Do you ever air quote the word “normal” in a conversation? I do, because what is “normal” seems to be different for everyone. The definition of the word changes with shifts in society. Prevailing attitudes toward gender identity, casual sex, abortion and same-sex marriage are among those things that have become more “normalized” – more culturally acceptable – in recent years.
These attitudes often filter into society through film, television, music and social media. Because they’re “normal,” right? Well, maybe for some, but not for everyone.
Does the entertainment media’s presentation of what is “normal” match your experience? There’s a saying in media literacy education: “Media normalize behavior.” In other words, media stories can influence the way we perceive what is or is not socially acceptable, or what is or is not considered “normal.”
For example, in many shows or films, when a couple goes out on a date they end up in bed together. If life were like TV, that would be considered “normal” and acceptable. Presenting this kind of behavior constantly in shows could influence how kids and teens, but also adults, think of sexuality in real-life relationships.
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For Catholics, though, the Church teaches that the gift of intimacy through sexual relations is exclusive to marriage (between one man and one woman). Do casual attitudes toward sex depicted in film, TV and on social media make it seem more acceptable? Yes. Does that mean it “is” acceptable? Indeed, no.
Everyone's doing it?
When a good friend of mine was engaged, both she and her fiancé – as practicing Catholics – were following the teachings of the Church. She shared some frustration she was experiencing, saying, “Why does everyone assume we’re either living together or sleeping together already? We’re not.”
Cohabitation and sex before marriage happen a lot in entertainment media, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s doing it or that it’s acceptable for followers of Christ.
There’s a psychological term that has been getting attention recently: “social contagion.” It means that people can pick up on behaviors or emotions from crowds or networks of people around them, sometimes all unawares. For example, laughing at a movie might be an emotional response, just because the people around you are laughing. Behavioral contagion had store shelves devoid of toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic.
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Young people susceptible
If the influences around us are “socially contagious,” can we become “contaminated” by the ideas and messages we let into our minds through the media we experience? Sadly, yes, and young people are particularly susceptible.
Have no doubt about it: Social influences are strong. I know of a Catholic school that experienced a group of seventh-grade girls who considered transitioning genders together, which resulted in the pastor and principal talking with the girls and their families.
A February 2022 article by Anastasia Hanonick in The University News out of St. Louis University confirms that 60-80% of American college students have experienced a “hook-up” (sex without emotional connection) in some way. There’s no denying that social influence contributes to these troubling statistics.
What can we do?
Some influences are good. Parents influencing children in learning to live their faith is a good thing, as is the Church influencing Christians to develop and deepen relationships with God. The question is: How can we counteract influences that are contrary to our faith, especially the influence of media stories? Here are a few tips:
- Learn, share and live your faith. Know what the Church teaches, share it and model it in your life. Influence society for the good by living an authentic relationship with God.
- Talk about media stories with children and teens. Ask them what they think of characters and their behavior. If characters exhibit problematic behavior, ask what a better way would be. If virtuous behavior is on display, ask how that could translate into real life.
- Be courageous. It’s not easy to embrace values and beliefs that are counter-cultural. Pray and ask God for the strength to witness to your faith, even when it’s not popular.
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Yes, we need to acknowledge the “normalizing” effects of media messages and the influences of social contagion – but without fear. Just remember that, as Christians, we are called to “normalize” Gospel behavior in all our personal, faith, social and media interactions.
About the Author
Sister Hosea Rupprecht is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, a religious community dedicated to evangelization with the media. She holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto and an MA in Media Literacy from Webster University in St. Louis.
Sr. Hosea is director of the East Coast office of the Pauline Center for Media Studies, based in Staten Island, NY, and speaks on media literacy and faith to catechists, parents, youth, and young adults. Together with Father Chip Hines, she is the co-host of Searchlight, a Catholic movie review show on Catholic TV. Sr. Hosea is the author of How to Watch Movies with Kids: A Values-Based Strategy, released by Pauline Books & Media.
For the past 15 years, she has facilitated various film dialogues for both children and adults, as well as given presentations on integrating culture, faith and media.