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The good news is that media literacy and character development can protect kids.
For more than four decades, my work as a developmental psychologist and educator has focused on helping schools and parents develop good character in youth. I direct a character education center at the State University of New York in Cortland, New York.
Among many things, our Center’s work includes teaching young people how to respect the gift of their sexuality—how to exercise virtues such as good judgment, modesty, self-control, and authentic love in this vulnerable part of their lives. More than ever, our children need good guidance in this crucial area from their parents and teachers and others who love them.
The sexual revolution has been the dominant cultural revolution of the past half century. It promoted a radical ideology of unrestricted sexual freedom. It has created a more difficult world for our children to grow up in, a hypersexualized culture that surrounds them with sexual pressures and temptations and the message that in matters of sex, anything is okay “as long as nobody gets hurt.”
One of the biggest effects of the sexual revolution is that it normalized pornography. With the arrival of the Internet, pornography exploded. According to recent estimates, the average age at which boys now begin use of Internet pornography is 11. Many are addicted by the time they are teens. Many carry that addiction into their marriages and families.
The good news: media literacy, science and grassroots movements
But there is good news in the battle against pornography. Many smart and dedicated people are addressing the problem. As families and schools, we can draw hope from that and make use of their good work.
It’s good news that we have educational tools that schools and families can use in fighting this battle. Character education, especially character education that includes media literacy, is one such tool. Media literacy, whether it’s done at home or in classrooms, has two goals:
1. to teach students how to think critically about all forms of media (Who created this? What are the messages?)
2. to teach students to think critically about their own media habits. How does any particular form of media influence their values, beliefs, attitudes, goals, how they spend their time, and the kind of person they are becoming? Is it making them a better person and helping them build a positive future—or not? This kind of self-examination turns media literacy into authentic character education. It challenges students to take a hard look in the mirror—and then change what they discover needs changing.
It’s not hard to get students to think critically about media. They enjoy that. It’s considerably harder to get them to think critically about themselves. But that’s essential for building character—and for confronting the problem of pornography.
It’s also very good news that there is now a science of pornography that helps us understand how pornography does its damage. It’s good news that there is a growing body of solid scientific research showing the many harmful effects of pornography.
It’s good news that more therapists and others in the mental health profession recognize pornography addiction as a problem. For many years they did not. You may be surprised to learn—I was—that Harvard University now has a psychiatrist on its Medical School faculty who is teaching psychiatrists-in-training how to use a virtue-based approach to treating pornography and other addictions.
It’s also good news that there is a growing anti-pornography movement led by young people themselves.
Fight the New Drug
Their website includes a lot of other videos you could use as part of a media literacy unit or watch at home with your family. Then check out the Get the facts tab. That link will take you to an excellent summary of how pornography “harms the brain, the heart, and the world.” You can read and absorb the key points under each of those three headings in about 15 minutes.
The ‘Porn Kills Love’ movement
Fight the New Drug has launched a second website. Porn Kills Love has become its own movement, promoted by young women as well as guys. They emphasize that they are “pro-sex”—but sex in the right kind of relationship, one where there is true love and lasting commitment.
What do other sources of evidence say?
If you are doing a good job of teaching critical thinking when you do media literacy, your students might ask, “But how do we know Fight the New Drug isn’t biased? They have an agenda; they don’t want people to use porn. Why should we trust what they say about the research?”
Affirm your students for asking tough questions like these. A healthy skepticism is part of critical thinking. Have them look at other sources of evidence.
Here is one: In October 2015, the American College of Pediatricians issued a report titled: “The Impact of Pornography on Children” It summarizes dozens of studies of pornography’s effects on both children and adults.
But the clearest explanation I have found of this an article titled, “The Science Behind Pornography” by Dr Kevin Majeres. Dr Majeres is the Harvard psychiatrist I mentioned earlier as specializing in a virtue-based approach to treating pornography and other addictions. I think you could use his article with your students or children.
To succeed, we need virtue education
The big idea we want to hold on to and have our children and students hold on to is this: If you want to be a good person and lead a good life, rules can help. They teach us right from wrong. But rules aren’t enough. We need virtues in order to live by the rules. We need virtues in order to turn knowledge into action.
Dr Majeres’ ideas are actually a combination of new insights from modern psychology—like “reframing” and having a “growth mindset” (“I can get better if I really work at it”)—and very old wisdom. Thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “If you want to be kind, do acts of kindness. If you wish to be brave, perform acts of courage. If you want to have self-control, practice self-control.”
If our character education efforts are not changing our students’ behavior, then we are probably not spending enough time guiding them in practicing the virtues. Virtues are good habits. We can’t develop good habits without effort and practice. A lot of character education, unfortunately, is mostly talk, not action.
What makes Fight the New Drug effective character education?
The Fight the New Drug and Porn Kills Love program is a good example of what I consider effective character and media literacy education. Here’s why: It’s designed to develop the three essential components of character—the head, the heart, and the hand.
To become a person of character is to become the best person we can be. That involves knowing the good (understanding the nature of virtuous circles and vicious circles, for example), loving the good (strongly desiring to grow in the virtues, like purity), and doing the good (strengthening the virtues through practice, until they become habits).
One of the ways this program engages the head and heart and contributes to our desire to do something is by exposing what really goes on in the porn industry. Porn and prostitution fuel each other, Fight the New Drug says. They are both part of the sex trade.
In one of their videos a former male porn star tells the story of his descent into the industry and eventual redemption. This is a poignant video, very tastefully done, with a moving message and no graphic details, but you might want to save it for high school and up.
Using good movies to develop the head, heart, and hand
* The New York City altruism project
Stepping back from strategies that deal directly with pornography, I’d like to share with you the story of a character education experiment with inner-city kids in New York City. Its goal was to try to develop altruism—the virtue of doing good for others without asking, “What’s in it for me?”
(Paul C. Vitz and Philip P. Scala, “Evaluating a Short Curriculum for Teaching Altruism,” unpublished study, Department of Psychology, New York University. Available from Paul C. Vitz, The Institute for the Psychological Sciences, Suite 511, 2001 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington, VA 22202.)
The virtue of altruism orients kids toward the needs of others. An orientation toward others is one of the most basic building blocks of character. It’s the opposite of selfishness. Selfishness is at the psychological core of using pornography; you’re not thinking of anybody else.
If we want to help our children resist the lure of pornography, and help others do the same, they’ll need more than critical thinking (media literacy) and more than self-control and patience. They’ll need many other basic virtues, like wanting to do good for others. We’ll need a character education program that develops character in the full sense.
I like the New York City altruism project for three other reasons: (1) I love movies myself; (2) It’s another good example of how to design a character education experience that—like Fight the New Drug—engages and develops head, heart, and hand; and (3) It shows how to evaluate whether what we have done with students, actually worked.
How do we know if our character education efforts are having any impact on students? Schools won’t make time for character education if they don’t have any evidence that it’s worth their time—that it produces results. They can tell easily whether students are learning math and reading, by their test scores. Is it possible to measure their growth in character?
For their project they chose seven racially and ethnically mixed classrooms of 8th- graders (13-year-olds), most of whom came from low-income families and tough New York City neighborhoods, where drugs and crime were common.
They decided to use stories—ones that showed altruism in attractive and dramatic ways. They knew that movies are the form of storytelling that young people today find most engaging. So, they created shortened, half-hour versions of seven feature films. Each movie presented a strong example of altruistic behavior.
It's a Wonderful Life (the prayers and support of George Bailey’s family, friends, and an angel dispel his despair and convince him his life has been worthwhile)
The Miracle Worker (pictured, right, 20-year-old Annie Sullivan finds a way to teach language to 7-year-old Helen Keller, who is blind, deaf, and dumb; freed from her psychological prison, Helen goes on to graduate from college and to promote the cause of the blind worldwide)
Brian’s Song (two professional football players, one white, one black, initially compete for the same position on the team, then become close friends and help each other through illness and injury, including Brian’s fatal struggle with cancer).
Class discussions also included role-playing. Students volunteered to act out an altruistic deed they had performed during the preceding week.
Vitz and Scala concluded that three things worked together to make their project successful:
1. adequate “dosage”—a long-enough intervention to have the desired impact on students’ thinking, attitudes, and behavior
2. inspiring movies, followed by focused discussions, that helped students gain a clear understanding of altruism and its positive effects
3. enough practice—an altruistic act performed every day over the seven-week period—for good habits to begin to form and for those habits to have an impact on students’ “sense of identity” (as reflected in the boy’s comment, “I know I’m a good person because I do good things”).
* Love and Life at the Movies
This is a published curriculum that also makes use of classic and contemporary films to engage students as ethical thinkers and choice-makers. Developed by Dr. Onalee McGraw of the Educational Guidance Institute, lesson plans for each film promote critical analysis and writing about character issues.
Love and Life has been used in high school and junior high school classrooms, after-school programs, and also detention homes for delinquents. McGraw comments: “The films are chosen for their power to depict personal virtues such as integrity, courage, and love, but also to model the meaning of moral and social bonds with the larger community. The films contain no bad language, violence, or sexual references.”
* Teach With Movies is an online resource that capitalizes on the power of films. It catalogues hundreds of movies and offers lesson plans for using movies to explore character themes.
Obviously, we can and should also watch good movies with our kids at home—and discuss what we each liked and took from a film. This can greatly enrich the shared experience and educational value of watching a good movie as a family.
What else can parents do?
As Common Sense Media points out, “Despite dramatic changes in media use, TV still reigns supreme in children’s media lives. Television can very easily take over as our children’s main character educator in two ways: (1) by shutting down family communication, and (2) by bombarding our kids with bad values.”
Working out family media guidelines
Here’s the big idea we want to communicate to our kids (and a family meeting is a good way to do this): The use of the media in the family is a privilege, not a right. That privilege has to be exercised in a way that is consistent with our family values. So, for any particular TV show, movie, magazine, music CD, video game, Internet site, or social media, here’s the question: Is it consistent with what we value and believe as a family?
In formulating your family’s guidelines, you may wish to consider including the following. It’s wise to write them out, in a posted “Media Contract” that everyone signs:
1. The use of any media in our home should be consistent with our beliefs and values as a family.
2. Watching TV is a special event, not a regular routine. In general, it is also a family event, not a private pastime.
3. No TV before school, before homework is done, or during meals.
4. Always ask permission to turn on the TV; watch only approved programs.
5. Certain nights are “quiet nights”; the TV stays off so we can focus on family activities and doing others things. (Choose these nights together as a family).
6. All video games must be previewed by a parent, and limited to agreed-upon times.
7. No mobile devices at meals. Unless permission is granted, no use of mobile devices after agreed-upon times (set a reasonable curfew).
8. Pornographic and hate web sites are off limits and blocked by an Internet screen installed by the family (digitally savvy kids know how to get around most of these controls, which is why our talking with them about these issues is essential for developing the most important control—their conscience).
9. Internet rules: No use of the Internet without parental approval. You must have parental permission to download anything. Do not share your password with friends or over email. Never physically meet someone you have met online. If a stranger tries to involve you in an online relationship, tell Mom or Dad right away.
10. Movies: No R-rated movies and no PG-13 or PG movies without parental permission. (Parents will check out the content and rating of current films on www.screenit.com and www.kidsinmind.com).
There is no more toxic legacy of the sexual revolution than pornography. But in this battle, we can take heart from the progress being made and share that good news with our colleagues, students, and families.
Thomas Lickona is the Director of the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility) at the State University of New York at Cortland. The above is an edited version of a paper given at the Character Education and Digital Lifestyles Conference, convened by Interaxion Group, in Rome last October. A comprehensive interview with Dr Lickona on this subject can be found at Family and Media.
Credit: Image of "The Miracle Worker" (eBay front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons