Media Influence: How It Can Damage Our Children

 A recent (2010) research report from the University of Bristol in England discovered that “kids who spent more than two hours a day in front of a TV were 61% more likely to have increased psychological effects than kids who spent less time, even if they’re physically active.”  The psychological effects included emotional troubles, attention problems, difficulties with social interaction and behavioral issues.  Computer time effects were slightly less at “just” 59%.

Since the following personal account of almost twenty years ago, media has exploded exponentially with the amount and intensity of available mind and spirit polluting movies, DVD’s, games, Internet, music and more, which makes this account tame in comparison.  Many parents hardly give a thought to the media influences of today.  Our society is paying the price and the cost is increasing.

                                                                                                        

In the daytime everything was fine.  She could play, socialize and learn.  She was outgoing, friendly and enjoyed her kindergarten classmates with whom she spent most of the day.  She had a bubbly personality and an ease with which she interacted with the world.  She was of “Pixie” size with a quick smile.

 She had casually mentioned something to her kindergarten teacher about problems of sleeping at night.  Her teacher in turn casually mentioned it to me (as a counselor in a small school district, I worked with students K-12); something about talking to a student who was having sleep problems.  The reference was somewhat vague and didn’t seem too important.  I partially dismissed it as a minor matter similar to kids who request to see the counselor, and then tell me excitedly about their new puppy.  Sometimes in their excitement they can’t sleep either.

About a week later the same teacher came to my office with Pixie’s mother, and asked if I could see her.  She came in and quickly stated that she really hadn’t come to the school to see the Counselor, but wanted to talk to her daughter’s teacher.  Responding to my inquiry, she stated that Pixie had not been sleeping well at night lately, and was wondering how it might be affecting her schoolwork.

During our conversation, I learned that Pixie had a hard time sleeping alone in her own bedroom.  After a divorce about two years earlier it was common to have Pixie sleep with mommy quite often, and now there was no way she was going to sleep alone.  Even when the problem had not reached the current chronic stage, Pixie could often be found in the morning sleeping on the floor beside her mother’s bed.  After being forced to stay in her own bed, she would quietly slip into her mother’s room and bed down on the floor.

At this point, when it appeared to be the entire story, I suggested that perhaps the girl was going through a little separation/abandonment anxiety, especially after her father had left and was seen somewhat infrequently.  Although there had been a sufficient lapse of time to adjust to the divorce (it’s doubtful if a child ever fully adjusts), a very sensitive child could be affected for a length of time.  However, it didn’t seem reasonable that the problem would be intensifying, as it appeared to be doing.

I made further suggestions about perhaps negotiating nights with mommy as a reward to spending a night alone.  The mother revealed that in the past such tactics worked, but now they were totally ineffective.  She stated further that in the past Pixie’s crying, in protest of sleeping alone, seemed like “normal” crying.  Now, however, she said her crying was different; it seemed to be a terrifying cry from deep within.  I asked about whether a bathroom or night light was left on at night, and discovered that Pixie would insist that the light in the bedroom be on at all times.  This opened up another area of Pixie’s problems.

Pixie seemed to be terrified of the dark.  Even when she was sleeping with mommy, she would not go to the bed alone in her mother’s darkened bedroom.  The mother explained that Pixie would sleep on the floor next to the ironing board until her mother finished ironing and took her to bed.  She went on to explain that Pixie would not go to the bathroom at night if she had to turn on the light.  The light must be turned on before she would go in.  I probed for any event that might have taken place in the past to cause this unusual fear of the dark.  The mother could not think of anything that might have caused it.

Probing for some kind of a lead, I inquired about the type of television programs that she watched.  Other than a “normal” amount of common television violence there were no viewing problems that seemed of major importance.  Since the neighborhood in which they lived was secure, we agreed that nightly strolls, talking and looking at stars, always holding her hand, would be a first step in an attempt to address problem.  We agreed that I would call Pixie out of class and talk to her; hoping to gain some additional insight.

I called Pixie in and at once became engaged in conversation with a bright, outgoing little girl.  We talked about a variety of school things and she had no trouble expressing herself in detail.  After ten minutes or so of conversation, I asked how she was doing with her schoolwork since she didn’t get all the sleep she needed.  The conversation moved quickly to being afraid of the dark, and that in the darkness of her bedroom monsters came out of the trashcan!  When I asked her to tell me more, she switched from monsters to Freddy Krueger.  She began describing in graphic detail some of the events that happened during the movie Nightmare on Elm Street that stars the hideous, disfigured murderer, Freddy Krueger.

As Pixie continued her explanation of Freddy Krueger, she seemed to be living the story rather than just telling it.  It was as though we pushed the “play” button and the tape was rolling a reality within her mind.  When I tried to interrupt the flow to ask certain questions, Pixie just ignored my questions and continued at a heightened emotional level.  I would have to raise my voice and firmly say “stop, stop,” before she would acknowledge my words.  I then could only stop her for a few seconds before she would plunge back in and begin her play-by-play narrative of the movie, all with an almost emotional frenzy.  Pixie seemed to be talking about what to her was reality; after nighttime came.  Almost all of the horror and terror in movies happens at night.

When I could finally stop Pixie long enough to have an exchange, I learned that she had gone to a cousin’s home and viewed this movie from a video tape.  Her mother was unaware that she was watching this type of material.  As a result of the intensity with which Pixie described, and seemed to re-live this movie, I began to understand why she was afraid of the dark with its attending sleep problems.  When I asked whether she had watched any other similar movies, she left Freddy Krueger and began describing a Vampire movie.  She explained that at night the vampire would bite the victim’s throat and suck out their blood.  Pixie described the vampire’s actions with the same intensity she had when talking about Nightmare on Elm Street.

After a little more probing, Pixie shifted once again from the vampire movie to some sort of Slime Monster, then to Bigfoot, to Jaws and finally to some movie where a little girl was ripped to pieces by wild dogs and thrown into a crude grave and buried.  By this time I was a little overwhelmed by the emerging magnitude of this little girl’s problem.  Unknown to her mother, Pixie was watching these movies at a cousin’s house and was being taken to a theater showing more of the same.  More than just relating a movie, was the intensity with which she recounted graphic details.  I begin to sense that Pixie was not really sure whether these things were real or not.  When darkness fell this might well become a reality as far as Pixie’s thinking was concerned.  Little wonder then, that when night came she cried from the depths of her being for fear of becoming one of the victims.

After sending Pixie back to class, I called her mother and asked if she could come in to talk.  During the meeting, I explained what had taken place during my time talking to Pixie.  The mother was shocked.  She was not aware of the video, television, and theater material that Pixie had been watching, and Pixie didn’t tell for fear of getting in trouble.  I suggested some steps that must be taken to counteract the devastating effects this viewing was having on Pixie’s mind and emotions.  I warned that it might take some time before this “trash” could be purged from her mind, and that some of it might seem to be permanent.  I also explained that while some people seem to be more vulnerable than others, the old adage “a man is what he reads” (or eats), conveys the idea that environment powerfully influences everyone.  Pixie, a bright, outgoing, sensitive and thoughtful child, was not totally aware of the difference between television and the real world.  And I’m afraid that she is not alone in being influenced and victimized by irresponsible “entertainment” that is concerned only with money and is void of social responsibility.

This story has no completely happy ending as of yet.  While Pixie’s life is beginning to improve, it will take a concerted effort to counter the devastating impact of her television viewing.  And while this extreme example is somewhat rare (maybe not as rare as we might think), it points out a principle that is always at work.  Those things to which people are exposed, become powerful influences in their thinking and subsequent behavior.  It hardly seems coincidental that T.V. violence, with its disregard for the sanctity of life and human dignity, is being reflected in the actions of society.  The experience of Pixie is but a terrifying glimpse of the unseen negative impact being perpetrated on our children by the unconscionable work of television/movie producers.

The hearts of many parents have been encouraged by the promise that if we “Train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it” (Prov. 22:6).  We trust that our children will remain faithful and protected as a result of our training.  However, the opposite can also be true.  Some of the television/movie “training” will capture the minds and hearts of many children, who, when they are old may not depart from that, either.  Junk in, junk out.

The time is long past for concerned, informed parents to re-think the whole issue of television/movie viewing and its impact on our lives.  We can no longer join with the irresponsible adults and parents in our society who are victimizing the innocent and vulnerable – the children.

 

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