Media control: the next culture wars?


The Kaiser Family Foundation, a health study group in California, issued a 42-page report titled “Parents, Children and Media” that was neatly summarized in a San Francisco Chronicle story by my colleague, science writer Erin Allday. For instance she wrote:


“Two-thirds of American parents are very concerned about sex and violence in the media . . . Most parents think they’re doing a pretty good job of reducing the impact of violent and sexual content on their own children by aggressively monitoring activities in the home. But they worry about what their children are exposed to when they’re out of the house, and two-thirds of parents would support more stringent federal regulation of television content.”

I have written before on the health effects of media exposure, such as this January 2006 magazine article that also focused on children. But I believe adults are equally prone to behavioral distortion by virtue of media exposure. The advertising industry, which is the foundation upon which most media are built, ultimately depends on our suggestibility regarding purchases. The economy of the United States (and other developed nations?) are therefore predicated upon the belief and practice that media messages influence behavior. The only question being whether that influence is good, bad or not susceptible to measurement and/or judgment.

Here is my belief: there have never been a group of humans whose values and culture will be so heavily influenced by media as those alive today. For instance media entrepreneur Mary Hodder (who blogs here and founded Dabble) talks about “the young people who communicate by cell phone and IM . . . they breathe the Internet.”

Mary made that as an offhand remark (I noted it in a March 2007 blog posting) but even taken out of context it makes the point that media is the air we breathe, young people even more so than their parents. It took a couple of centuries of industrial pollution to prod us to pass clean air laws. And we are still working on our societal response to global warming.

Now comes a new phenomenon to challenge our notions of “environment.” Media exposure and its consequences will create arguments between those who rely on self-regulatory actions (here is a story I wrote on parental control) and the sentiment expressed in the Chronicle article that “two-thirds of parents would support more stringent federal regulation of television content.” Long after  every town in America has legal gay couples, and  separate  days to commemorate each of these same-sex marriages, I think we will be arguing over media effects on behavior and what to do about them.