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rick’s been editor of group for 19 years. that’s a long time. you can reach him at rlawrence@group.com.


About a month ago I went to a presentation by Dr. David Walsh, founder and president of the National Institute on Media and the Family

(www.mediafamily.org). You’ve likely seen him on the Today show or heard him on National Public Radio — he’s probably the world’s most influential expert on the media’s impact on children and teenagers.

Parents of teenagers packed out the room to hear him. He walked them through an edge-of-your-seat (really!) primer on adolescent brain development that highlighted the permanent impact kids’ youthful media experiences have on them, especially during their “growth spurts.” Then, to hammer home the importance of learning to be “media-wise,” he abruptly punched a button on his computer and projected a five-minute excerpt from one of the most popular video games of all time — Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Two years ago the game was a popular Christmas gift for teenagers.

Just seconds into the excerpt, parents all around me were groaning with disgust and shock as they watched characters in the game gleefully murder, terrorize, rape, and dismember indiscriminately. When the five minutes were up and the lights came back on, those parents sat stunned, like a clobbered boxer on the canvas. Most had never before seen what the game was like, and they suddenly realized they’d been allowing some powerful (and reprobate) media “teachers” free and unchallenged access to their kids. The experience created a kind of panic in them.

But by the end of his brilliant presentation, Dr. Walsh hadn’t offered much in the way of practical help for these suddenly desperate parents. I raised my hand and asked him if he could give parents a few strategies to help them “push back” against the influence of the media, and specifically video gaming, in their kids’ lives. He gave more information on gaming, but nothing much for them to do about it. I was beside myself with impatience — I wanted to grab his mic and take over.

The people who’d invited him to speak were trying to usher him out of the room to his next commitment, but he was literally surrounded by panic-eyed mothers who were determined to keep him there until he gave them something…anything…to counteract the addictive influence of the media on their kids. But Walsh had to leave. So I told the organizers who I am and what I do, then offered to lead a follow-up session to teach these parents some critical-thinking media “push back” skills to use with their teenagers. Here’s the one-two punch I offered:

The last line of my column read: “Passion for youth ministry is a good thing; bending the truth to fuel it is not.” But, of course, my response was limited to the letter-writer’s specific question — I didn’t answer Leo’s much bigger question. Now might be a good time to do that. Maybe a sampler from my list of “stand-for’s” will spark your own — that’d be good fruit indeed:

First, wake up. Early in the 19th century, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis discovered, almost by accident, that if he washed his hands between procedures the percentage of patients who died after surgery dropped from 25 percent to almost nothing. But his hand-washing strategy was considered so ludicrous by the medical establishment that Semmelweis was fired from the hospital and later died at a young age, crazed with despair over the wholesale dismissal of his discovery. In his profile of Semmelweis, Dr. William C. Wood says, “I think there are…lessons to be learned from [his] life. The first is why there was such resistance to truth. People were too busy to investigate personally what he presented…The physicians of Semmelweis’ day, with few exceptions, did not examine the facts firsthand.

What to do: As adults — parents or youth workers — our first responsibility is to engage in kids’ media influences firsthand. We wouldn’t let a teenager travel alone to Baghdad without our permission, so why would we let them go to the Baghdad-like world of Grand Theft Auto without going there first, or going there with them? Find out what kids are into, then go to www.imdb.com or www.comingsoon.net for movie trailers and information on current-release films, www.gamespot.com or www.gamerevolution.com to test-drive video games, www.amazon.com for track samples from albums, and Google their favorite TV shows to find fan sites and network home pages.

Second, push back. Jesus was a subversive — over and over he prodded the people of his time to think differently about the “givens” in their culture. His intention was to spur his followers to engage their cultural “truths,” not run from them or sponge from them. He often started his push-back sessions by saying, “You have heard it said…” He’d proceed to re-state a commonly accepted cultural “truth” (“You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy”) then push back with a kingdom-of-God Truth (“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”).

What to do: We’re moving in the spirit of Jesus when we teach kids to slow down and think — when we show them how to pinpoint the accepted “truths” in their media and marketing influences and compare them to kingdom-of-God Truths. Whether it’s a song, a film, an advertisement, or an article, teach them to answer (then always ask) these simple questions:

  • What’s the overall message, in one sentence?
  • What “truths” is it teaching?
  • What promises is it making?
  • Are these messages, truths, or promises that Jesus honors? Back up your answer.

You can use literally anything in popular culture to spur critical-thinking conversations with your teenagers. The key is to slow down, pay attention to the message, then push back the way Jesus did.

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