Our nation’s modern media acts as a devastating
destructive force to the family unit in America, and its effects are felt worldwide. The rearing of children has
been taken from the hands of parents into grips of mass media. Producers of mass communications render inaccurate
societal depictions, and individuals respond in active accordance with what is portrayed. Media embeds messages
of violence, body image, and teen sexuality, all of which encourage single parent and/or cohabitating homes out
of wedlock and destroys marriages through pornography. Continuation of this family degradation cycle will result
in the collapse of the family as a social function and force for stability in communities as well as on a worldwide
"Families are the cells which make up the body of society, if the cells are unhealthy and undernourished,
or at worse cancerous and growing haphazard and out of control, in the end the body succumbs” (Doughty, 2008,
p. 1), says Justice Coleridge, senior judge in charge of family courts across South-West England for the past eight
years. Coleridge, who has been presiding over cases of divorce, children in care, and family break-up, has also
determined that “the collapse of the family unit is a threat to the nation as bad as terrorism, crime, drugs
or global warming” (Doughty, 2008, p. 1). Surprise should not come from this declaration itself, but in the
fact that the members of today’s society have become so numbed that readers are likely to mistakenly disregard
this statement as the product of an outlandish theorist. Americans are seemingly oblivious to the devastating crumble
of the family unit despite witnessing failure of half of all marriages, rampant teen pregnancies, and single-parent,
cohabitating, and broken families to such a prominent extent that an American family today who meets the profile
of a traditional family is labeled as “abnormal.” In America’s past, the family unit formed the
core of society; however, with the advent of reckless mass communication, there has been a breakup of this key
Review of the Literature
In examining the root causes of family devastation, it would be necessary to conclude that the family unit is
in fact in danger. The family unit has traditionally been the core unit of society. It is the basic element that
socializes all members of society to shape each into acceptable and respectable members of that society, thereby
bringing about basic reproduction, stability, personal morals, progress, and healthy social units. The family exists
to aid in each individual’s well being, providing care and fulfillment, as well as basic functions such as
housing, nourishing, and educating its members. Its traditional structure, headed by a cohabitating husband and
wife, creates functional stability, a mother’s primary role serves to care for and nurture children while
a father’s primary role is to bring financial stability and provide for family resources and basic necessities.
When a family functions under these basic principles, it is able to thrive and achieve society’s basic goals.
In contrast, if one or more elements of this social unit are missing or dysfunctional, society fails to function
efficiently. Its members become displaced and unstable, creating a tangled web of social malfunctions: the education,
socialization, and moral development of children fail; individuals find themselves with a loss of direction and
stability; deviance becomes commonplace; and ethical and moral issues become distorted and contentious—in
short, our evolving society today. To slow and eventually halt this devastating process, we first must determine
the root causes of family breakup. Among many factors, the most pervasive and prevailing factor seems to stem from
messages delivered from mass media. In a globalized world of communication, one experiences the invasion of media
almost every minute of life. We find it at school, in our workplaces, in our cars during daily commutes, and in
checkout lines at grocery stores. We even allow it to invade our homes through television sets, computers, magazine
subscriptions and video games. Although technological advancement provides great potential for human growth and
development, it also brings distorted images and concepts that invade our perceptions and distort our morals.
Children seem to be the most vulnerable to media attack. Guernsey summarizes the studies of William T. Greenough,
a professor of neurobiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, on the growth process of a child’s
mind beginning with birth:
Picture the brain . . . as a tangle of tiny rope fragments that are frayed at each end. Each piece of rope
is a nerve cell, or neuron. The frayed ends are the axons and dendrites, branching out they meet–but not quite
touch– he axons and dendrites of other neurons. The junctions between their tips are called synapses–channels
through which bits of information are passed from one neuron to another. . . . Without those connections, information
can’t pass from one nerve cell to another. Learning can’t happen. When a baby is born, its brain has
a lot of developing still to do–and a lot of synapses to create. During a baby’s first few years of
life, they are being formed at a furious rate. One estimate is that 1.8 million synapses are produced per second
from two months after conception until the baby is two years old. After those first few years, the number starts
to drop as unused connections atrophy. The brain is, essentially deciding which junctions offer the most useful
paths to understanding the world. The others–think of them as the dead-ends, the distracters– re pruned
away. By adulthood, only half of the synapses are left…When you extrapolate from [these studies] . . . it
becomes clear why people believe that children’s earliest experiences can, literally, shape their brains.
(Guernsey, 2007, p. 6)
Another study found in Handbook of Children and the Media reinforces these ideas, “During the first years
of life, children are developing social scripts and beliefs that will influence behavior throughout their lifetime.
. . . Young children are . . . easily impressionable, have a more difficult time distinguishing between fantasy
and reality, cannot easily discern motives for violence, [and] learn by observing and imitating” (Bushman & Huesmann,
2001, p. 240). Observers as early as Plato, the classical Greek philosopher, also recognized the delicacy and absorbent
nature of a child’s brain: “Children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn’t,
and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change; it is therefore of the utmost importance
that the first stories they hear shall aim at producing the right moral effect” (Turow, 2003, p. 54).
Our nation’s media is far from producing the right moral effects for our world’s youth. The globalization
of our nation’s media is becoming so common that it is not only hurting our families at home but also families
worldwide. It seems as though the socialization and moral upbringing of children have escaped from the hands of
parents into the grips of mass media through cartoons, video games, television ads, and movies. Cline, research
scientist with the George Washington University, revealed that most children spend more time in front of a TV set
than in front of a teacher during a year’s time. During preschool years alone, some US studies show that
the average child spends more time watching TV than he spends in the classroom during four years of college (Cline,
1972). In agreement with Cline, a Kaiser Family Foundation study also shows that children, ages 8 to 18, spend
more time (44.5 hours per week, 61/2 hours daily) in front of computer, television, and game screens than any other
activity in their lives except sleeping (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005). Many harmful effects can result from
extensive media exposure in adolescence. A study found in Media, Children, and the Family may shed some
light on potential dangers. It reveals that by the time a child is eighteen years old, he or she will witness on
television 200,000 acts of violence including 40,000 murders (Huston, et al., 1992). Discussing the impact of children’s
exposure to violence, a 1999 report by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary declared, “More than 1,000 studies
on the effects of television and film violence have been done over the past 40 years. The majority of these studies
reach the same conclusion: television and film violence leads to real-world violence. The existing research shows
beyond a doubt that media violence is linked to youth violence.” (Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 1999,
p. 1). Violent attitudes stemming from media are affecting families around the world and have an even more powerful
effect in American homes. These movies and games are rearing our children, especially young boys, with a tendency
to violence that inevitably affect their families today and the families they produce tomorrow. They imbed in males
violent inclinations toward child and spouse abuse, including sexual abuse. The National Institute on Media and
the Family verifies a correlation between exposure to violent television and violent behaviors, and reveal that “women
are often portrayed in video games as weaker characters that are helpless or sexually provocative” (National
Institute on Media and the Family, 2009, p. 1). The Institute also affirms that “game environments
are often based on plots of violence, aggression, and gender bias, and games offer an arena of weapons, killings,
kicking, stabbing, and shooting while confusing reality with fantasy” (National Institute on Media and the
Family, 2009, p. 1). While exposure to sexual and violent media is rearing young boys, young girls are being exposed
to suggestive images, movies, cartoons, and television series suggesting that acceptance from males can only be
obtained if a girl is thin, sexy, and provocatively dressed.
Durham paints a troubling picture of this trend through an experience of her own with a young girl: “Last
Halloween, a five-year-old girl showed up at my doorstep decked out in a tube top, a gauzy miniskirt, platform
shoes, and glittering eye shadow. The outfit projected a rather tawdry adult sexuality. ‘I’m a Bratz!’ the
tot piped up proudly, brandishing a look-alike doll clutched in her chubby fist. I had an instant, dizzying flashback
to an image of a child prostitute I had seen in Cambodia dressed in a disturbingly similar outfit.” Durham
goes on to reveal the provocative nature of the cartoon: “Appealing to younger audiences, the Bratz line
of dolls, which are marketed to preschoolers with the tagline ‘Girls with a passion for fashion,’ sport
fishnet stockings, bustiers, and tiny miniskirts, prompting the New Yorker writer Margaret Talbott to observe, ‘They
look like pole dancers on their way to work at a gentlemen’s club’” (Durham, 2008, p. 21). Starting
as toddlers, the media begins educating our young girls on how to act and dress. This trend continues after childhood
becoming even more prevalent into teen years and adulthood. Durham explains, “Media images of sexuality are
everywhere. Advertisements for such shopping mall stalwarts as Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch
are notoriously erotic, and MTV and BET music videos routinely–indeed, almost inevitable–feature sexual
themes and explicit lyrics. Currently, Shai, a French clothing company is using an online hard-core porn video
to sell high-priced T-shirts; Ivy League undergraduates are editing and posing in campus skin mags; and, according
to a Wall Street Journal report, one-third of all video games feature sexual themes, including sexual violence” (Durham,
2008, p. 28). The effects of these suggestions on young girls and women are overwhelming. Must, Spadann, Coakley
Field, Colditz & Dietz (1999) found the majority of nearly 550 working class adolescent girls were dissatisfied
with their weight and shape. Almost 70 percent of the sample stated that pictures in magazines influence their
conception of the “perfect” body shape, and over 45 percent indicated that those images motivated
them to lose weight. Further, adolescent girls who were more frequent readers of women’s magazines were more
likely to report being influenced to think about the perfect body, to be dissatisfied with their own body, to want
to lose weight, and to diet (Must et al., 1999). Additionally, in a study on fifth graders found in “Sitcoms,
Videos Make Even Fifth-Graders Feel Fat,” 10-year-old girls told researchers they were dissatisfied with
their own bodies after watching a music video by Britney Spears or the TV show "Friends” (Mundell,
2002). In reference to magazine images of thin, glamorized women, the National Institute on Media and the Family
reveals that after only a few minutes of exposure, these publications can considerably injure the self-esteem of
young, impressionable adolescent girls (National Institute on Media and the Family, 2009). Furthermore, while instructing
these youth to be thin and sexy, the media is simultaneously contributing to the obesity of the population, significantly
in the young. A study by the Institute of Medicine concluded after extensive research that television advertising
influences the food preferences, purchase requests, and diets, at least of children under age 12 years, and is
associated with the increased rates of obesity among children and youth (IOM, 2006). Similar results have been
reported in numerous studies revealing that obesity in children increases the more hours they watch television.
This unhealthy body weight will further devastate self-esteem and body image in our nation’s youth.
Magazines, television, music, and movies not only decrease self-esteem in young women, they also promote sexual
promiscuity. In Journal of Sex Research, Steele states, “Whereas 50 years ago a teen’s family,
friends, school, and church probably were the primary influence on his or her attitudes, values and beliefs about
sexuality, today’s teens have access to a fifth powerful influence–the ubiquitous mass media” (Steele,
1999, p. 335). In North Carolina, a statewide survey of adolescent sexual behavior revealed that a majority of
the state’s teens were sexually active while in high school (Steele, 1999). Also, the 1994 National Youth
Risk Behavior Survey reported one out of six teens having engaged in sexual intercourse by age 13. These statistics
come alongside an increase in “the depiction of sexual content in family hour programming . . . consistently
over the last 20 years—up 118 percent since 1986 and 270 percent since 1976” (Kunkel, 1996, abstract).
In Sex on TV, researchers Kunkel, Eyal, Finnerty, Biely, and Donnerstein (2005) reported that there are “correlations
between watching television programming high in sexual content and the early initiation of sexual intercourse by
adolescents . . . heavier viewers of sexual television content had increased perceptions of the frequency with
which sexual behaviors occur in the real world. And . . . teens who had just viewed television dramas laden with
sexual content tended to rate descriptions of casual sexual encounters less negatively than teens who had not viewed
any sexual content (p. 57).” The report also reveals, “New data have strengthened the previous finding
that exposure to sexual content on television is significantly correlated with teenagers’ sexual behavior,
while extending the association to other media. And in arguably the most compelling study to date, a longitudinal
panel study with a nationally representative sample demonstrated a causal relationship between adolescent exposure
to sexual talk and behavior on television and the acceleration of sexual activity including intercourse” (Kunkel
et. al., 2005, p. 57).
These distorted perspectives are shaping today’s families. Media’s influence on casual sexual activity
is deteriorating the ideal of married, two-parent families. Teen pregnancies are becoming increasingly common,
while single-mother and unwed-cohabitating households are becoming a societal norm. A study of the breakdown of
the family conducted by Dr. Michael Rendall of the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University agrees, “Even
greater harm comes from the fact that very private and personal relationships between husbands and wives including
sexual relations, child-bearing, and child-rearing have become common today outside of marriage. Consequently,
in most cases the essential bonds of trust and commitment have been lost” (Coral Ridge Ministries, 2002,
p. 1). The New York Times reported this year that “Unmarried mothers gave birth to 4 out of every 10 babies
born in the United States in 2007, a share that is increasing rapidly both here and abroad. . . . In 2007, women
in their 20s had 60 percent of all babies born out of wedlock, teenagers had 23 percent and women 30 and older
had 17 percent. . . . Children born out of wedlock in the United States tend to have poorer health and educational
outcomes than those born to married women (p. 1).” The article also revealed that “much of the increase
in unmarried births has occurred among parents who are living together but are not married, cohabitation arrangements
that tend to be less stable then marriages, studies show” (Gardiner, 2009, p. 1). These trends have devastating
effects on families and children. Coleridge also declared, “Children from single-parent families are far
more likely to do badly at school, suffer poor health, fall into crime, drug abuse, heavy drinking and teenage
pregnancy” (Doughty, 2008, p. 1). Researchers Kalil, DeLeire, Jayakody, and Chin released one of many studies
that confirm these findings, “Among the diverse set of non-married mother living arrangements we observe,
children who remain in cohabiting and single mother arrangements during the three years appear to have worse developmental
outcomes than children whose mother remains married” (Kalil et al, 2001, p. 18).
Equally as devastating as child rearing out of wedlock is the instance of divorce. “The United States today
has the highest divorce rate in the entire world. Half of all first marriages in this country end in divorce, and
the mortality rate of second marriages is even higher. Adding to the problem is the fact that half of all divorces
involve children, and researchers tell us that throughout the 1990s more than a million children each year will
become the innocent victims of divorce” (Coral Ridge Ministries, 2002, p. 1). Many problems associated with
divorce also stem from media exposure. Along mass media’s destructive trail we find yet another devastating
disease of families–the consumption of pornography. In her research on sexual addiction and compulsivity,
Jennifer P. Schneider reveals that although Internet pornography might be viewed in privacy and secrecy by one
family member, the impact of sexually explicit material is felt by entire families, communities, and corporate
circles. Manning also exposed findings by Schneider’s study, “The majority of Internet users in the
United States are married males, more than half of Americans (172 million) use the Internet and 20 to 33 percent
of users go online for sexual purposes. The majority of people struggling with sexual addictions and compulsivities
involving the Internet are married, heterosexual males” (Manning, 2005, p. 11). Schneider also found that
cybersex addiction was a major contributing factor to separation and divorce for affected couples. Her survey research
found that spouses often fall victim to their partner’s online pornography consumption, becoming significantly
distressed and feel it is a threat to the relationship. Cybersex in its many forms was reported to cause devastation
in marital partners including feelings of hurt, betrayal, and rejection often leading to separation and divorce.
Marital partners suffer loss of self-esteem, sexual rejection, and feel a sense of hopelessness. Partners
overwhelmingly reported being as emotionally injured by cyber affairs as a live affair, some labeling the addiction
as adultery. The addictions were also reported to have caused marital problems surrounding issues of financial
overspending, decreased interest in marital intimacy, and loss of trust being reported as a major casualty (Schneider,
2000). Exposure to pornography is not only devastating marriages, but also harming children. Partners of cybersex
addicts also reported neglect to children and failure to fulfill family responsibilities. Reports were made of
children adopting online sex habits and live sexual promiscuity as direct result of a parent’s online addictions.
Children often become victims of marital breakup and adopt notions regarding objectification of women. (Schneider,
2000). In a 2005 hearing on pornography’s impact on marriage and family, Manning testified, “While
the marital bond may be the most vulnerable relationship to online sexual activity, children and adolescents are
considered the most vulnerable audience of sexually explicit material. Youth are considered a vulnerable audience
because they cCan be easily coerced into viewing pornography or manipulated into the production of it; have limited
ability to emotionally, cognitively, and physiologically process obscene material they encounter voluntarily or
involuntarily; can be the victims of another’s pornography consumption in ways adults are often more resilient
to; can have their sexual and social development negatively impacted through exposure to fraudulent and/or traumatic
messages regarding sexuality and relationships; and can develop unrealistic expectations about their future sexual
relationship through repeated exposure to fantasy-based templates” (Manning, 2005, p. 21).
Evidence revealing the destructive nature of individual and collective media exposure to the family unit is overwhelming.
The continual disregard of this enormous issue is demoralizing world societies. Parents are being continuously
robbed of their roles in rearing and educating their children by allowing media to invade the home. The basic unit
that serves to cultivate all members of society is suffering a devastating ailment, being replaced by media’s
false doctrines and immoral instruction, all in the name of profit. The methods of family devastation by the media
come through teaching violence, embedding negative self-body image, encouraging sexual promiscuity and thereby
producing single parent and/or cohabitating families, and destroying marriages through pornography. Judge Coleridge
gives us a small glimpse at the devastating effects of this phenomenon by declaring, “Almost all society's
ills can be traced directly to the collapse of family life. . . . Examine the background of almost every child
in the care system or the youth justice system and you will discover a broken family” (Doughty, 2008, p.
1). This tragic loss will inevitably bring about social instability and overall dysfunction. Its subtle destructive
nature cannot be disregarded any longer. If this trend continues undisturbed, its devastating effects will lead
to the collapse of families, communities, societies, and then nations.
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