TV​—The “Subtle Instructor”

TELEVISION can be a powerful teaching tool. By means of it, we learn about lands and peoples we may never visit. We “travel” to tropical jungles and polar ice caps, to mountain peaks and ocean depths. We peer into the intriguing worlds of both atoms and stars. We watch news as it happens on the other side of the globe. We gain insight into politics, history, current events, and culture. Television captures the lives of people in both tragedy and triumph. It entertains, instructs, and even inspires.

Much of the programming, however, is neither wholesome nor educational. Probably the most impassioned criticism comes from people who decry TV’s abundant and graphic portrayal of violence and sex. One study in the United States, for example, found that nearly 2 out of 3 TV programs contain scenes of violence, averaging six per hour. By the time a youth reaches adulthood, he will have watched thousands of dramatized acts of violence and murder. Sexual content too is in abundant supply. Two thirds of all TV programs include talk about sex, and 35 percent include sexual behaviors, which are usually  presented as risk free and spontaneous and involve unmarried couples. *

Programs that feature sex and violence are in high demand worldwide. American-made action movies, which eventually air on TV, make an easy transition to foreign markets. They don’t necessarily require good acting or clever scripts, and they are easily understood. They rely on fights, killings, special effects, and sex to hold the attention of the viewer. Holding that attention over time, however, requires change. Viewers quickly tire of the same thing; the sensational becomes commonplace. To sustain viewer interest, producers reach to greater extremes to shock and excite by increasing the acts of violence and by making the content more graphic, more sexual, more sadistic.

The Debate About TV’s Impact

How are viewers affected by a steady diet of TV violence and sex? Critics charge that TV violence causes people to act aggressively and to be less sympathetic toward victims of real-life violence. They also assert that the portrayal of sex promotes promiscuity and undermines moral standards.

Does TV viewing really contribute to all those reactions? This question has been passionately debated for decades; hundreds of studies and thousands of books and articles have addressed the matter. At the heart of the debate is the difficulty of proving that  one thing causes another​—for example, that early exposure to TV violence causes physical aggressiveness later in life. Proving a cause-effect relationship is sometimes challenging. To illustrate: Suppose you take a medication for the first time, and within hours you break out in hives. In such a situation, it is easy to conclude that the medication caused your allergic reaction. Sometimes, though, an allergy develops gradually. When that is the case, linking the allergic reaction to a specific medication may prove much more difficult, since allergies have many causes.

Similarly, it has been difficult to prove that the violence shown on television causes crime and antisocial behavior. Many studies do suggest that there is such a link. Furthermore, some criminals have said that their attitudes and violent behavior were fashioned by what they saw on TV. On the other hand, people are exposed to many influences in life. Violent video games, the social values of friends and family, general living conditions​—all these may also contribute to aggressive behavior.

It is hardly surprising, then, that there are opposing points of view. A Canadian psychologist wrote: “The scientific evidence simply does not show that watching violence either produces violence in people or desensitizes them to it.” However, the American Psychological Association Committee on Media and Society said: “There is absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior.”

Thinking About TV

Remember, the experts are debating about proof​—whether it can be proved that watching aggression causes aggression. Few people, though, would argue that television has no influence on our thinking and behavior. Think about it. A single photograph may move us to anger, tears, joy. Music too stirs our emotions profoundly. Words, even on the printed page, make us think, feel, and act. What power there is when moving pictures, music, and spoken words are skillfully woven together! No wonder television is so seductive! And it is so accessible. Says one writer: “Not since man first learned to put his ideas down in writing . . . has any new technique for transmitting ideas had such an impact on civilization.”

Businesses spend billions of advertising dollars every year because they know that viewers are influenced by what they see and hear. They don’t spend that money because they think advertising might work; they know it works. It sells their products. In 2004, The Coca-Cola Company spent 2.2 billion dollars advertising its products worldwide in print, on the radio, and on television. Was the investment worthwhile? The company made nearly 22 billion dollars in profits for that year. Advertisers realize that one ad may not affect behavior. Instead, they rely on the cumulative impact of years of indoctrination.

If 30-second advertisements influence our attitudes and behavior, we may be certain that hours of TV viewing also affect us. “Beneath the most routine or trivial entertainment,” says the author of Television​—An International History, “the medium operates as a subtle instructor.” Says the book A Pictorial History of Television: “Television is changing the way we think.” The question we need to ask ourselves is this, ‘Does what I watch affect my thinking in the way I want it to?’

For those who serve God, that question has special relevance. Much of what is shown on television runs contrary to the lofty principles and moral standards taught in the Bible. Lifestyles and practices that the Scriptures condemn are presented as acceptable, normal, and even trendy. At the same time, Christian values and those who appear to practice them are frequently ignored, ridiculed, or derided on television. One author lamented:  “It is not enough for the deviant to be normalized. The normal must be found to be deviant.” All too frequently the “subtle instructor” whispers: “Good is bad and bad is good.”​—Isaiah 5:20.

We must be careful about what we watch, for it will affect our thinking. The Bible says: “He that is walking with wise persons will become wise, but he that is having dealings with the stupid ones will fare badly.” (Proverbs 13:20) Bible scholar Adam Clarke notes: “To walk with a person implies love and attachment; and it is impossible not to imitate those we love. So we say, ‘Show me his company, and I’ll tell you the man.’ Let me know the company he keeps, and I shall easily guess his moral character.” As we have seen, most people spend a great deal of time in the company of television characters who are far from wise, characters a sincere Christian would otherwise never dream of inviting into his home.

If your doctor prescribed a powerful drug, you would probably carefully consider the benefits as well as the risks involved. Taking the wrong medication​—or taking too much of even the right medication—​can damage your health. The same might be said about TV watching. It is wise, therefore, to think seriously about what we watch.

The inspired apostle Paul encouraged Christians to consider things that are true, of serious concern, righteous, chaste, lovable, well spoken of, virtuous, and praiseworthy. (Philippians 4:6-8) Will you heed that advice? You will be happy if you do.


^ par. 3 Statistics for the United States are similar to those elsewhere, since American television programs and movies are broadcast throughout the world.

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“Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home.”​David Frost, British broadcaster

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What is the difference between the violence and sex shown on TV and that described in the Bible? The references to sex and violence in the Bible are written to instruct, not to entertain. (Romans 15:4) God’s Word records historical fact. It helps us to understand God’s viewpoint on matters and to learn from the mistakes of others.

In most countries where commercials are featured, the portrayal of sex and violence on TV is not about instruction​—it is about money. Advertisers want to attract as many people as possible, and sex and violence keep viewers riveted to their sets. The result: They will watch the commercials and buy what is advertised. Newscasters apply the principle: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Simply put, lurid stories​—of crime, disaster, and war—​get priority over news items that are less gripping.

Though the Bible documents violent acts, it encourages people to live peaceful lives​—not seeking revenge but settling problems peaceably. It consistently promotes sexual morality. This is not the message that comes through in much of what is broadcast on television.​—Isaiah 2:2-4; 1 Corinthians 13:4-8; Ephesians 4:32.

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“Based on the cumulative evidence of studies conducted over several decades, the scientific and public health communities overwhelmingly conclude that viewing violence poses a harmful risk to children.”​—The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

“[We agree with] the American Academy of Pediatrics that there should be ‘no [television watching] for children ages two and under.’ These children, who are undergoing tremendous brain development, need active play and real people interactions to promote their developmental, physical, and social skills.”​—The National Institute on Media and the Family.

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Does what I watch affect my thinking in the way I want it to?