Amusement Addiction Society's Unhealthy Obsession With Entertainment

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Mom, I can’t find my MP3 player!” shouts the 12-year-old from her bedroom.

It is a school morning, and the girl is just minutes away from missing her bus. Mom races in to the room and discovers her daughter frantically rummaging through dresser drawers and piles of clothes on the floor in a desperate search.

“I can’t go to school without my music!” the girl shrieks when she sees her mother.

It was true—the girl brought it to school every day. The school district allowed middle and high school students to listen to music on their MP3 players during lunch periods and while doing independent work in classes, as long as the students weren’t disruptive.

For these students, MP3 players had become part of the school experience. They would sit on the bus, work on assignments in class, go through cafeteria lines and eat their lunches—music being pumped into their ears the whole time. Nearly all students carry an MP3 player in their backpack, along with cell phones, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and portable games. They have access to games, music and videos, and wireless Internet. If study halls, assemblies, or long bus rides to and from school got too dull, these students were prepared with multiple electronic diversions.

It is a sign of our times. “Kids today, and really adults too, expect to be entertained all the time—even when they’re at school and work,” observes Gregory Bloom, lecturer and author of Overcoming Entertainment Addiction: How to Cure Your Children of the Need to be Constantly Entertained (Action Publishing Group, 2006).

Of course, not all schools allow entertainment devices on campus, but many do. And even if schools prohibit cell phones, a lot of students sneak them in anyway, just so they can text message friends during classes. As one tenth grader admitted, “It helps me stay awake during boring class discussions.”

Adults do the same things on the job. They bring MP3 players with them to the office so they can listen to music or podcasts while they work—just to make their jobs a little more bearable. When in meetings, they might play games on their PDAs or send text messages rather than pay attention to the person speaking.

After a day at school or work, kids and adults alike head home to their televisions and computers. Typically, with the younger set, they’re playing video games on their TVs, or using their computers to message friends on social network websites, download video clips, or just “surf the web” for fun. A lot of adults are drawn to these activities too. Or, they may just plop down in front of their big screen televisions and watch a sitcom or order a movie on demand. When it is time to do homework or eat dinner, chances are the TV is on in the background, and it stays on all evening.

In one sense, this is nothing new. People have always enjoyed having fun. But unquestionably society has taken its pursuit of pleasure to new levels. Many sociologists believe that modern society is actually addicted to entertainment. This is due largely to the technological innovations in electronic media that have been developed in the last 10-15 years.

“There simply are a lot more ways to be entertained today than there used to be, and it’s really hard not to be taken in by it all,” says Cynthia King, Ph.D., director of the Center for Entertainment and Tourism Studies at California State University at Fullerton and co-author of Entertainment and Society (2008).

Back in the 1970s, the only electronic entertainment owned by the typical American family was probably a TV, radio, phonograph, and cassette player. They had access to 3 or 4 television stations, and programming often ended at midnight. Television was certainly part of American home life, but it was not available 24 hours a day.

Today, we are overloaded with entertainment options. An American family might own any number of electronic “toys”—from HD-TVs, DVD players, cell phones and home theater systems to video game consoles, computers, PDAs and MP3 players. Many of these devices are portable (unlike the large console TVs and pinball machines from earlier times), so you can take them with you wherever you go, creating more possibilities for entertainment. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the average U.S. household has 25 of these kinds of products. Most households are hooked into Wi-Fi Internet technology, and either cable, fiber optic or satellite TV, providing access to hundreds of TV channels and around-the-clock programming. It is the same in most other industrialized nations as well.

But our world’s obsession with entertainment is not limited to consumer electronic products. This desire to be amused can be seen in every facet of life. TV news channels and newspapers often forego coverage of serious “hard news” stories and devote most of their time and space to the personal lives of entertainers and sensationalistic crime stories. Mega-churches are popping up all over the country, promising “feel good” messages and electrifying musical performances. College professors have had to replace old-fashioned college lectures with humor-laden Power Point presentations.

“People want more entertainment, and they want everything that’s not entertainment to become entertainment,” Bloom says. “If they have to do something that seems challenging or mundane, they want to make it fun.”

Not all bad

There is nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy oneself, to a point. Entertainment, as long as it is not promoting immoral behavior, can be a very positive thing. The Bible states in Ecclesiastes 12:12 Ecclesiastes 12:12And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
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that “much study is wearisome to the flesh.” Mankind needs relaxation and entertainment.

When King Saul felt overwhelmed and anguished, David played music on his harp to soothe him (1 Samuel 16:23 1 Samuel 16:23And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was on Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.
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). It helped Saul feel refreshed, and the evil spirit that was troubling him departed. We may not find ourselves in the same kind of situations Saul did, but we still become weary and disheartened. Listening to music or enjoying other kinds of entertainment can help us feel re-energized and uplifted.

For some, entertainment can simply serve as a pleasant diversion from typically very busy lives. It might be an activity you do for limited amounts of time to take your mind off more routine or arduous tasks. That may mean playing a few video games, watching a good movie or television program, or reading a humorous book.

So much of entertainment does seek to make people laugh, and laughter can be good for our mental and physical health. Proverbs 17:22 Proverbs 17:22A merry heart does good like a medicine: but a broken spirit dries the bones.
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tells us “A merry heart does good, like medicine.”

Entertainment becomes a problem, or an addiction, when it becomes too high of a priority. When one seeks to be entertained all the time, rather than in moderation, and electronic “toys” have taken over his or her life, there is a problem. If one cannot go anywhere without an MP3 player and PDA, and spends more time surfing the Internet and watching TV than interacting with one’s family, there is a problem. It may very well be getting in the way of his or her spiritual life. The apostle Paul warns against those who are “lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4 2 Timothy 3:4Traitors, heady, high minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;
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One way to put things in perspective is to think of your daily life in terms of a pie chart. What piece of the pie would you want to be devoted to media entertainment and what piece would you want to be for family and friends? “Theoretically, most everyone would want the big piece of pie to be family and friends,” contends Patricia Leavy, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, with a special interest in the role of entertainment in society. “But if you look at how people actually spend their time, I think you’d see the reverse—that they’re spending their time with all this media entertainment. I don’t think that’s actually what people really want, but I do think that we fall into habits that are difficult to break.”

The negatives

The issue, though, is not just how much time people are spending in the “entertainment zone,” but the type of entertainment that they are seeking. We’re all familiar with the so-called “Hollywood values,” like violence, profanity and sexual immorality with which many of today’s movies, television shows, music, video games and websites are saturated. If you bring this kind of entertainment into your home, those are the kinds of standards you and your children will be soaking up.

“The sad thing about this entertainment is that it is not value-neutral. It’s very much backed by people with agendas, and it’s not all innocent,” Bloom says. “We let this media come into our homes and we review things that we would never dream of teaching our kids as acceptable, whether it’s violence, teen sex or disrespect for elders—but that’s what’s modeled for them, and we watch it because it’s funny.” There is some “clean” family entertainment out there too, Bloom notes, but unfortunately that’s not the kind of entertainment most of society is opting for.

But there’s another more insidious aspect of most of today’s entertainment which is just as damaging: it isolates people rather than bringing people together.

“It used to be that people played more cards and board games and participated in recreational activities together, and that was how they entertained themselves,” Leavy observes. “Now it’s primarily all this passive entertainment where you’re listening to your iPod or surfing the Internet and you’re by yourself.”

Active forms of entertainment can build relationships, as people interact with each other and share positive experiences, according to Leavy. In contrast, when someone uses passive entertainment, he or she is tuning everyone else out. This can generate a mentality of only seeking to appease the self, and becoming oblivious to the needs of others (since they’ve been shut out). While it is true that some Internet time is spent on social networking sites and chat rooms, that is a participatory activity on only a very minimal level, Leavy says.

All this passive entertainment is doing great harm to family life. “There’s not a lot of time for family members to talk with each other anymore because it’s consumed by all the entertainment devices that we have,” Bloom says.

It is not uncommon for family members to spend their weeknights and weekends each with their own electronic devices—Dad might be in one room watching TV, Mom is at the laptop in another room, one child is playing video games and the other child is listening to their MP3 player. Sadly, when these kids grow up, they’re going to rebel, Bloom says, because “there’s no relationship there to anchor them to Mom and Dad, since they were really raised by their iPods.” Chances are, marital relationships aren’t what they should be either, he adds, if Mom and Dad are interacting more with their electronic “toys” than they are with each other.

For kids in particular, all the passive entertainment is a problem because it hinders their development of appropriate interpersonal skills, Leavy says. “They’re learning how to interact with others, including how to making friends and date, largely by a technological means as opposed to face-to-face interaction,” she says. “Yet there’s a big difference between communicating with a thousand people you don’t really know on MySpace or Facebook versus what it means to meet people face-to-face, read people’s gestures, learn to get to know each other and communicate verbally.” With “virtual relationships,” people just exchange bite-sized tidbits of information—definitely not the building blocks of solid relationships.

There’s another negative lesson kids are learning too, Leavy says, and that is, “that it’s normal to walk down the street with your iPod on so you’re in your own little world, and normal to be at the dinner table sending text messages with your cell phone and ignoring everyone at the table.” She believes many kids today are not interacting with people even when they are face-to-face with others. Her concern is that these kids are going to model that kind of behavior for their own kids someday, perpetuating the behavior. Some sociologists are also concerned about how much these kids are actually getting out of school—if they are always plugged into their music when they are doing their homework.

Unfortunately, adults are developing the same bad habits. They are wrapped up in their own entertainment worlds too, often alienating friends and family around them. And as was already mentioned, they are even letting their need for entertainment take over their work lives. Not only can this result in job loss, it can also lead to some serious consequences for others who are relying on them to focus on their jobs. Just this past September, a commuter train conductor in California was preoccupied, sending text messages with his cell phone. He wasn’t paying attention to where the train was headed. It crashed, killing 25 people.

There is also concern over what our fixation on entertainment is doing to our minds. “As a society, we have an inability to get interested in major social problems that really do affect a large portion of the world’s population, like what’s happening in Darfur for example, with the genocide of hundreds of thousands of people,” asserts Karen Sternheimer, Ph.D., sociology professor at the University of Southern California and one of the country’s leading researchers in the area of pop culture.

According to Sternheimer, we’re becoming passive about these kinds of very serious issues, because “It’s just not fun to think about these things. We’re so used to being entertained all the time that we just don’t want to wrap our minds around something that isn’t going to give us some enjoyment. We don’t want to hear about these major issues that might make us feel helpless or depressed.” Instead, the public is drawn to gossipy little news clips about celebrities, and the media panders to that.

But in fairness to the public, Sternheimer continues, “with the Darfur story you do need to have some background information to understand what’s happening. Many of us do not have time to educate ourselves about all of these issues, so it’s hard for us to get into news stories about them. But even if you don’t really know who Britney Spears is, you can get, ‘Oh, she looks like she’s a bad mom,’ or ‘Oh, I can’t believe she shaved her head!’ We don’t really need a lot of other information to watch that story.”

When the media does need to report a somber incident in the news, perhaps a shooting or a natural disaster, they generally try to find some way to make it exciting. Usually that means sensationalizing the facts, or searching for a news angle that has some shock value. That way a sad news story can at least be told in an entertaining way, and the viewing audience will be more likely to pay attention.

One other issue worth noting is that the constant influence of passive entertainment may also be stifling our creative abilities. “People don’t learn how to fill boredom in their lives in productive ways anymore. We’re used to having some kind of passive entertainment flashing at us all the time,” Leavy says.

For example, children don’t know what to do with their free time if the batteries go dead on their hand-held entertainment devices. Adults can get just as uncomfortable. “A lot of people think they have to be hooked into their media entertainment devices 24/7,” says Leavy. If we are at a coffee shop and supposedly relaxing, we might sit there furiously text messaging on our cell phones the whole time. In the car, we can listen to CDs or talk radio. At home, the TV may be on constantly.

“Many people rely on their technology so much to keep themselves occupied, that if they were ever without it, they wouldn’t know how to entertain themselves,” asserts Leavy. “They’re just not used to creating their own activities.”

Pitfalls to avoid

As with all addictions, people who are truly hooked on entertainment do not even realize they are addicted. They are just doing what most everyone else in society is doing. They have let themselves fall into that mode of behavior, without even thinking about why they are doing it or what the consequences might be.

“Our lives are so busy, we have so much going on, and we’re exhausted when we come home from work. The media becomes a really easy way to relax at the end of a long day—it doesn’t require us to exert a lot of energy to use it, it’s always available, and we just get accustomed to it,” says King.

If there are children in the house, they will follow their parents’ examples. “If you’re watching television all night, your kids are going to do the same thing,” Bloom states. Many times, he adds, “Parents are so tired in the evening, they don’t feel like they have any energy left to deal with their kids, so they just let them (or even encourage them) to watch TV or play video games.” That way, Mom and Dad feel no guilt crashing in front of the TV themselves.

For some, all this mediated entertainment is an attempt at escaping—sometimes subconsciously—the realities of life. “They’re engaging in the media as a distraction from what they’re facing in their own life,” King says.

If a man is unemployed, he might watch a drama every week featuring a wealthy businessman. If a woman is in a faltering relationship, she might find herself drawn to a TV show featuring a couple with a seemingly perfect marriage. Even kids may plug into their MP3 players the minute they get on the bus at the end of the school day, if for no other reason than to try to “escape” thinking about being teased at school that day, or to block out taunting from the bully a few seats back. The trouble is, King warns, “Sometimes people get so wrapped up in their ‘make-believe’ worlds that they’re not confronting personal problems that really need to be dealt with.”

For others, all this new entertainment technology is purchased and embraced because it is simply too enticing to resist. “You can’t go anywhere without seeing advertisements for all these great technologies,” says Leavy. “They’re thrown in our faces and kids especially always want to have what other kids have. I think people have become really focused on those things. That’s really one of the main reasons people work so hard—to buy all these expensive technologies that they can then enjoy when they’re tired from working so much.”

What’s the solution?

You can break free from the entertainment pitfalls just mentioned, but it requires an honest assessment of your lifestyle, and the commitment and determination to make necessary changes.

“Think about how much time you use the media, versus spending time with family and friends,” urges Bloom. “Do you really want to be spending so much time in front of the television, or would you really rather being going on a walk with your spouse? This life doesn’t last forever, and we need to treat our days as such and be careful how we use our time.” Put another way, we need to “Number our days,” as we’re admonished to do in Psalms 90:12 Psalms 90:12So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
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If you have children at home, you need to be especially aware of your example. “You can’t be sitting in front of the television all night and expect your kids to go do something else,” says King. If that is your situation, you should initiate some family activities you can all do together.

Plan a weekly family game night (and play board or card games), play a game of soccer or go bike riding together, take up some hobbies as a family (crafts, cooking, gardening, etc.), or plan a family outing (to the zoo, museum, park, hiking trails, community recreation center, etc.). These are all active ways to entertain yourselves, rather than passive.

Your kids may protest at first, Leavy says, but “after they get into it, they’re sure to like it, and so will you. True, you might be tired yourself, but these kinds of activities are actually more invigorating and re-energizing than if you just lie on the couch and watch television.”

You do not have to give up passive, mediated entertainment altogether, but you should limit how much of this you allow, and make careful choices regarding what you watch and listen to. It is possible to cultivate a taste in ourselves and our children for high quality music, movies and books that do more than amuse us, but also educate, edify and build us up.

If there are particular television shows your children like, you can watch them together, and afterwards talk about what you saw. This makes it more of an activity and not just passive entertainment. The same can be done with music. Rather than your teens always listening to their music in isolation, have them play it on a CD player so everyone can hear it (this will, of course, dictate that you try to foster a discriminating taste in music in your teens!). That way the music becomes a shared experience.

Whether or not you have kids, you still need to be aware of what kinds of entertainment you are selecting. To put this in biblical terms, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about these things” (Philippians 4:8 Philippians 4:8Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
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Remember too, that in some cases, there can be more to a person’s entertainment addiction than just following societal trends. Think about why you are seeking media entertainment. Are you trying to escape your own problems and avoid dealing with them? Are you buying electronic equipment you don’t need or can’t afford, primarily because everyone else is doing it? Are you so preoccupied with entertaining yourself that you are forgetting what others may need? Are you trying to fill a hole in your life that cannot truly be filled by “things”? Don’t make the mistake of changing the external (limiting TV usage, etc.) without addressing what may also be going on internally.

To sum up, entertainment, like so many things in life, is not something that is inherently good or bad. It all depends on how it is used. The key is to try to seek a balance.

“We have to have some responsibility, not only for ourselves, but for our communities and the world around us. Enjoyed in moderation, entertainment does not take away from that,” Sternheimer concludes. “But if you are constantly seeking to be entertained, you will become totally … absorbed in seeking your own pleasures, and you will miss out on the joy that comes from helping others.”

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