damage, deconstruct, and actually restructure the human brain.

That’s why it’s so wildly addicting. And pornographic images are everywhere.

You don’t have to go to a strip club or a scandalous website to see it. All you have to do is go to the American Apparel homepage, or look at covers of  magazines in the grocery check-out aisle.

In fact, it’s so pervasive, it’s hard to avoid it. Just drive down the freeway and look at billboards. Or watch the Superbowl.

Imagery like this can (and has) lead to sexually aggressive behavior in boys as young as elementary school; as well as dieting and other destructive behavior in girls as young as six.

And what about violence?

Watching violence on a screen can desensitize kids to real-life violence, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children exposed to violence are more likely to assume that acts of violence are acceptable behavior, and are also more likely to view violence as an effective way of settling conflicts.

And, ultimately, exposure to violent images stunts a child’s ability to develop empathy, which in turn can decrease the likelihood that a child will take action on behalf of a victim of violence. The more exposure to violence, says AAP, the worse the effects.

How much exposure are kids getting? On average, school-aged kids spend 28 hours a week in front of the TV, more than a part-time job. That doesn’t even include the time they spend in front of a computer or on their hand-held devices. It’s not just the content they’re taking in, it’s the repetitive and pervasive nature of the content. BBC calls it the “drip drip” effect. That is what makes the content so dangerous.

But none of this is why I’m writing this article.

I’m writing because I want to suggest that there is something we can–and should–be doing about all of this. It’s not what you think. Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you to boycott your cable provider or toss your smart phone in the garbage.

I’m not going to tell you to take your kids and run for the hills. I’m not even going to go through the usual list–limiting kids’ internet access, putting stronger restrictions on school devices, shutting down sites we find particularly offensive. These things can be helpful, of course, and there are many who believe they are priority.

And that’s fine, but I have a different suggestion. In fact, I believe that engaging with culture is the best chance we stand to influence it.

Here are three ways I believe that we can engage with culture in order to change it:

1. Develop a mentoring relationship with someone younger than you.

It might be your kids. It might be your friend’s kids. It might be a student you teach or tutor, or someone you babysit. It doesn’t really matter who it is. Just find someone who’s path you cross on a regular basis, and reach out to them.

Talk to them. That’s all. Don’t try to change them, or push advice. You don’t have to have some all-knowing wisdom. Just understand them. Ask them questions, listen to their problems, be their friend.

2. Live your life as if they’re watching.

As adults we can handle exposure to violence, profanity and even lewd conduct in a way that kids cannot. As our brain develops, we’re able to separate truth from fiction and to think critically about the kind of content that comes in.

But we are not invincible. Don’t pretend like you are. How differently would you live your life if you knew you were being watched, 24-7?

You are a role model, whether you know it or not. Are you living like it?

Do you think critically about what you watch and how it impacts your thinking and living? Do you pay attention to the way that you speak? Is it edifying? Does it value people or degrade them?

I know a pastor who says that, when it comes to parenting, “far more is caught than taught” and I think that’s really true. What are the people who look to you “catching” from you?

3. Redeem what is broken.

Don’t abandon media. Allow it to play it’s role–to inform and entertain and engage and cause us to think about life and relationships.

Teach your kids (or your friend’s kids) how to download educational podcasts, teachings from your church, or music that’s uplifting.

Teach them to discern when something is discouraging, and to turn it off.

Teach them to decipher the difference.

Teach them to play Words with Friends or Tetris or something that will entertain and challenge their minds.

Then, at the end of the day, teach them how to turn their phone off and put it away at the dinner table, or when they’re having a conversation with someone.

You might think that this isn’t going to change lives as quickly as pulling the plug on the Internet, but I disagree. I believe the biggest, most effective, change is always exponential. That means the small changes always make the biggest difference.

So, in closing, I ask you to consider: How do you notice exposure to media impacting young kids? And more importantly: What are you going to do about it?


Photo Credit: Sally Mann, Candy Cigarette, 1989