The dangers of “it’s just entertainment.”
I recently participated in a discussion regarding age appropriateness of certain children’s movies based on content. One theme that some persons kept bringing up was that “it’s just entertainment” and that if a parent teaches their children correctly, they don’t need to worry about the content of the cartoon as long as it is viewed solely as entertainment. This response is sad and misguided because it does not take into consideration the influence that “entertainment” can have on us, especially children.
Studies have shown (go do a journal search) that television, movies, video games, and various types of entertainment can, and do, influence the way we think and act. A very simple anecdote would be “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book that helped influence public opinion to push for the abolition of slavery in the United States. Entertainment molds our vision of the world, most times without our awareness. This is especially the case when our real-life experience of others, particularly those different from us, is limited.
The evidence is overwhelming that when people repeatedly witness images and scenarios that reinforce stereotypes of persons or groups of people, they are influenced by those images, whether they realize it or not. Allowing a child to watch a cartoon that promotes a stereotype does actually teach that child to think in terms of the stereotype. The irrational part of the brain can, and does, take over in real life. The research regarding the use of the term “illegal” with regards to immigrants who reside in our nation without proper documentation can help us understand this as well. Study after study shows that using the term “illegal” to refer to persons leads others to view immigrants as “less-than” human. It has a dehumanizing effect. Many people who use the term “illegal” do not themselves wish others ill, do not themselves consciously think of immigrants as subhuman, but the results are clear regardless of intent; immigrants are treated as “less than” by those who use the term or repeatedly hear the term in reference to persons.
It goes beyond stereotypes, though. It also affects our understanding of basic universal principles like: love, truth, justice, forgiveness, happiness, and on, and on. I spent a great deal of time when I was a campus minister trying to help my students realize that love is an act of the will, it is a choice, it is a sacrifice; it is not a feeling, it is not something that we “fall into” or “can’t help.” Though they were taught these errant notions of love in many different way, one very clear culprit was “entertainment.” Almost every favorite movie of my students that had a “love story” was about an emotional and/or sexual attraction and not truly about love. The things we choose to watch for entertainment does influence us, most often more than we realize.
Taking the argument a bit to the extreme let us consider other forms of “entertainment” that was “just entertainment.” Perhaps some would say the Coliseum was just entertainment, even though it led to the death of many human beings. Are strip clubs simply “entertainment?” Is a song that encourages the abuse of women just entertainment? How about a movie that encourages attacking minorities? What about a song that promotes the over-sexualization of women?
As parents, part of the responsibility for teaching right from wrong is about choosing entertainment that is virtuous and not vicious. The response “it’s just a cartoon; it’s just for entertainment” is insufficient and is irresponsible; in fact, it’s just a copout. If a cartoon has a storyline that promotes the subservience of women, it is not “just entertainment.” If a cartoon has characters that reinforce stereotypes of minorities, it is not “just entertainment.” If a cartoon contains content that leads a child away from truth it is not “just entertainment.” Movies, songs, cartoons, television shows, books are not simply amoral objects that have no consequences on those who consume them. They are creations by persons containing ideologies, values, and principles in their content which is intended to influence the consumer; the most vulnerable of these consumers are children. Dr. Seuss was very clear in his intent for writing his books, he wanted to influence the way children and adults treated one another. Harriet Beecher Stowe was clear in her intent to influence others with her “entertainment.” But so do “white power” bands (promoting white supremacy). The movie “Birth of a Nation” was just “entertainment” but promoted a subhuman vision of Blacks.
We cannot simply say that things are just “entertainment” as if things meant to entertain do not also have consequences on how persons respect the intrinsic dignity of others, and human dignity in general. We must be more intentional in our approach to entertainment for children; if that means we limit the things children encounter via entertainment, then so be it. This is not to advocate sheltering children from the real world; rather, it means that in order to teach children right from wrong, to help them understand good and evil, to witness such things in the world they live, we should engage in the world around us and help them have a greater understanding from real-life experiences and not via a “children’s” cartoon.