Friday night at the movies. Cable-ready cartoons. Jamming to your car stereo. Hours and hours on social networking sites. Concerts. Multiplayer online video games. Movie-marathon sleepovers.
Have you ever noticed how much time (and money) you and your friends spend on entertainment? If you're like most of us, it's a LOT. And there are plenty of reasons for that. Entertainment helps us to relax. It provides a sense of adventure. It gives us new things to think and talk about. It can even offer us a sense of identity when we enjoy the same kinds of entertainment as our friends. Plus, entertainment is built into our culture. Often, it's there in the background even if we don't choose for it to be.
Have you ever wondered exactly how much time we devote to TV, music, movies, video games and surfing online? Check out these facts:
Students spend 900 hours per year in school, but the typical American kid (8-18) spends an average of 6:43 hours a day, or 2,363 hours a year, consuming media. That's almost equal to a full-time job!"Kids & Media @ the New Millennium: A Kaiser Family Foundation Report," 11/17/99.
Kids who have TVs in their bedrooms are likely to watch 5-1/2 more hours of television per week than those who don't.National Institute on Media and Family, 5/9/02.
649.5 million music albums were sold in 2002, down nearly 9 percent from the previous year. That may be because computer users download 2.6 billion music files every month — that's 30 billion songs a year (most of which aren't legal).Soundscan, 2002; USA Today, 5/6/03.
In 2002, North American moviegoers spent a record $9.37 billion, representing 1.6 billion ticket sales. Ninety-two percent of teens say watching films is their No. 1 pastime and would rather go to a movie than shop, sleep in or go on a date.E! Online/Exhibitor Relations/New York Post; Artists Rights Foundation, Inst. for Civil Society/Variety, 11/2/98; Teen Research Unlimited poll of 13- to 19-year- olds/USA Today, 12/22/98.
The amount of brain-space occupied by entertainment shows that it's quite a priority in our lives. Even for Christians. In fact, a larger percentage of Christian teenagers (42%) watch MTV than non-Christian teens (33%).Barna Research Group, Ltd. 1992. On the same note, Alan Weed, president of the Christian music organization Interlinc says, "Christian kids listen to four hours of music a day — most of it mainstream, not Christian. That means a serious kid who goes to two services a week, has a personal quiet time and invests time with a mentor still spends more time getting messages from the secular world than he does with spiritual things."
Hmm ... If we're spending this much time listening to music and watching TV and movies, perhaps we'd better take a look at what we're putting in our heads.
The Downward Spiral
Entertainment has undergone a major revolution in the last century. Until about 100 years ago, entertainment meant the opera, the ballet, the theater and the symphony. In just the 40 years from 1899 to 1939, film, radio and television all arrived in our world with a bang. So rather than taking a live performance on tour, entertainers had three dazzling options for recording and distributing their message to an ever-growing audience. Thankfully, the early years of the new media produced art that was relatively harmless. Families could hang out together around their radio or TV, and going to the movies was a big event.
Fast forward to today. The entertainment media is preoccupied with sex, violence and profanity. All of this would have been unthinkable in the minds of entertainment pioneers. Even if computer-generated graphics, interactive video games and iPod technology had been available back then, the public would not have embraced music that glamorizes rape, murder and drugs, or much of what shows at the local movie theater.
So how did this revolution occur? How did entertainment get so obsessed with sex and violence? Desensitization. Society didn't go to bed one night with one set of values and wake up the next morning with an entirely different set. It's been a gradual process of getting more and more comfortable with lower and lower standards.
For example when The Rolling Stones performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1967, they were asked to change the lyrics of their hit "Let's Spend the Night Together" to a much tamer "Let's Spend Some Time Together." While they resented the change, they performed it as Mr. Sullivan requested. Why? Because back then, society viewed songs about casual sex as — dare we say it? — wrong. Unfortunately, that's no longer the case. Casual sex is not just accepted; it's expected. And through entertainment, it's even become a "spectator sport."
Take a look at these song titles and see for yourself the moral erosion in pop music's romantic relationships:
1964 — The Beatles sing "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
1967 — The Rolling Stones make a bolder overture with "Let's Spend the Night Together."
1972 — The Raspberries encourage the object of their affection to "Go All the Way."
1975 — Metaphorically speaking, Jethro Tull looks forward to a "Bungle in the Jungle."
1981 — Even more to the point, Olivia Newton-John beckons a lover to get "Physical."
1987 — Subtlety completely disappears with George Michael's brazen declaration, "I Want Your Sex."
1991 — Color Me Badd crudely and unflinchingly declares, "I Wanna Sex You Up."
1994 — Exactly 30 years after The Beatles first proposed hand-holding — R&B artist R. Kelly scores a best-selling single with the sexually descriptive ode to intercourse, "Bump & Grind."
1999 — Sisqo's randy obsessions appear in "Thong Song," an ode to women's underwear.
2005 — "My Humps" finds Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas ogling "lady lumps."
2006 — Nelly Furtado may act coy, but a casual hookup is inevitable on "Promiscuous."
2008 — Katy Perry encourages same-sex experimentation on her smash hit "I Kissed a Girl."
2009 — Jeremih offers his girl a gift of "Birthday Sex," and fans get the graphic play-by-play.
Clearly, popular music has been sliding into the sewer for a long time. And it is no different for film or television — all three seem to be preoccupied with eroticism. If only we could return to the innocent days when it was a thrill just to hold someone's hand.
The Power of the Media
Okay, so it's clear that entertainment's messages have changed a lot since TV, radio and movies first appeared. But why does it matter that entertainment is slipping morally? Consider this: Have you ever gotten a tune stuck in your head? All you need to hear are a few bars and it starts involuntarily buzzing around in there. For hours. It could be a commercial jingle or a Top-40 hit. Maybe you heard it in a shopping mall or a restaurant. And it's not just the melody that sticks — the lyrics stay with you, too.
Then there's the visual media. Most of us can recall disturbing images we wish we could erase from our minds. Things we've seen in movies, in magazines, on TV. The point is that music and images tend to travel with us. Good or bad, they rarely go in one ear and out the other.
All in the Mind
It's hard to deny that music and visual images have tremendous sticking power. But do those lingering sensations really make a difference? The advertising industry believes they do. Why else would intelligent people who run large corporations plunk down $3 million for a mere 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl? They bank their business on your likeliness to remember their message and respond to it in a way that benefits them.
Of course, the cause-and-effect process is not as simple as monkey see, monkey do. Rather, the media first affects our moods, attitudes and emotions. After a while, our actions can follow suit. A while back, we spoke with Dr. Richard G. Pellegrino — a doctor of neurology and neuroscience — about the effect that music has on our emotions. He's been working with the brain for 25 years, and Dr. Pellegrino says that nothing he does can affect a person's state of mind the way one simple song can.
Pellegrino has worked with opium overdose victims in a New York City emergency room. As overdosing patients struggled for breath, ER staff would work feverishly to prepare injections of Naloxone, a drug that disrupts the opium high. So what does this have to do with music? Plenty. According to Pellegrino, listening to music generates chemicals called endorphins in our brains — these natural opioids produce a high chemically similar to a drug high. Experiments have shown that if you give Naloxone to a group of people and ask them to listen to their favorite music, it suddenly becomes an intellectual exercise — the intensity of the emotions seems to diminish.
This makes sense. We've all experienced the emotions that accompany music. That's why we listen. The promise of emotional impact explains why you're more likely to hear a pounding guitar anthem than elevator music at a sporting event — the people in the sound booth want to create a mood, and they know that music is a powerful way to do it.
But getting this effect while dumping verbal garbage into your brain is much like getting high on opium — it may feel so great that you don't want to quit, but ultimately, you're doing great damage to yourself. As Dr. Pellegrino told us, "You can pour messages in and if you pour the wrong messages in, they take on a particular power — more than the listener understands."
When Life Imitates Art
With the clear influence of the media on our moods and emotions, it follows that there must be some carry-over to our choices and actions. In fact, most Americans believe a link exists between media and actual behavior. That's why ...
83 percent of Americans wish the entertainment industry would voluntarily cut some of the sex and violence from television, movies and music lyrics.USA Today, 6/8/95.
87 percent of entertainment industry leaders feel violence in the mass media contributes to violence in society.The Associated Press, 4/30/94.
And get this. Major medical associations have linked the violence in television, music, video games and movies to increasing violence among young people. "Its effects are measurable and long-lasting. Moreover, prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life," explained the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in July 2000. "The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behaviors in children."The Associated Press/CNN.com, 7/26/00.
Maybe the health community's diagnosis will prompt producers of damaging entertainment to clean up their act. But until then, we need to be very careful about what we allow ourselves to watch and listen to.
Here's an example of one teen whose unwise media choices yielded tragic results: Devin Moore, an 18-year-old fan of the Grand Theft Auto video games, got picked up by police on suspicion of stealing a car. He had no criminal history and cooperated with authorities. But once inside the Alabama police station, he snapped. He grabbed an officer's .40 caliber Glock automatic and — with great precision — killed three men, all with shots in the head. Then he stole a squad car. Experts are convinced that Moore, in a stressful moment, was acting on what he had rehearsed for hours and hours while playing Grand Theft Auto. In fact, when they caught up with him, he said, "Life is a video game. Everybody's got to die sometime." In 2005, Moore was sentenced to death by lethal injection.Strickland v. Sony; "60 Minutes," 3/5/06.
This is just one tragic story pulled from contemporary headlines. We could list dozens more. Are they extreme examples of how lyrics can impact attitudes and behavior? You bet. But such tragedies prove that "harmless entertainment" can be anything but harmless. And while most of us will never take action on the harmful messages we ingest, we can be sure that those messages are affecting our attitudes and emotions.
What Does This Mean for Me?
It all comes down to the battle we fight in every area of our lives — the battle to make Jesus Christ our No. 1 priority. God knew that this would be a struggle for us. Perhaps that's why the first of His Ten Commandments was, "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3). Any time we place something or someone in front of God on our priority list, we're breaking the first commandment and stepping outside of God's best for us.
Why is it so hard to keep God in first place? Think about this: Before we accept Christ as our Savior, we're controlled by our flesh — our sinful nature and selfish desires. Once we make Jesus our Lord, the Bible tells us that we're new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), we're under the control of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:24-25), and we don't have to be slaves to sin anymore (Romans 6:6,14). Still, the flesh raises its ugly head and fights to be in control of our lives.
In other words, we have a huge war going on inside us between the flesh and the Spirit. Every decision we make shifts the balance of power to one side or the other. Because entertainment has a major impact on our lives, it's important that our media decisions help the Spirit to win and keep God our first priority.
Maybe you wonder how to get started making wise entertainment choices (that's also called being discerning about the media). We admit it's not always easy. But there are some tried and true tactics for winning this war. Here are four of the best we've found.
Get Into the Word
Entertainment choices would be much simpler if God had put verses in the Bible that said, "You shall not watch slasher films," or "You shall not listen to songs about premarital sex." Unfortunately, it isn't that easy. The good news is, God has given us timeless principles that help answer our questions about entertainment. Digging into the Bible and applying what we find there is a sure way to begin winning the battle between the flesh and the Spirit.
The Bible says, "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of the world rather than on Christ" (Colossians 2:8). This verse underscores a great discernment principle. That's because every movie, TV show and song contains someone's philosophy. Not all entertainment is "hollow and deceptive," but much of it is, and it can take us captive! Studying the Bible helps us learn to distinguish which messages are based on Christ and which are based on the "basic principles of the world." Once we learn that, we can make choices to avoid being taken captive.
If you're interested in reading more of God's truths that apply to entertainment, check out the passages below. There are enough Scriptures here for at least a week or two of devotional reading. As you study them, ask yourself, "What is the main point of this passage?" "How might it apply to today's entertainment?" and "What can I do to live it out in my media choices?" You might even want to write down your thoughts in a journal so you can be reminded of them later.
The War Within Us
Ephesians 2:1-5 — The sinful nature brings death
Ephesians 4:17-24 — Out with the old, in with the new
Romans 7:14-25 — Paul admits his own struggles
Romans 8:1-17 — Jesus: Cure for the sinful nature
Avoiding Indecent Exposure
Psalm 101 — David's pledge of purity
Ephesians 5:8-13 — Live in light rather than darkness
Philippians 4:4-8 — Your heart's best defense
1 Thessalonians 5:21 — Test everything
Colossians 3:1-10 — Trading junk for jewels
1 Timothy 4:7-16 — A call to young Christians
Timothy 4:3-4 — Don't waffle on the truth
Preparing a Defense
Psalm 119:9-16 — Armed with God's resources
Romans 12:1-2 — Don't be conformed; be transformed
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 — Training to win
2 Corinthians 10:3-5 — Taking thoughts prisoner
Ephesians 6:10-18 — The full armor of God
1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 — Control your passions
1 Peter 1:13-16 — Follow the Commander
The Value of Wisdom
Proverbs 3:21-26 — Benefits of discernment
Ecclesiastes 9:13-18 — A tale of wisdom as strength
You Can't Lose Your Footing When You're on Your Knees
The second vital battle tactic for discernment is prayer. Honoring God with our entertainment choices is a tough fight, and we can pray for power and help in several different areas of the battle. God promises that whenever we pray in agreement with His will, He will come to our rescue and provide for our needs (John 14:13-14).
Pray for the Holy Spirit to help you understand the Bible's entertainment principles (1 Corinthians 2:10-13).
Pray for wisdom as you establish your media standards (1 Kings 3:7-12).
Pray for strength to resist the temptation to indulge in entertainment that doesn't glorify God (Matthew 6:13; 1 Corinthians 10:13).
Walk With the Wise
The third battle tactic for discernment is to surround yourself with other soldiers. You wouldn't battle an army all by yourself. Neither should you face all the loud, crazy, competing messages of entertainment on your own.
One of the best ways to make wise entertainment choices is to hang out with friends who have the same Christ-honoring standards you do. Then you won't be tempted to compromise because "everyone else" is buying a certain CD or going to a certain movie. And it's so important to have a few trusted adults you can talk with when you have questions. For example, if you're trying to decide whether to watch a particular TV show, you and your parents could watch it together for the first time, discuss it and decide together whether you should watch it again. Or maybe you could ask your youth pastor about the confusing lyrics from the latest Top-40 radio hit and how they compare to God's standards. You might also check out our Web site — pluggedin.com — for biblically based reviews of what's hot in entertainment.
Know the Difference Between Reality and Truth
The final tactic is a strategy of the mind: recognizing that truth and reality are not the same thing. And knowing why that difference is important. We get lots of letters from teens who have been misled in this area. Here are just a few of them:
"Music and spiritual beliefs are two different things. Sex, drugs, alcohol — those things are all found in more places than in music. It is reality." — Sarah
"In case you haven't noticed, there's a real world out there. A little profanity and alcohol won't send you to hell in a handbasket." — Matt
"[Dark] music speaks to me. You should realize that the world is not fun and full of life, [but] that the world is full of hate, love, suicide and murder — and we as Christians cannot deny it. You need to look at music with an open mind and understand that not only I, but millions of depressed teens and kids, turn to music that understands them." — Tricia
When our reviews say that the messages of certain songs, TV shows and movies are not helpful to Christians, many readers protest that the artists are just "keepin' it real." There are two problems with this approach.
First, what entertainment presents as "reality" is not always as real as it looks. For example, the fact that some CW drama regularly involves sex, fighting and disrespect doesn't mean your high school is filled with kids who have sex, fight in the hallways and hate their teachers. If the cast of "Gossip Girl" were required to live in the real world for even a day, you can bet they'd be grounded for life. From an overemphasis on physical attractiveness to a lack of consequences for poor choices, TV creates a world with its own rules. Second, when TV does try to "get real" it tends to dwell on the seamy side of life. That's why we should search for truth instead.
What's the difference between "reality" and "truth"? Think about it for a minute. Reality reflects the varying conditions and circumstances that characterize our world. What is portrayed as "good" or "evil" can change based on the whims and desires of men. Truth, on the other hand, is objective, eternal and absolute. For the Christian, it is grounded in the Word of God.
If we want to base our lives on something with lasting meaning, we need to focus on truth more than on reality. Why? Truth can set us free (John 8:31-32), sanctify us (John 17:17-19) and purify us (1 Peter 1:22). Reality cannot. Truth gives us an explanation for the world around us and a reliable set of standards for living. Best of all, the truth about Jesus Christ can bring hope and healing to even the most wounded among us — Jesus, more than anyone, identifies with our suffering (Isaiah 53:4-5), and He is available to anyone who will call on Him. If you want to learn more about truth, a study of Romans 12:2; John 10:10; 3 John 4; 2 Timothy 3:1-9 and 4:3-4 is a great place to begin.
Set a Media Standard
After you've spent some time learning and praying about what God says about entertainment, it's a good idea to write down your own biblically based media standard. This personal constitution will remind you of your decision to make choices that honor God and support your growing faith.
While there is no one standard that will fit every Christian, you should incorporate the principles you've learned from the Bible and set protective boundaries in areas where you're prone to temptation. In other words, take everything you've learned and put it together in a declaration of what you will and will not choose for entertainment.
Having trouble getting started? It may help to remember the WWJD? bracelets from a few years ago. The fad may fade, but the idea behind it will never die. Asking "What would Jesus watch and listen to?" is always a great place to start in setting your media standards. Once you've got your constitution, stick to it. Put it someplace where it will remind you often of your commitment to honor God through your entertainment choices.
This Isn't Going to Be Easy
What if you've prayed about your constitution and you're convinced that God wants you to raise your standards? What will you do with all the CDs, movies and video games you already own that don't measure up to your new standard?
The answer to those questions is not easy. In fact, it may be the first test of the seriousness of your new commitment. Over and over, God asks His people to honor Him by giving up what is valuable and important (Genesis 22:1-18; Deuteronomy 15:19-21; Proverbs 3:9-12). He doesn't demand this because He needs our possessions, but because He wants our hearts. Sacrificing our "stuff" shows that our hearts belong to Him.
If you're serious about honoring God from the inside out, giving up something that's important to you is a good way to put Him first in your life. And when we make these sacrifices from a pure heart, God promises to richly reward us. (Exodus 20:23-24; Deuteronomy 28:1-14; Matthew 19:29)
That said, there are a few things you might try to help you clean up your entertainment stash. To do these, you'll have to enlist the help of your parents, who will probably be pretty excited that you're making responsible and God-honoring decisions:
A local pawn shop might pay two or three bucks apiece for the discs, videos and video games you're anxious to get rid of. But since you probably don't want to put these products back into circulation, see if your parents will agree to purchase them from you at the same rate. You can use the cash you've earned to stock up on positive entertainment alternatives.
If you have one or two "out-of-bounds" products still in nearly new condition, you can ask your parents to return them to the store where you bought them. Some retailers will refund the purchase price — or offer store credit — to a parent who makes a return because of its offensive content.
Even if you've established a standard and you're committed to sticking to it, you can still get blindsided by garbage. An offensive commercial on an otherwise positive TV show. An obscene bumper sticker. A crude T-shirt or raunchy YouTube video. How should we deal with these sneak attacks?
The first defense is to run away! Second Timothy 2:22 tells us to "flee the evil desires of youth." But it's also a good idea to use those situations as learning opportunities. Once you've removed yourself from the harmful messages, ask yourself, Why doesn't that message measure up to God's standard? What biblical truths apply in this situation? If you make this question-and-answer game a habit, it will sharpen your mind and help to make you quick on the draw when substandard entertainment ambushes you.
For the Long Haul
Holding your entertainment standards up to God's standards can be scary. And maybe discouraging. All of us will find we've got a long way to go before we're what He wants us to be. But our obedience is a pleasing gift to God, and He promises to give us the strength to keep fighting. At first it may be difficult to stick to your new declaration, but each time you fall down, God can help you get up and keep going. After a while, you'll find yourself changing from the inside out. And that's more exciting than anything the media can offer!
All scripture quotations are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.