By Scott Ritsema with Chad and Fadia Kreuzer
“Media exposure has become America’s most widespread and serious addiction.” So concludes George Barna, one of the most quoted social researchers in America, after studying major influences on American society. Addictions aren’t always to chemical substances. They are any compulsive behavior that brings short-term pleasure but long-term destruction.
Not surprisingly, Barna also found that media—specifically movies, television, music, the internet, and books—was one of three principal sources influencing the minds and morals of Americans.1
While media can be used for good, such as in stimulating thought and conversation and in aiding the retention of information, it is detrimental to us and to society if used excessively or if used to view immoral or violent content.
Consider just a few documented effects of television, defined by Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd as “everything and anything that pours into whatever it is you watch it on.”2
For heavy TV watchers, each hour viewed decreases the lifespan by 22 minutes.3
TV increases aggressive thoughts and behavior.4
TV viewers have less empathy, increased sexual promiscuity, increased use of addictive substances, and lower levels of commitment.5
It must be true that some Christians are not addicted to modern media and would not experience these effects; unfortunately, however, research strongly suggests that the vast majority of those claiming to be Christians watch the same things their secular neighbors watch.6 This is a serious problem because Christians have been called to live exemplary lives of purity, holiness, humility, patience, kindness, and love, just as Jesus did. Yet they cannot do this and at the same time be watching modern entertainment television.
Paul instructed early Christians: “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Rom. 12:2. There is a battle raging for our minds: modern media is doing the conforming, but God wants to do the transforming. We need to get serious about what we allow to enter our minds because it will affect our spiritual lives.
Let us do a little dissection of the brain in order to better understand how to guard our minds.
A heavy diet of media—especially movies and television—increases aggressive thoughts and behaviors.
The frontal lobe, the citadel of the brain, is the decision-making center and the seat of spirituality, morality, and the will. It is often referred to as “the higher powers” of the mind. This is where we find altruistic qualities—the ability to empathize and connect with other people’s emotions or the desire to do something outside of ourselves for the good of somebody else. If the frontal lobe is strengthened, your spiritual life will be strengthened as well.
Although emotions play an important role in one’s religious life, emotions are not to dictate our behavior. The Bible says, “Come now and let us reason together.” Isa. 1:18. It is the reasoning part of our brain that should direct our emotions. Galatians 5:22, 23 speaks of the fruit of the Spirit as including self-control, which also takes place in the frontal region of the brain. The “love your neighbor as yourself” principle—altruism—is another aspect of the brain. See Mark 12:31. If the frontal lobe is impaired, it becomes nearly impossible to have self-control and be unselfish.
After several years of research on the effects of viewing television, psychophysiologist Thomas Mulholland noticed that it could take as little as 30 seconds for the brains of television viewers to begin producing alpha waves, an indicator of torpid or comatose rates of activity. Alpha waves are associated with unfocused and overly receptive states of consciousness. The same state is sought for in hypnotic practices, in which the hypnotist seeks to induce slow brain waves. In other words, while watching television, the viewers’ frontal lobes are switched off and they automatically enter a trancelike state.7
Difficulties arise when our frontal lobes are shut down because this makes it nearly impossible to have the mind of Christ.
Our animalistic desires, or survival instincts—such as the desire for sex or food—are in the limbic system. Those desires aren’t innately evil. The problem comes when they are fulfilled without reason or outside the will of God—for example, the desire for sex being fulfilled outside of a marriage relation, and the desire for food being fulfilled with unhealthful items. The limbic system also produces emotions such as fear, stress, and loss, and impulses such as anxiety, anger, irritability, negativity, and aggression. If we allow this part of our brain to rule, we will live by these kinds of emotions.
Amazingly, God arranged the anatomy of the brain in such a way that the frontal lobe is above the emotional center of your brain, or the limbic system. The “higher powers” should be in control of the “lower powers.”
But when we repeatedly exercise the circuits of our brains along the limbic system, it causes our frontal lobe to weaken and become virtually emaciated. When you view entertainment television, the frontal lobe is rendered inert. In addition to shutting off your frontal lobe, theatrical-style television is designed to produce a limbic impulse of some kind: anger, fear, aggression, lust, sadness, etc. Music Television (MTV) founder Robert Pittman explained his strategy: “The strongest appeal you can make…is emotionally. If you can get their emotions going, make them forget their logic, you’ve got them.”8
The teenage years through the late twenties is the most critical period for developing the proper circuits of your frontal lobe. Without divine intervention, it will define who you are spiritually for the rest of your life.
Increased exposure to media violence has also been shown to result in more aggressive behavior, thoughts, and feelings, as well as less empathy and fewer helping behaviors.
A study by Dr. Brandon S. Centerwall, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, documented the sudden spike in the murder rate in both the US and Canada 15 years after television came into each society. After much speculation, he compared it with data from South Africa and found the same results. Comparing different factors of each society, the only common denominator was television. This study was conducted decades ago when the nature of television was much less violent than it is today. The study concluded that there was correlation between crime and entertainment television, resulting in a society that became more aggressive, impulsive, and less self-controlled.9
Scientists from the University of Parma in Italy discovered a very fascinating phenomenon in the brain called mirror neurons.10 In the experiment, electrodes were hooked up to a macaque monkey’s brain to monitor brain activity. Every time a monkey carried out a certain action, a certain part of the brain would light up. Then, as the monkey watched, one of the scientists performed a similar action, while the same part of the monkey’s brain lit up again. The scientists concluded that whatever the monkeys saw with their eyes was interpreted by the brain as if they were doing it themselves.
We also have mirror neurons, and the things that we view can change us. It can go further than what we see on television. Jesus, the Creator of our brains, made a similar point in His Sermon on the Mount: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Matt. 5:28.
God created mirror neurons in humanity that we may become like Him. If we look to the life of Christ, we may become like Jesus. “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” 2 Cor. 3:18. He has given us the opportunity for transformation through spending time with Him in Bible study and prayer. When we look at His character, life, love, compassion, empathy, and lifestyle, the Bible says we can be changed into His image.
Continually exposing ourselves to sin causes us to become gradually desensitized to it. In 1 Timothy 4:2, Paul mentions those who have seared their consciences. It is possible to prevent this by the help of the Holy Spirit. We must cooperate with Him to retain and strengthen our sensitivity.
But what if you’re a media addict—or worse, a media addict well beyond the teenage years? Is there still hope?
Paul reminds us that while it is impossible for us to please God and abide by His law while we are in the flesh, when we accept Christ, we no longer live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Rom. 8:7–9. This is the reason we must be born again. The lower nature governs us from birth, but when we are born again, the higher powers can once again be trained to take their rightful position as “king,” and we can learn to love the things that will lead to a beautiful character controlled by the Holy Spirit.
And although it’s a challenge, it is possible to be re-sensitized. See Heb. 5:14.
What we love and immerse ourselves in will be carried with us into that moment of judgment. If we love the things of this world, we won’t be able to stand in the presence of God. But if we despise earthly things and love the things of God, His presence will be delightful.
Before modern media was invented, a 19th-century female educator warned, “Satan does not wish the people to have a knowledge of God; and if he can set in operation games and theatrical performances that will so confuse the senses of the young that human beings will perish in darkness while light shines all about them, he is well pleased.”11
If theatrical performances over a hundred years ago were harmful and morally objectionable, how much more so today? Are these screen-based, frontal-lobe-suppressing, limbic-system-enhancing media eclipsing the light of God’s presence in our lives? The same educator compared the influence of theatrical entertainment to alcohol: “There is no influence in our land more powerful to poison the imagination, to destroy religious impressions, and to blunt the relish for the tranquil pleasures and sober realities of life than theatrical amusements. The love for these scenes increases with every indulgence, just as the desire for intoxicating drinks strengthens with its use.”12
George Barna would be impressed!
Entertainment media is designed to shut off your frontal lobe and produce emotional responses like anger, fear, aggression, lust, and sadness.
Now it’s time for some self-evaluation. Be painfully honest with yourself. Are entertaining theatrical amusements making you despise tranquil pleasures? Does your intense, highly stimulating media environment hinder you from enjoying God’s reality? Does studying the Bible seem boring?
Our minds can ascend to the height of what we dwell upon. If you were to read a scientific textbook, the greatest thing that could be done would be to come to the mental understanding of the person who wrote it. Imagine a book that was given by Divinity Himself. Wouldn’t the same be true? “There is nothing more calculated to energize the mind, and strengthen the intellect, than the study of God’s Word.”13 There is an endless storehouse of messages divinely made for us, and there is nothing like the Bible to ennoble and refine our thoughts.
Could studying the Word of God be boring because we’re filling our lives with the things of the world? While some of these things may not be innately evil, are we so highly stimulated by them that we don’t love God’s Word?
Perhaps to find balance you will need to do a media fast. Or you may have to completely change the way you use media. It won’t be easy, but if you want the mind of Christ, it might be necessary. At first, starting a serious study of the Bible might feel all uphill. But as you spend time in the Word of God, looking at Jesus, God will begin to change your desires and create a new heart inside you. This is the new birth experience.
The new covenant is an experience in which God changes your heart. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people.” Heb. 8:10.
You can’t do this on your own, but as you abide in Him and spend time in His Word, the Holy Spirit will transform you. Try spending time daily in God’s Word. Begin the day with prayer and personal time with Jesus. As you do, God will transform your tastes and give you a love for His Word.
George Barna, The Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What They Believe, and Why They Matter, p. 155.
Robert Lloyd, “How should television be defined nowadays?” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 21, 2014.
“Television Viewing Time and Reduced Life Expectancy,” British Journal of Sports Medicine 46, no. 12 (October 2012), special section p. 1.
Barna, p. 156.
Barna, p. 156.
Linda Jean Dutke, “Television Viewing Habits of Christians” (PhD diss., North Texas University, 2008).
Wes Moore, Journal of Cognitive Liberties 2, no. 2 (2001): 59–66.
Walt Mueller, Youth Culture 101, p. 10.
“Television and Violence,” http://cursor.org/stories/television_and_violence.htm.
Timma Ehrenfeld, “Reflections on Mirror Neurons,” Observer 24, no. 3 (March 2011), http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/reflections-on-mirror-neurons.
Ellen G. White, The Review and Herald, March 13, 1900.
White, Messages to Young People, p. 380.
White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 460.
Adapted with permission from audio transcripts of “TV and Your Brain: The Good News,” Generation of Youth for Christ 2013 Seminar: Media on the Brain, Belt of Truth Ministries. Scott Ritsema, director of Belt of Truth Ministries, is an educator, writer, and speaker with a passion for truth. Scott left the teaching profession to pursue full-time ministry, and he currently presents seminars on topics such as media, parenting, education, and sexuality. Scott lives in Michigan with his wife, Cami, and two boys, Levi and Silas. For more information, visit www.beltoftruthministries.org.