URJHS Volume 8


Collapse of the World’s Fundamental Social Unit:
Mass Media’s Tremendous Impact on Families

Kayla Groat
University of Maryland University College


Our nation’s modern media acts as a devastating destructive force to the family unit in America, and its effects are felt worldwide. The rearing of children has been taken from the hands of parents into grips of mass media. Producers of mass communications render inaccurate societal depictions, and individuals respond in active accordance with what is portrayed. Media embeds messages of violence, body image, and teen sexuality, all of which encourage single parent and/or cohabitating homes out of wedlock and destroys marriages through pornography. Continuation of this family degradation cycle will result in the collapse of the family as a social function and force for stability in communities as well as on a worldwide scale.


"Families are the cells which make up the body of society, if the cells are unhealthy and undernourished, or at worse cancerous and growing haphazard and out of control, in the end the body succumbs” (Doughty, 2008, p. 1), says Justice Coleridge, senior judge in charge of family courts across South-West England for the past eight years. Coleridge, who has been presiding over cases of divorce, children in care, and family break-up, has also determined that “the collapse of the family unit is a threat to the nation as bad as terrorism, crime, drugs or global warming” (Doughty, 2008, p. 1). Surprise should not come from this declaration itself, but in the fact that the members of today’s society have become so numbed that readers are likely to mistakenly disregard this statement as the product of an outlandish theorist. Americans are seemingly oblivious to the devastating crumble of the family unit despite witnessing failure of half of all marriages, rampant teen pregnancies, and single-parent, cohabitating, and broken families to such a prominent extent that an American family today who meets the profile of a traditional family is labeled as “abnormal.” In America’s past, the family unit formed the core of society; however, with the advent of reckless mass communication, there has been a breakup of this key moral determinant.

Review of the Literature

In examining the root causes of family devastation, it would be necessary to conclude that the family unit is in fact in danger. The family unit has traditionally been the core unit of society. It is the basic element that socializes all members of society to shape each into acceptable and respectable members of that society, thereby bringing about basic reproduction, stability, personal morals, progress, and healthy social units. The family exists to aid in each individual’s well being, providing care and fulfillment, as well as basic functions such as housing, nourishing, and educating its members. Its traditional structure, headed by a cohabitating husband and wife, creates functional stability, a mother’s primary role serves to care for and nurture children while a father’s primary role is to bring financial stability and provide for family resources and basic necessities. When a family functions under these basic principles, it is able to thrive and achieve society’s basic goals. In contrast, if one or more elements of this social unit are missing or dysfunctional, society fails to function efficiently. Its members become displaced and unstable, creating a tangled web of social malfunctions: the education, socialization, and moral development of children fail; individuals find themselves with a loss of direction and stability; deviance becomes commonplace; and ethical and moral issues become distorted and contentious—in short, our evolving society today. To slow and eventually halt this devastating process, we first must determine the root causes of family breakup. Among many factors, the most pervasive and prevailing factor seems to stem from messages delivered from mass media. In a globalized world of communication, one experiences the invasion of media almost every minute of life. We find it at school, in our workplaces, in our cars during daily commutes, and in checkout lines at grocery stores. We even allow it to invade our homes through television sets, computers, magazine subscriptions and video games. Although technological advancement provides great potential for human growth and development, it also brings distorted images and concepts that invade our perceptions and distort our morals.

Children seem to be the most vulnerable to media attack. Guernsey summarizes the studies of William T. Greenough, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, on the growth process of a child’s mind beginning with birth:

Picture the brain . . . as a tangle of tiny rope fragments that are frayed at each end. Each piece of rope is a nerve cell, or neuron. The frayed ends are the axons and dendrites, branching out they meet–but not quite touch– he axons and dendrites of other neurons. The junctions between their tips are called synapses–channels through which bits of information are passed from one neuron to another. . . . Without those connections, information can’t pass from one nerve cell to another. Learning can’t happen. When a baby is born, its brain has a lot of developing still to do–and a lot of synapses to create. During a baby’s first few years of life, they are being formed at a furious rate. One estimate is that 1.8 million synapses are produced per second from two months after conception until the baby is two years old. After those first few years, the number starts to drop as unused connections atrophy. The brain is, essentially deciding which junctions offer the most useful paths to understanding the world. The others–think of them as the dead-ends, the distracters– re pruned away. By adulthood, only half of the synapses are left…When you extrapolate from [these studies] . . . it becomes clear why people believe that children’s earliest experiences can, literally, shape their brains. (Guernsey, 2007, p. 6)

Another study found in Handbook of Children and the Media reinforces these ideas, “During the first years of life, children are developing social scripts and beliefs that will influence behavior throughout their lifetime. . . . Young children are . . . easily impressionable, have a more difficult time distinguishing between fantasy and reality, cannot easily discern motives for violence, [and] learn by observing and imitating” (Bushman & Huesmann, 2001, p. 240). Observers as early as Plato, the classical Greek philosopher, also recognized the delicacy and absorbent nature of a child’s brain: “Children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn’t, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change; it is therefore of the utmost importance that the first stories they hear shall aim at producing the right moral effect” (Turow, 2003, p. 54).

Our nation’s media is far from producing the right moral effects for our world’s youth. The globalization of our nation’s media is becoming so common that it is not only hurting our families at home but also families worldwide. It seems as though the socialization and moral upbringing of children have escaped from the hands of parents into the grips of mass media through cartoons, video games, television ads, and movies. Cline, research scientist with the George Washington University, revealed that most children spend more time in front of a TV set than in front of a teacher during a year’s time. During preschool years alone, some US studies show that the average child spends more time watching TV than he spends in the classroom during four years of college (Cline, 1972). In agreement with Cline, a Kaiser Family Foundation study also shows that children, ages 8 to 18, spend more time (44.5 hours per week, 61/2 hours daily) in front of computer, television, and game screens than any other activity in their lives except sleeping (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005). Many harmful effects can result from extensive media exposure in adolescence. A study found in Media, Children, and the Family may shed some light on potential dangers. It reveals that by the time a child is eighteen years old, he or she will witness on television 200,000 acts of violence including 40,000 murders (Huston, et al., 1992). Discussing the impact of children’s exposure to violence, a 1999 report by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary declared, “More than 1,000 studies on the effects of television and film violence have been done over the past 40 years. The majority of these studies reach the same conclusion: television and film violence leads to real-world violence. The existing research shows beyond a doubt that media violence is linked to youth violence.” (Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 1999, p. 1). Violent attitudes stemming from media are affecting families around the world and have an even more powerful effect in American homes. These movies and games are rearing our children, especially young boys, with a tendency to violence that inevitably affect their families today and the families they produce tomorrow. They imbed in males violent inclinations toward child and spouse abuse, including sexual abuse. The National Institute on Media and the Family verifies a correlation between exposure to violent television and violent behaviors, and reveal that “women are often portrayed in video games as weaker characters that are helpless or sexually provocative” (National Institute on Media and the Family, 2009, p. 1).   The Institute also affirms that “game environments are often based on plots of violence, aggression, and gender bias, and games offer an arena of weapons, killings, kicking, stabbing, and shooting while confusing reality with fantasy” (National Institute on Media and the Family, 2009, p. 1). While exposure to sexual and violent media is rearing young boys, young girls are being exposed to suggestive images, movies, cartoons, and television series suggesting that acceptance from males can only be obtained if a girl is thin, sexy, and provocatively dressed.

Durham paints a troubling picture of this trend through an experience of her own with a young girl: “Last Halloween, a five-year-old girl showed up at my doorstep decked out in a tube top, a gauzy miniskirt, platform shoes, and glittering eye shadow. The outfit projected a rather tawdry adult sexuality. ‘I’m a Bratz!’ the tot piped up proudly, brandishing a look-alike doll clutched in her chubby fist. I had an instant, dizzying flashback to an image of a child prostitute I had seen in Cambodia dressed in a disturbingly similar outfit.” Durham goes on to reveal the provocative nature of the cartoon: “Appealing to younger audiences, the Bratz line of dolls, which are marketed to preschoolers with the tagline ‘Girls with a passion for fashion,’ sport fishnet stockings, bustiers, and tiny miniskirts, prompting the New Yorker writer Margaret Talbott to observe, ‘They look like pole dancers on their way to work at a gentlemen’s club’” (Durham, 2008, p. 21). Starting as toddlers, the media begins educating our young girls on how to act and dress. This trend continues after childhood becoming even more prevalent into teen years and adulthood. Durham explains, “Media images of sexuality are everywhere. Advertisements for such shopping mall stalwarts as Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch are notoriously erotic, and MTV and BET music videos routinely–indeed, almost inevitable–feature sexual themes and explicit lyrics. Currently, Shai, a French clothing company is using an online hard-core porn video to sell high-priced T-shirts; Ivy League undergraduates are editing and posing in campus skin mags; and, according to a Wall Street Journal report, one-third of all video games feature sexual themes, including sexual violence” (Durham, 2008, p. 28). The effects of these suggestions on young girls and women are overwhelming. Must, Spadann, Coakley Field, Colditz & Dietz (1999) found the majority of nearly 550 working class adolescent girls were dissatisfied with their weight and shape. Almost 70 percent of the sample stated that pictures in magazines influence their conception of the “perfect” body shape, and over 45 percent indicated that those images motivated them to lose weight. Further, adolescent girls who were more frequent readers of women’s magazines were more likely to report being influenced to think about the perfect body, to be dissatisfied with their own body, to want to lose weight, and to diet (Must et al., 1999). Additionally, in a study on fifth graders found in “Sitcoms, Videos Make Even Fifth-Graders Feel Fat,” 10-year-old girls told researchers they were dissatisfied with their own bodies after watching a music video by Britney Spears or the TV show "Friends” (Mundell, 2002). In reference to magazine images of thin, glamorized women, the National Institute on Media and the Family reveals that after only a few minutes of exposure, these publications can considerably injure the self-esteem of young, impressionable adolescent girls (National Institute on Media and the Family, 2009). Furthermore, while instructing these youth to be thin and sexy, the media is simultaneously contributing to the obesity of the population, significantly in the young. A study by the Institute of Medicine concluded after extensive research that television advertising influences the food preferences, purchase requests, and diets, at least of children under age 12 years, and is associated with the increased rates of obesity among children and youth (IOM, 2006). Similar results have been reported in numerous studies revealing that obesity in children increases the more hours they watch television. This unhealthy body weight will further devastate self-esteem and body image in our nation’s youth.

Magazines, television, music, and movies not only decrease self-esteem in young women, they also promote sexual promiscuity. In Journal of Sex Research, Steele states, “Whereas 50 years ago a teen’s family, friends, school, and church probably were the primary influence on his or her attitudes, values and beliefs about sexuality, today’s teens have access to a fifth powerful influence–the ubiquitous mass media” (Steele, 1999, p. 335). In North Carolina, a statewide survey of adolescent sexual behavior revealed that a majority of the state’s teens were sexually active while in high school (Steele, 1999). Also, the 1994 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported one out of six teens having engaged in sexual intercourse by age 13. These statistics come alongside an increase in “the depiction of sexual content in family hour programming . . . consistently over the last 20 years—up 118 percent since 1986 and 270 percent since 1976” (Kunkel, 1996, abstract). In Sex on TV, researchers Kunkel, Eyal, Finnerty, Biely, and Donnerstein (2005) reported that there are “correlations between watching television programming high in sexual content and the early initiation of sexual intercourse by adolescents . . . heavier viewers of sexual television content had increased perceptions of the frequency with which sexual behaviors occur in the real world. And . . . teens who had just viewed television dramas laden with sexual content tended to rate descriptions of casual sexual encounters less negatively than teens who had not viewed any sexual content (p. 57).” The report also reveals, “New data have strengthened the previous finding that exposure to sexual content on television is significantly correlated with teenagers’ sexual behavior, while extending the association to other media. And in arguably the most compelling study to date, a longitudinal panel study with a nationally representative sample demonstrated a causal relationship between adolescent exposure to sexual talk and behavior on television and the acceleration of sexual activity including intercourse” (Kunkel et. al., 2005, p. 57).

These distorted perspectives are shaping today’s families. Media’s influence on casual sexual activity is deteriorating the ideal of married, two-parent families. Teen pregnancies are becoming increasingly common, while single-mother and unwed-cohabitating households are becoming a societal norm. A study of the breakdown of the family conducted by Dr. Michael Rendall of the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University agrees, “Even greater harm comes from the fact that very private and personal relationships between husbands and wives including sexual relations, child-bearing, and child-rearing have become common today outside of marriage. Consequently, in most cases the essential bonds of trust and commitment have been lost” (Coral Ridge Ministries, 2002, p. 1). The New York Times reported this year that “Unmarried mothers gave birth to 4 out of every 10 babies born in the United States in 2007, a share that is increasing rapidly both here and abroad. . . . In 2007, women in their 20s had 60 percent of all babies born out of wedlock, teenagers had 23 percent and women 30 and older had 17 percent. . . . Children born out of wedlock in the United States tend to have poorer health and educational outcomes than those born to married women (p. 1).” The article also revealed that “much of the increase in unmarried births has occurred among parents who are living together but are not married, cohabitation arrangements that tend to be less stable then marriages, studies show” (Gardiner, 2009, p. 1). These trends have devastating effects on families and children. Coleridge also declared, “Children from single-parent families are far more likely to do badly at school, suffer poor health, fall into crime, drug abuse, heavy drinking and teenage pregnancy” (Doughty, 2008, p. 1). Researchers Kalil, DeLeire, Jayakody, and Chin released one of many studies that confirm these findings, “Among the diverse set of non-married mother living arrangements we observe, children who remain in cohabiting and single mother arrangements during the three years appear to have worse developmental outcomes than children whose mother remains married” (Kalil et al, 2001, p. 18).

Equally as devastating as child rearing out of wedlock is the instance of divorce. “The United States today has the highest divorce rate in the entire world. Half of all first marriages in this country end in divorce, and the mortality rate of second marriages is even higher. Adding to the problem is the fact that half of all divorces involve children, and researchers tell us that throughout the 1990s more than a million children each year will become the innocent victims of divorce” (Coral Ridge Ministries, 2002, p. 1). Many problems associated with divorce also stem from media exposure. Along mass media’s destructive trail we find yet another devastating disease of families–the consumption of pornography. In her research on sexual addiction and compulsivity, Jennifer P. Schneider reveals that although Internet pornography might be viewed in privacy and secrecy by one family member, the impact of sexually explicit material is felt by entire families, communities, and corporate circles. Manning also exposed findings by Schneider’s study, “The majority of Internet users in the United States are married males, more than half of Americans (172 million) use the Internet and 20 to 33 percent of users go online for sexual purposes. The majority of people struggling with sexual addictions and compulsivities involving the Internet are married, heterosexual males” (Manning, 2005, p. 11). Schneider also found that cybersex addiction was a major contributing factor to separation and divorce for affected couples. Her survey research found that spouses often fall victim to their partner’s online pornography consumption, becoming significantly distressed and feel it is a threat to the relationship. Cybersex in its many forms was reported to cause devastation in marital partners including feelings of hurt, betrayal, and rejection often leading to separation and divorce. Marital partners suffer loss of self-esteem, sexual rejection, and feel a sense of hopelessness.  Partners overwhelmingly reported being as emotionally injured by cyber affairs as a live affair, some labeling the addiction as adultery. The addictions were also reported to have caused marital problems surrounding issues of financial overspending, decreased interest in marital intimacy, and loss of trust being reported as a major casualty (Schneider, 2000). Exposure to pornography is not only devastating marriages, but also harming children. Partners of cybersex addicts also reported neglect to children and failure to fulfill family responsibilities. Reports were made of children adopting online sex habits and live sexual promiscuity as direct result of a parent’s online addictions. Children often become victims of marital breakup and adopt notions regarding objectification of women. (Schneider, 2000).  In a 2005 hearing on pornography’s impact on marriage and family, Manning testified, “While the marital bond may be the most vulnerable relationship to online sexual activity, children and adolescents are considered the most vulnerable audience of sexually explicit material. Youth are considered a vulnerable audience because they cCan be easily coerced into viewing pornography or manipulated into the production of it; have limited ability to emotionally, cognitively, and physiologically process obscene material they encounter voluntarily or involuntarily; can be the victims of another’s pornography consumption in ways adults are often more resilient to; can have their sexual and social development negatively impacted through exposure to fraudulent and/or traumatic messages regarding sexuality and relationships; and can develop unrealistic expectations about their future sexual relationship through repeated exposure to fantasy-based templates” (Manning, 2005, p. 21).


Evidence revealing the destructive nature of individual and collective media exposure to the family unit is overwhelming. The continual disregard of this enormous issue is demoralizing world societies. Parents are being continuously robbed of their roles in rearing and educating their children by allowing media to invade the home. The basic unit that serves to cultivate all members of society is suffering a devastating ailment, being replaced by media’s false doctrines and immoral instruction, all in the name of profit. The methods of family devastation by the media come through teaching violence, embedding negative self-body image, encouraging sexual promiscuity and thereby producing single parent and/or cohabitating families, and destroying marriages through pornography. Judge Coleridge gives us a small glimpse at the devastating effects of this phenomenon by declaring, “Almost all society's ills can be traced directly to the collapse of family life. . . . Examine the background of almost every child in the care system or the youth justice system and you will discover a broken family” (Doughty, 2008, p. 1). This tragic loss will inevitably bring about social instability and overall dysfunction. Its subtle destructive nature cannot be disregarded any longer. If this trend continues undisturbed, its devastating effects will lead to the collapse of families, communities, societies, and then nations.


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