As the opening decade of the 21st century draws to a close, the world is confronted with a vast, ever-changing array of media platforms. Gone are the days when newspapers, magazines, and rabbit-eared television sets dominated our consumption of information. We now live in an age of fiber-optic television, cell phones as powerful as desktop computers, GPS navigation, satellite radio, streaming and time-shifted video content, e-readers, paperless periodicals, and the all-pervasive Internet. New broadcast (and narrowcast) outlets, corporate partnerships, small startups, distribution channels, social networks, content-sharing platforms, and interactions between real space and cyberspace are emerging all the time.
It’s an exciting moment, but there is a dark side: The influence of all this content — often unfiltered and uncontrollable — carries with it no few occasions of sin. Every parent must fight a constant battle against a culture that both inundates and seduces impressionable minds with messages hostile to our faith.
Much has been made of the possibility of harnessing and adapting media for the purpose of evangelization. But what about the choices made by the average Catholic, who acts as a consumer rather than a producer of content? In the pastoral instruction Aetatis Novae, the Church offers an acknowledgement of the value of media and a warning about its consumption:
As matters stand, mass-media at times exacerbate individual and social problems which stand in the way of human solidarity and the integral development of the human person. These obstacles include secularism, consumerism, materialism, dehumanization, and lack of concern for the plight of the poor and neglected.
It is against this background that the Church, recognizing the media of social communications as “the privileged way” today for the creation and transmission of culture, acknowledges its own duty to offer formation to communications professionals and to the public, so that they will approach media with “a critical sense which is animated by a passion for the truth” . . . .
That “critical sense” is a sound and reasonable guide, but not a very specific one. Some parents choose to keep mass media out of their homes entirely. Others limit their entertainment and information options strictly to religious outlets. While these choices are legitimate, are they really the best response?
To be a functioning, well-rounded member of our society, capable of engaging with non-Catholic peers and colleagues surely demands something more. If governments and corporations can’t control the spread of social communications, parents must realize that we can’t keep our children from them forever, either. Better that we teach them to have a “critical sense” when approaching media than leave it to chance when they come face to face — as they inevitably will — with the glamorous and secular tide of modern media.
In my family, we are trying to teach our children to become critical consumers. On an age-appropriate basis, we allow a fair degree of liberty in the media choices they make. It’s not just that we want them to understand the world they live in; we think there is real value to be found in our culture’s entertainment. There is God-given talent at work in the storytelling, cinematography, acting, and directing in many television shows and films, even if they more often than not include mixed messages as morality tales. This, too, is a learning opportunity — an opening to discuss with our children what was right and what was wrong with the choices made by characters on the screen, and how we as Catholics should respond in similar situations. We discuss the presentation of facts by left-leaning Hollywood, which gives us the chance to research the real story behind historical dramas or politically loaded documentaries. For the time being, our small children are mostly restricted to educational programming and games, but I have no problem with the occasional Pixar film; and I love to sit down with my three- and four-year-olds and take in the latest animated incarnations of Spider-Man or Iron Man.
When it comes to the Internet, we’re more guarded, but we don’t impose across-the-board sanctions. Not only do my wife and I regularly use social networks, but — with limitations — so does our 13-year-old daughter. We monitor her usage and offer course corrections when it becomes necessary. The occasional dark moment — like the time an unknown, college-aged man attempted to befriend her on Facebook — becomes for us an opportunity to discuss the real dangers of protecting modesty and privacy in an age of social transparency. Our warnings about the dangers of “the real world” carry more weight when she recognizes, from the safety of our home, that trust must be earned. The lessons will serve her well when she’s on her own and makes these choices without our supervision.
We parents do our best to act as filters, but we can’t do it perfectly. At times, our children will be exposed to inappropriate material. I’d much rather that we hit these snags together — confronting them at home, under our guidance — than try to shelter them completely, only to send them out into the world unprepared.