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January 25th, 2010 // posted in Media

Media Exposure, Addiction

I do a lot of research. The facts and figures from Barna surveys lead to a lot of conclusions, some of which are predictable, some of which are surprising, a few of which become controversial. One of the latter conclusions is this: media exposure has become America’s most widespread and serious addiction.

According to the American Psychiatry Association, an addiction is a chronic disorder in which we are unable to control our need for the substance in question. The Association adds that addictions have a combination of several simultaneous components at work. Addictions literally change our brains. They do so by changing the chemical balance and flow within the brain, or by altering the brain structure, or by changing our emotions, motivations and memory capacity. Addictions cause withdrawal symptoms when exposure to the addictive item is eliminated and they cause us to lose control over how much exposure we seek to experience. The APA indicates that addictions may produce a desire to reduce our exposure – a desire that we are unable to satisfy. Another sign of an addiction is that it causes us to abandon or reduce our involvement in normal and healthy activities. And addictions are characterized by the addict’s repeated denials that a real problem exists. According to APA, when we experience the concurrent presence of three or more of these symptoms, we have an addiction.

To be fair, as we put the media under the microscope, it is important to note that the media can and sometimes do provide important benefits. For instance, we know that some media tools – such as training DVDs, movies, and music – can stimulate thinking and conversation, and often assist in the retention of information. One of the studies we conducted a few years ago showed that people are more likely to remember principles demonstrated in a brief, dramatic video clip than they are to recall the same principles described in a sermon. Media can also provide people with a healthy way of relaxing and decompressing after an exhausting or tense time. They can capture people’s attention and focus it upon items of great importance. And when properly used, media can be help facilitate language development, as well as reasoning and problem-solving skills.

But as often as not, media content winds up serving the lowest common denominator because that’s where the largest audience – and, consequently, the money and notoriety – is to be found. Sometimes that makes media content a distraction from more important or helpful matters. In more serious cases, however, media content can become a debilitating obsession for individuals, and a pathway to societal deterioration.

I arrived at this conclusion based on looking at a lot of data. For instance, if media content and exposure levels are at addictive levels, we would expect to see a steady increase in the amount of media exposure that characterizes the typical person’s life. Research consistently shows such an increase. Two decades ago, the average child under 18 spent about 15 to 20 hours per week digesting media content. Today, it has nearly tripled to almost 60 hours per week of unduplicated time. They now devote more time to media than to anything other than sleep.

We can see this as a generational trend, as well. The elder generation, the pre-Boomers, did not grow up with media ubiquity and never became accustomed to it. Boomers broke the ice, embracing media as their means to free expression. Busters championed technology, making media a dominant companion as they grieved the absence of parents and the thrill of expanding their world electronically. Mosaics, those 22 and younger, have known little else besides a media saturated universe, and look forward to blowing it out even more.
The continual expansion of consumer technology has created a felt need for more content. Americans don’t want to miss out on anything significant. If it’s out there, and has perceived value, they will seek it out.

Another sign of our media addiction is people’s resistance to reducing their amount of media exposure. If we were serious about reducing the amount of media exposure we would witness parents having boundaries on how much media time their children are allowed. Unfortunately, we see nothing of the sort. And if we were serious about reducing the amount of media exposure we would see diminishing expenditures on personal media and technology, on in-home media and technology and even forms of mobile media, such as video screens and satellite radio installed in cars. In each case, we actually see a per capita increase in such spending. In fact, the research shows that growing numbers of people are interested in making their home into a “digital nest.”

In fact, if we were serious about reducing the amount of media exposure we would find surveys showing expectations of future media purchases to be on the decline. We find exactly the opposite: consumers expect to add more electronic and technological goodies to their arsenal as soon as they can afford them.

Another angle on this resistance relates to the breadth of our adoption of new lifestyle components. In this regard we evaluate how people are redesigning their homes and vehicles, their occupational practices, their workplace environment, and their relational practices. In so doing, we find that Americans are increasingly committed to incorporating media tools and content into those dimensions of their lives. In 2009, American consumers spent in the neighborhood of $400 billion on media and technology. As a proportion of disposable income, that figure has remained consistent over the past decade.

Further evidence of our media addiction comes from the measurable physiological changes resulting from our exposure to substantial quantities of media. Studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics note that among children 2 through 18, the greater the media exposure, the fewer the hours of restful sleep they get and the worse the student’s school performance. Their work also shows that the more media a child is exposed to, the more aggressive their behavior and the more desensitized to violence and sexualization they become. Further, they report that the more media a young person digests, the more likely they are to become obese, their ability to engage in culturally normative moral reasoning suffers, and their average attention span is shorter. Add to that the Harvard Medical School research that has discovered a strong connection between the amount of media consumed and the amount of calories consumed. Extended interaction with media also reduces creativity and can result in anxiety due to information overload. Various medical research studies have revealed the effects of media in connection with illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia, and a variety of sexually transmitted diseases.

Still more signs of media addiction include the discovery of a reduction in people’s participation in normal and healthy social, occupational and recreational activities. One phrase may say it all in this regard: couch potato. Much research has found a strong link between time devoted to media exposure and a paucity of relationships and poor physical conditioning. Almost 80% of the TV commercials that kids see each year are for fast food, candy, cereal and toys. The result has been numerous studies showing a firm connection between exposure to such advertising and overeating. The preponderance of media teaches us that violence can be safe, fun, harmless and productive. A common (albeit covert) media message is that it is appropriate to resolve conflicts through disrespectful language, physical violence or other aggressive and intentionally hurtful behaviors that produce positive feelings within the aggressor. Out of more than 3,500 medical and behavioral research studies exploring the association between media violence and violent behavior, only 18 have NOT shown a correlation.

Scary media – whether that be in the form of slasher films, episodes about demonic possession or other portrayals of the dark side and sick behavior – have become the favorite genre of the Mosaic generation. One noted result is that feelings of fear about one’s environment are reaching record levels, manifested in nightmares, judgment of other people based upon appearance or stereotypes, and changes in daily behavioral routines to avoid scary places.

Media exposure has raised people’s willingness to experiment with substances that are intellectually understood to be potentially harmful – such as drugs, sex, alcohol, smoking and pre-marital sex. Further, the provocative dress styles of today’s young people reflects the overt sexualization of children.

Reading for pleasure has diminished substantially over the past 40 years, as the balance of people’s media diet has shifted. One dramatic consequence has been a severe loss in reading capacity among young people. A recent study showed that a majority of the nation’s employers deemed the recent high school graduating class to be deficient in their ability to write in English, to communicate with appropriate language, and to read basic instructions. A similar drop-off has been noted by employers in the communication and language skills of recent college graduates.

Finally, if we are addicted to media, you can bet that we will deny there is a real problem. And deny we do. Three-quarters (74%) of parents say the exposure of their children to inappropriate media content is one of their top concerns – yet they keep buying their kids media tools and allowing increased exposure. Two-thirds (65%) say they are very concerned that American children, in particular, are exposed to too much inappropriate media content – but a majority of those parents allow their children to have continued exposure to the very media content they are allegedly so concerned about. Perhaps this is because only 9% of parents believe that the media are the most significant influence on their children and only one out of every three enforce any limitations at all upon their children’s use of media.

By the time a person reaches the age of 21, it is estimated that they will have been exposed to more than 250,000 acts of violence through television, movies and video games. They will have viewed more than 2,000 hours, on average, of pornographic images that reduce the dignity and value of human life. They will have listened to several thousand hours of music in which the lyrical content promoted anger, hostility, disrespect for authority, selfishness and radical independence. But parents, teachers and other community leaders essentially allow that exposure to continue without limits.

Among teenagers and young adults, two out of three not only say that the media and technology they use make them happy, but a large majority of them admit that the thought of not having access to that technology causes them substantial emotional stress.
People in other nations, who probably see us more objectively than we can see ourselves, are amazed at not only our media infatuation but also the ever-increasing glut of morally and spiritually degrading content that we generate.

Do you still doubt that we’re addicted? Do a simple personal experiment. Ask a group of 12-year-olds to not watch TV for a week. Ask a group of juniors in high school to stay off the Internet for a week. Ask a group of 20-somethings to abandon their cell phone – and, of course, text messaging – for a week. You might as well ask them all to stop eating for a week: it’s just not gonna happen!

Media use has run the gamut, going from an oddity to a common practice to a habit to an obsession to an addiction in America. What can we do about it? What will you do?

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34 Comments

  1. Jeff McLain

    January 27, 2010

    Do you think the American people in Church are addicted to finding community, but compromising at different levels (based on their generation) before ever finding a truer community, but even in their compromise, entering a non-stop bridge burning desire for community?

    • George Barna

      January 30, 2010

      Jeff, I’m not sure what that means. Can you explain a bit more?

  2. Stoyan Georgiev

    February 7, 2010

    Dear George,

    Thank you for this article. My name is Stoyan. I’m from Sofia, Bulgaria and I helped with the publishing of your wonderful book “Transforming children into spiritual champions” into the Bulgarian language.

    Is it possible to translate this article into Bulgarian? How can we have the rights?

    Blessings!

    Stoyan

    • George Barna

      February 9, 2010

      Stoyan, I am happy to give you the rights to reproduce it in Bulgarian. The stipulations that we place upon that are 1) it not be sold, it must be made available for free; 2) it must be reproduced in its entirety, not in part; 3) full credit and attribution must be given to the author and source (Written by George Barna, published at georgebarna.com, used by permission from George Barna, 2010); 4) and you would send us a copy of the final product. Thank you for serving the Lord in Bulgaria. I pray that this article is somehow additive to God’s work there.

      • Stoyan Georgiev

        February 10, 2010

        Thank you for your kind answer, George!

        We confirm the terms and will send you back the Bulgarian version.

        Blessings!

        Stoyan

  3. Rev. Irwin Lall

    February 8, 2010

    You have just substantiated at length what I always maintained and taught on the results of excessive-media-exposure. If we do not take it seriously, our future generations are in great danger of losing touch with reality and the process of developing healthy relationships. Can I use excerpts of your article in my power-points for teaching? Thanks.

    • George Barna

      February 9, 2010

      Yes, you may use the information, assuming that appropriate attribution (name of author, source, and date of publication) accompanies the distribution/exposure of the information.

      • Rev.Irwin Lall

        March 7, 2010

        Thanks. God bless you.

    • R Dears

      March 19, 2010

      This article is so true. Parents KNOW there is a problem-then say they can’t do anything about it?! That;s crazy! We KNOW what is best for our children and God hold US responsible… it’s simple, tell your child that an all chocolate ice cream diet is not healthy and neither is too much TV, XBOX, PS3, etc. Do it while they are young. You will notice a difference in their attitude AND you can reassure them – they won’t die :-)

  4. IndyChristian

    February 8, 2010

    While thought provoking, isn’t this an overly broad-brush condemnation against all ‘media’? If our kids (and ourselves) were extensively reading newspapers, encyclopedias, wikis, their Bible, listening to pastors’ sermons, watching solid Christian content, apologetics on YouTube, etc… do your statements stand equally true?

    Conversely, what’s to be said about people who only talk to other people… and thus develop a post-modern crowd-speak theology?

    All this to say, media per se is not monolithic. The focus might ought to be on discerning ‘signal’ among the ‘noise’.

  5. Bill

    February 8, 2010

    Some East Texas wisdom might go like this: Son, you fish where the fish are, not where they ain’t”. Think of this like the advent of printing 500 years ago – that made it possible to put the bible in the hands of everyman. “And son, you gotta’ feed ‘em when they’re hungry”. Mobile devices make all kinds of messaging available at anytime – wherever you’re in range of a cell tower. The challenge is to maximize this for the kingdom. The challenge has always been to direct their gaze to the Saviour, yes?

  6. Tom

    February 8, 2010

    A very challenging and perceptive report. On one hand, “the medium is the message”: visual, sound bite communication is dominating our culture. Texting has become a sign of this obsession (archivists of the future will have few resources on which to ply their trade, and our 21st century culture will be a mystery to the 22nd). However, my situation seems to highlight some more positive aspects of media use. I live on a ranch that breeds, trains and shows high quality Arabian horses and has a large number of boarders. My state has a tradition of right-to-work, low wage, economics and I am an immigrant from a state from a higer wage, higher education traditon (hence, I am unemployable here and have been under and unemployed since moving). I began my own online business this year and have been most discerning in use of the internet. I am also a distance education ministry student (online resources are making my second Masters much more effective than trying to attend classes and use a traditional library setting.) So, the issue comes down to discernment of what you use, bearing fruit not junk food and not falling away from the duty to worship in public our God and give Him the glory (my one day away from the ranch is spent at worship, and then stocking up on a week’s supplies). Horses are good companions, but the conversation gets a little one-way. Choosing the right mix of public worship and witness (the best way) and then taking advantage of the best media resources can help keep our minds on God at all times.

  7. Randall Neighbour

    February 8, 2010

    The barrage of media in so many electronic forms could indeed be harnessed for sharing the Gospel as Bill stated above, but it cannot produce the life-on-life transformation that comes from direct face to face interaction.

    Like most Americans, I struggle with media addiction. Surfing the web for news and stuff and information about this or that often takes the place of meaningful (and transformational) interaction with others in a face to face manner.

    It is no wonder that the western church has degraded into who offers the best information and services each week instead of equipping the saints for the work of their ministry. The saints don’t know they are saints and they don’t know they have a ministry… so the church just feeds them six ways to have a better marriage and the ten keys to financial freedom with a little scripture thrown in to make it sound spiritual.

  8. Bill

    February 8, 2010

    Like the telephone, digital media COULD be deployed to help us engage in personal, face-to-face relationship – that is the ideal, of course. We (speaking generically of the Christian community) have, at times, been slow to adapt/adopt. If Jesus gives us a new fishing tool would we learn to use it? That’s the question, I think. If we know they’re online, know they’re texting etc., how can we tap that? (“Find ‘em where they are”…).

  9. Brad McDaniel

    February 8, 2010

    George. Awesome.

    On one hand, I am about to begin to experiment with new ways of getting my family engaged around things OTHER than the TV and laptops.

    On the other, our mission at yourstorymystory.com is all about reaching this younger gen where they are and as they are hungry for help – using the most amazing stories of God’s intervention in the lives of everyday people.

    By the way, your ol’ buddy Danny Sartin is a mentor of mine and helped me start our little non-profit.

    Bless you!

  10. Gwen Meharg

    February 8, 2010

    Quote from Mako Fujimura during a conference on Beauty and Culture: The function of art is to mediate and steward time.
    http://www.qideas.org/video/beauty-in-culture.aspx

    I listened to this lecture right after reading this and I found it a fascinating juxtaposition to this article.

    • Kurt Jones

      December 27, 2011

      Gwen – Thanks for including the including the Fujimura link. I enjoyed his talk and see it as supportive of Barna’s article. The overwhelming majority of media today has no appreciation for nor sees any necessity for beauty or truth. I see many Christians who advocate being media savvy as “missional” who are making pretty excuses for their addiction… I know, I could easily do the same!

  11. Juan Carlos Flores Zuñiga

    February 8, 2010

    Dear George
    I cannot agreed more upon your blog on media addiction. We all ministers are tempted to fell into, specially because God put passion in us. However, when misdirected to earn notoriety or be in a circle of traveling christian lecturers our passion became about the temporal not the eternal. How much time we spent in twitter, or FB instead of sharing our changed lives to people who do not Christ. We may reach a lot of people through media but it will never substituted our call and being witness on a personal level to other.
    Media is good and useful as long as it not become an addiction. Are we accountable to someone?
    Be blessed

  12. Keith McFarland (Uganda)

    February 8, 2010

    Have you heard of Shane Hipps’ book “The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture”? I would love to see someone build on the ideas he presents there for evaluating and maneuvering the tidal wave of media and technology. Here in Uganda, even in the village, culture is changing at the speed of light and media/technology is at the forefront of change. This is an issue that the global church at large MUST deal with NOW in a way that will equip our people both young and old to maneuver this mine field in a God-centered (Gospel-centered) way. Any thoughts?

  13. Darryl Riehle

    February 12, 2010

    A well known behavior of addicts is that they deny that there is an addiction. Could there be a general blindness in our world today that causes us to defend instead of cosider a truth we can’t see? If I wre blind, I would want to be led by someone who could see that I trust. For me that is Christ Jesus. It makes sense that addiction is being a slave to your desires not your reason! God’s standard is the Bible, and in Romans 6 it states everyone is a slave to ONLY one of two things, sin (evil) or God and righteousness/holiness. There is nosuch thing as amorality with God. It’s either under His jurisdiction or in rebellion to Him (the first commandment). God is everything good, health, truth, love, peace, joy, justice, etc… I would choose to be slave to good with God than to evil. Evil/Sin is lust(uncontrolled desires) not love, lies not truth, etc…
    It will never become an addiction for me to read the Bible too much…God says to meditate on it day and night.

  14. Jim Roberts

    February 22, 2010

    George…
    Thanks for being like Gideon and challenging the idols!!

    MEDIA
    Is anyone interested and/or convicted on how to reach the UNCHURCHED using the internet instead of just preaching to or fighting with the CHOIR???????

    I have told many others on churchian internet forums, blogs, and chat rooms that if some JESUS loving and dedicated/consecrated individuals were interested in INTERNET outreach/evangelism….ONE approach is to find high volume YOUTUBE sites….with over 10 million views and POST bible verses or gospel messages under the video. One person in, less than an hour , can easily reach a 1000 people.
    NO COST.

    Read Mark 8:38

  15. Shan Lao

    October 29, 2010

    You reveal the astounding potential of the media for Christian outreach in your study called, “Christian Media Reach More Adults With The Christian Message Than Do Churches.” In this study you found that roughly 27 million people unaffiliated with any church access Christian content through radio, television or books, with Christian radio being accessed by fully 27% of all respondents.

    According to your study, “… some of the most prolific movie viewers were homosexuals, unmarried partners, atheists and agnostics. Over 40% of moviegoers said they had seen a movie in the past year that caused them to think more seriously about their faith.”

    If people were not so married to their media, wouldn’t we lose an important avenue of evangelism?

  16. Samantha Goldberg

    April 7, 2011

    This is really scary, without even realizing it we are being brainwashed into all sorts of positive and negative suggestions. Come to think of it, I was in a bar the other day and I was horrified at the music that the youth now listen to; nearly all the songs had swear words, lyrics which demoralize woman, suggestions thats its okay to have one night stands and lyrics which imply you are only successful once you have money and ‘sexy’ bodies. Scary stuff! Media is seriously powerful and we should be more wary of it.

  17. Willie

    May 22, 2011

    As I look at this article, I use this as a source for a high school project. (Thank you) I have this NEED to check my Facebook account, as well as my phone every couple moments. I could not agree with this more. Thank you for giving me a chance to review my habits.

  18. Mark Pierce

    February 21, 2012

    George,

    I am putting together a few infographics on men and faith. I need numbers and stats about men and church or faith. Do you have a specific article, document or book I could gather information from? I love your information and want to use it as my passion for assisting men in America with their walk increases. Any feedback or information would be helpful. Thanks so much for your work.
    To Serve Him,

    Mark

    • SMS Gateway

      August 5, 2013

      members of the society by encouraging them to consult with each other for the right answers software to redefine reaching target audiences.

  19. Rose

    March 13, 2012

    I’m guilty of addiction as is my husband (the first addict), and my teens. I know I get brain overload. I am on healthy sites and use it for ministry too and it is really hard when my job is a content writer and I also am a writing addict. So I always want to research on the Internet too. I stopped folding laundry a minute ago and somehow ended back up on my computer.

    It’s March break and I forced my son & husband to go out for a walk in the forest with me & the dog. It was a good healthy walk and as soon as we returned, we returned to our media.

    I sometimes declare a technology free day–well, at least until 4 pm on a weekend. We are all a little relieved to go do something else.

    Two comments with the parent accusation above. One is that the school homework REQUIRES Internet use, Word & sometimes Powerpoint. I don’t know how kids do homework if they don’t have a home computer, so as it goes, we are forced to buy our kid a computer. And when we look over he is doing his homework one min. and on his game the next. I think the marks thing is unproven. My daughter had a 95 average and used to do her homework with the tv on, an Ipod going, and MSN going all at the same time as looking at textbooks. She is in biological sciences at university now so go figure.

  20. Kar

    March 15, 2012

    Scary media have become the favorite genre of the Mosaic generation. One noted result is that feelings of fear about one’s environment are reaching record levels, manifested in nightmares, judgment of other people based upon appearance or stereotypes…” What kinds of stereotypes, given the ethnic and religious diversity of this generation?

  21. Louise Certeza

    October 28, 2013

    George, I appreciated your article. Like many of the commenters and, most likely yourself, I acknowledge the many benefits to media… my concern is my own and my future family’s tendency to fill spare time and I designated time with random media. I don’t want my life to become aimless and unfocused but the ease with which I can access information and entertainment makes media an easy go-to and tends to fill valuable time with mind-numbing filler. Jesus talked about working while it was still day… Ps 119 talks about turning our eyes from worthless things– of course all media does not work against these Scriptures but an ADdiCTioN to media does. Thank you for the effort you put into this article.

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