By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published November 3, 2005
First came vinyl records, then tapes and CDs, and now digital audio players for files called MP3s. From “M*A*S*H” and “Charlie’s Angels” and the days of the three TV kings of ABC, CBS and NBC, to “Desperate Housewives,” and no less than 150 reality shows in the age of satellite and cable TV.
From the chomping, hopping and shooting of Frogger, PacMan and Galaga to the virtual reality of PlayStation, Game Boy and chat rooms. And finally the eternal flow of magazines on fashion, beauty and more—just about everything it would seem teen girls need to have great hair and be more alluring. Teens today have a wider range of entertainment options, media influences and noisy distractions than ever.
Like college freshman English instructors asking students to analyze a Calvin Klein jeans ad, presenters in a session on media and culture at the Oct. 27-29 National Catholic Youth Conference challenged teens to quiet their minds and to reflect on and critically discern the messages of all the secular movies, TV shows, music and magazines targeting their age group. They encouraged them to be careful and intentional with the types of messages and products they buy and to always strive to make better choices, staying tuned in to God’s voice in their daily lives. This will empower them in their walk of faith and foster dialogue amongst their peers about cultural influences, as what they choose to fill their minds and souls with penetrates their entire being and, however subtle, shapes their outlook.
Speaking to the youth was Mike Patin, who worked for 14 years in youth ministry and for six years as a high school teacher and since 2003 has been speaking full time around the country on faith, positive attitudes, using one’s gifts and living fully. The other presenter was Anna Scally, a youth rally speaker, ministry training consultant and disc jockey who is president of Cornerstone Media, which creates print and audio materials that promote dialogue on positive and negative values in popular songs to help parents, teachers, youth ministers and others. It evaluates secular hit music and works to incorporate popular music with positive messages into youth ministry programs and religion curriculum.
Patin affirmed that the “church recognizes that the media, if properly used, can be a great service to mankind” as it entertains, inspires and instructs. But as the Second Vatican Council affirmed, “young people should take steps to accustom themselves to moderation. Are you so tuned into this that you’re tuned out to the world around you? Have you and I gotten so deep into this that we disconnect ourselves from other people? Young people should try to deepen their understanding of what they see, hear and read.”
Patin told the story of how a young brave asked an esteemed, old Indian tribal leader how he became so wise. He responded that he has a continuous inner battle between his kind, gentle and compassionate side and his nature that is greedy, lustful and hateful. The side that wins is the side he chooses to feed.
“Use moderation, self-control, better understanding of what we’re really watching, what we are feeding on. Are you feeding on junk food but taking vitamins?”
Sprinkling humor throughout the talk, he explained in his heavy Cajun accent how his luggage got sent to Africa so he’s been wearing the same jeans for three days, which “for some of you boys that’s just breaking them in.”
He noted that many of today’s reality shows are far from realistic—when he as a teen used to call a girl for a date, even after several rehearsals he’d sound like he was possessed.
“I used to have to dress up to call a girl on the phone. I’d practice. Some of the stuff isn’t reality,” said the speaker wearing a thick mustache and shirt reading “Godisnowhere” which can be read as either God is “now here” or “nowhere.” And some recent reality shows like “Fear Factor,” “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” have less than admirable intentions as they try to pressure people to choke and be eliminated, or “The Simpsons,” which says it’s OK to cut people down.
And as America exalts celebrities for idol worship, it’s easy for teens to imagine that the stars live the good life, instead of embracing the beauty of their mundane daily lives. He warned them against spending too much time on the Internet as a substitute for personal contact, telling how one boy he knows prefers communicating with his girlfriend through the Internet in order to relate better to her, he says, in a safer environment.
And on the magazine front, he recalled how he walked into Barnes & Noble recently and found a magazine list with title topics of “your hair, face and beauty, sophisticated hair style guide, braids, short-sexy hair styling guide, short hair, in style, makeover, perfect hair and hair only.”
“They didn’t have hair gone—there’s not a whole lot you can do,” said Patin. He picked up Teen People and found the advertising to be overwhelmingly about hair, fashion, clothing and what makes a girl desirable, and for articles, 30 percent were on fashion, 15 percent on makeup and 5 percent on issues about real self-esteem.
“Do they want to persuade me that I’m not good enough until I buy such and such?” he asked, reminding them that many images are airbrushed and, again, that it’s about moderation.
He thinks some TV programs of the last few years are “decent” such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Joan of Arcadia” and “Alias” but suggested that youth ask themselves if the programs they watch are only to disconnect and escape or to help build better relationships and inspire them, always mindful of what company is trying to sell or persuade them of something.
“Jesus said if your eye causes you to sin you take care of that, avoid that. I call it the L-unit prayer, ‘Lead us not into temptation.’”
And advertisers love youth. He reported a study that more than 66 percent of first-graders can identify who Joe Camel is. He showed a picture of shirtless male models for an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, asking, “Excuse me, but what are they selling?”
On a musical note, Scally said that while many perceive youth-oriented music today as such a bad influence on teens, it unites people, and she’s found there are actually a lot of popular songs today that have positive, affirming messages, while only about 15 percent are bad ones advocating things like casual sex, drugs and alcohol and must be intentionally avoided.
When asked how much music they listen to, many youth raised their hands to say they listen to up to three or more hours of music a day.
“We are a church of Good News, and the good news is that 25 percent of young people’s music every single day is singing of Gospel values.”
And as there is no shortage of romantic love songs, some, as they sing of unconditional love, can be used to pray and contemplate God’s love. She played some top, positive songs of last year, as youth quietly sang along, to illustrate. “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw has lyrics encouraging people to live fully each day: “I went Rocky Mountain climbing … I spoke sweeter and I gave forgiveness I’d been denying …”
Then there was the top song, “The Reason,” by Hoobastank, which, while it sings of changing one’s life for a romantic love, can be used to pray as well and to meditate on God’s love.
As she played it youth locked arms and swayed.
“God is speaking to you every day and if you listen to a bad song, God may be calling you to hear a better message,” said Scally. “Psalm 150 says praise the Lord with all instruments, let all creation sing praise…Were songs only meant to be inspired in those days or is our Lord speaking to us every single day through our music, our church, our sacraments, through our friends who love us?”
She played the song by Alicia Keys, “If I Ain’t Got You,” about the power of true love.
Scally concluded that they are complete as God’s children in Christ and were made “to live in the world and not hide from it” but challenged them to see through the eyes of faith and carry the Gospel message from Sunday Mass through the school week and weekend nights.
Sara Lloyd of St. John Neumann Church, Miami, said she chooses not to read the teen beauty magazines and knows that “I have friends; I don’t need to be perfect.”
She brought little bags with sand and plastic feet in them, and a line from the poem “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you” from the “Footprints” poem. She found it easy to introduce herself to others at the conference and that the environment was warm and affirming.
“Here you see so many other people like you. It makes you feel more confident. You don’t have to be afraid to say, ‘I’m Catholic.’”
Attendee Brittany Smith said she does feel cultural pressure to have sex and use drugs through the media. She appreciated how the speakers met teens at their level and didn’t just say the media is all bad and don’t do this and that.
“(While) some of us may not be able to stay on course the majority of us can think for ourselves,” she said. “We just need to be more careful in determining what is good and what is bad.”
She added that “I am very religious but not to a point that I need to flaunt it. I try to lead by example and show good morals and responsibility.”