By: Paul Asay
It’s Friday night and your friends invite you to see The Bride of Paranormal Activity. It’ll be great, they say. The demon (Adam Sandler) stalks this poor, unsuspecting family who’ve all had webcams surgically implanted in their foreheads. And one night, the demon walks in and—
Well, it’s obviously a must-see. Or so your friends say.
And in a way, it feels like they’re right. After all, your calendar’s wide open. You’ve got money. You’ve got the time. And it’s not like Mom and Dad are telling you to “be home by ten” and “be sure to carry your mace” and “over my dead body are you going to see that” anymore.
No, the only thing potentially keeping you out of the theater is—well, you. There’s no question you can go. But should you?
We live in a pop culture world—a society practically consumed by movies and television and whatnot. But should we, in turn, consume all that entertainment? Should we sit down and ingest the Family Guys and Hangovers and Paranormal Activities of the world with as little thought as we sometimes snack on Cool Ranch Doritos?
I believe the entertainment we watch is a little like the food we eat. Sure, it can be good for us. It might be loaded with stuff that can help enrich our minds and hearts—and there’s little question it can be pretty tasty at times, emotionally speaking. We like our entertainment as much as we like a slice of apple pie.
But our movies can sometimes be pretty unhealthy. They might not clog our arteries or expand our waistlines, but they can weigh down our minds with problematic images or twist our ideals with their own flabby worldviews. Truth is, we are what we eat.
Unsaturated, Unsalted Stories
Now, I know this is a hard sell. “Pssh,” you might be saying. “This stuff doesn’t impact me. It’s just a movie, for goodness’ sake.”
Hey, I get that. But here’s the hard truth: Movies and television shows are made to impact you. If they’re not, you’re watching some awfully boring stuff.
We love our stories. In a way, we are our stories. Who and what we are is less a product of our skin and bones and DNA than our experiences (which, when you think about it, are simply stories that have actually happened to us). We learn from our stories—and from other people’s, too. Instinctively, we understand they’re incredibly efficient ways to teach. I think it’s one of the reasons why Jesus told so many of them Himself.
But not every story is a worthy, redemptive story—filled with the wholesome goodness of a home-cooked meal. Sometimes they can be loaded with problematic additives—and often those tales are prepackaged and shipped straight from Hollywood.
Now, most of us don’t really think about what’s in a movie or television show any more than we look at the label of a frozen dinner. But maybe we should. Movies—all movies—have the potential to impact us in three key ways:
- They Can Hurt Us
Many of us have some sort of allergy to foods. If I eat cantaloupe, my lips swell up. Others can’t eat gluten or even look at a peanut. And while some allergies are just annoying, others can be pretty dangerous.
Our entertainment impacts some of us in much the same way. People have sworn off beach vacations because of Jaws, showers because of Psycho. For some, scary movie moments can develop into full-blown phobias. Far more troubling are those rare individuals who take a movie’s problematic content as inspiration: Columbine murderers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were apparently obsessed with Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. In 1981, John Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan in apparent homage to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Now granted, these are very rare cases, but they suggest that movies can impact troubled minds in unpredictable ways.
- They Can Influence How We Think and Act
Do you ever crave broccoli? How ’bout bean sprouts? Yeah, I thought not. More often than not, we crave Cheetos and chocolate cake. Our body loves the bad stuff, and the more we eat of it, the more our taste buds crave it.
We crave certain forms of entertainment, too. Now, those cravings aren’t always bad. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being in the mood to watch a romcom. But here’s the thing: What we crave on screen sometimes leads to unhealthy cravings in real life. The most obvious example, perhaps, is the pornification of society. Scientists tell us porn addiction is real and can lead to huge and devastating problems in real-world relationships. But we’re not just talking about porn. Scientists say that even those inoffensive romcoms can skew how women view their boyfriends and husbands—leading to ever more disenchantment that their best-beloved isn’t even close to Channing Tatum.
And it doesn’t stop there. Violent films have been linked to violent behavior. Smoking onscreen is connected to teens starting to smoke in real life. Even when we insist that entertainment doesn’t affect us, science tells us it probably does—even if we don’t know it.
- They Will Dull Our Senses
Of course, this sort of influence only goes so far with most of us. Not everyone who watches a movie with smoking in it will have an urge to light up. Not everyone who watches a war movie will buy a machine gun. We understand the difference between reality and fiction, and we mostly manage to keep our entertainment cravings in check.
But there’s one thing that repeated exposure to entertainment invariably does. It desensitizes us.
Think of it like salt: if our palates aren’t used to the stuff, a little salt goes a long way. But the more salt we ingest, the more our taste buds get used to it. And so, as time goes on, we need more and more salt to make the same flavorful impact.
Now, consider this: According to the journal Pediatrics, the average American is exposed to 200,000 instances of violence from television alone by the time we’re 18.
Most Americans probably can’t estimate how many people they’ve seen die on-screen—and that’s bad news for the makers of movies or television shows. After all, they want to craft memorable stories. And if they “kill” someone on-screen, they want it to be memorable; they want that on-screen experience to hit you in the gut. But how do they get through to someone who’s seen, literally, thousands of people die on-screen in his or her lifetime? Very often, they amp up the metaphorical salt content—blood, gore, unimaginable suffering. In turn, that increased content makes us even more desensitized. And we’re not talking about just violence, here; sex and language fits into the same boat. Our brains crave variety, and they’ll zone out if they’re not given it.
But here’s the scary thing: Many scientists now believe that, as we grow desensitized through entertainment, we’re also growing more desensitized in real life.
Skip the Starvation Diet
It’d be nice to think a fad entertainment diet might get us back into shape: “Just watch Fireproof 50 times in the next two months and you’ll be mentally and spiritually fit as a fiddle—and you can go back to watching South Park whenever you want until the next diet comes along.”
But it’s not that easy. Just as most of us should watch our salt intake and run a few laps regularly for our physical health, we need to be conscious of diet and exercise in the realm of media discernment as well.
The concept of a media “diet” is fairly obvious, if you’re following the food metaphor. You cut down on the bad stuff.
It’s helpful if you have an honest understanding as to what your own weaknesses are. If you’re prone to be particularly drawn in by sexualized images or particularly bothered by on-screen violence, consider yourself “allergic” and make a special point to stay clear of anything that might feed that allergy. And even if you’re not “allergic,” remember that the content you’re absorbing is still influencing you somehow—even if you don’t notice.
But it’s obviously not as simple as just watching good stuff and cutting out the bad stuff, is it? After all, most movies and television shows aren’t wholly good or wholly bad, but somewhere in between. Maybe they offer some nice messages of redemption along with a bit of foul language, or some challenging questions to sit alongside gratuitous violence. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, we might stumble into a movie that has harsh content we weren’t expecting.
That’s when we must rely on exercise. We must give our brains—and the media lodged inside them—a rigorous workout.
How? Simple: Think about what you’ve seen and heard. Talk about it with friends. Write about it, if you’re so inclined. Did the movie move you? Why? What bothered you? What are the writers trying to say? Who, or what, does the movie hold dearest? Analyze the movie’s worldview; process a television show’s themes and characters. Treat these bits of media—these stories—with the respect they deserve.
We need to think about what we’ve seen and heard. We can’t just passively slurp them up as if they were milkshakes. When we use entertainment as a catalyst for thought and reflection (instead of mindless diversion), it can help mitigate some of a film’s more harmful messages and images.
Media discernment can be tricky. And while there are resources out there that try to help you make an informed decision about what’s “good” and “bad,” the choices you make are eventually your own.
But as you make those decisions, just remember: you are what you eat.
Paul Asay is an award-winning writer who covered religion at The (Colorado Springs) Gazette for several years and whose work has been published by The Washington Post, Christianity Today, Beliefnet.com, and others. Paul, who also wrote the book God on the Streets of Gotham (published by Tyndale), also works for the entertainment outlet Plugged In. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Wendy and his two children. You can follow him on Twitter at @AsayPaul or visit his website at paulasay.com.