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FIRST-PERSON: Sexuality, smoking & movies

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–“Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood,” said Walt Disney. A recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control supports the observation made by the legendary pioneer of family entertainment.

“Exposure to onscreen smoking in movies increases the probability that youths will start smoking,” the CDC report stated. “Youths who are heavily exposed to onscreen smoking are approximately two to three times more likely to begin smoking than youths who are lightly exposed.”

In a 2006 study released in the medical journal “Pediatrics,” researchers from the University of North Carolina found that teens exposed to a lot of sex in the media may be more than twice as likely to have early sexual intercourse as those who are rarely encounter sexual content.

Other research corroborates the findings of these studies that the more exposure a young person has to particular attitudes and behaviors the more likely they are to emulate them. In fact, the UNC research team found “that one of the biggest risk factors for early teen sex was the perception generated by the media that teen sex is normal,” WebMD.com reported.

To me, it seems self-evident; when young people are exposed to attitudes or behaviors depicted in the media as normal, the more likely they are to embrace them. A steady diet of anything, negative or positive, is bound to have an effect on a teen’s thinking.

What I find most interesting is that the CDC report called on action to be taken while the UNC research team was practically mute on any recommendations.

The CDC study on smoking called for government policies to address the issue. Among the suggestions were requiring the motion picture industry to give an “R” rating to any movie that included smoking as well as the placement of strong anti-smoking ads prior to any film that depicts smoking.

While sounding alarms about the influence of media on teen sexual behavior, the UNC research team moderated any thought of action. It concluded that while the media’s portrayal of teen sex as normal “was one of the biggest risk factors for early teen sex … one of the strongest protective factors was parental attitudes about sex,” WebMD.com said.

Smoking is an unhealthy behavior and we should do all in our power to dissuade young people from it. However, the hypocrisy in our culture in how it treats smoking as opposed to other behaviors with possible life-altering consequences is illustrated in these studies.

Teen sexual behavior carries with it the possibilities of pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and emotional trauma. Irresponsible and immoral depictions of teen sexual activity saturate the media. However, anyone who calls on Hollywood to clean up its sexual act is deemed a Puritanical prude.

Yet seek government regulation on the depictions of smoking and you’re reasonable and your concerns are to be taken seriously.

When it comes to a variety of teen behavior, from sex to alcohol consumption, the cultural elite and media mavens spout the mantra, “Kids are kids; they are going to do it. You can’t stop them.”

Of course, rarely do the elites and mavens chant the “kids are going do it” mantra when it comes to smoking. No, the wisdom when it comes to lighting up is, “Do everything to discourage it.”

Our culture does all it can to deter young people from smoking, and it should. However, the same rigor should be employed to dissuade sexual promiscuity and other negative behaviors.

Films today rarely discourage bad behavior. Anti-heroes break the law, but do so with the best of all possible intentions. Sexual promiscuity is portrayed as frolicking good fun with zero consequences.

Many movies, from PG up, contain some element of gratuitous negative behavior. It may be as subtle as sexual innuendo or as overt as immoral sexual activity. A steady diet of vulgarity, violence, sex, alcohol abuse and smoking is not healthy for anyone, especially the young.

“When you make a film,” said director and actor Sydney Pollack, “you usually make a film about an idea.” Too many of the ideas flowing out of Hollywood these days are conveyed with immoral, irresponsible imagery that is harmful to our young people.

Walt Disney well understood the potential for film to influence attitudes, especially young attitudes. Hence, his films were void of vices. Given the state of the cinema these days, the prodigious producer of family friendly films is likely spinning in his grave.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs