The sad truth is, modern families are engulfed in a culture of 24/7 temptations to commit spiritual suicide … by a death of a thousand cuts. We parents of children and teens struggle valiantly to try to protect young souls, and strengthen them with habits of virtue, but it often feels like an impossible task. Understanding the deeper dynamics of the problem is the secret to empowering our kids with spiritual survival skills, and sustaining them with the desire to protect their own moral health.
Media and culture bombards us with a myriad of morally toxic messages and images. On every device and through every delivery channel. God made humans creatures of habit. Virtue is achieved through thousands of small selfless choices that are energized by grace. Similarly, Vice is now enslaving our loved ones through thousands of tiny temptations that invite short, and long-term, self-destruction.
My background as both an educator and as a marketing professional offers me a unique perspective to offer understanding and guidance in a manner that is SIMPLE to utilize. My basic premise is: Evil uses cultural forces to create a tug-of-war within our soul. God designed and destined the core of who we are to be radiant with VIRTUE. The demons on the dark side use books, media, advertising and entertainment to tug us toward two destructive extremes. On the one side, marketing and media tempts us with toxins that appeal to our PRIDE. Conversely, those same forces work to stunt our spiritual growth with FEAR.
I’ll show you how this tug-of-war works, and how to simply communicate solutions to children in the form of three articles. This is the first, with a focus on dealing with the toxins rooted in pride. The second will cover the traps that flow from fear. The third article will show how to help young people hold tight to truth & virtue as the core strength in their life.
First, let’s get an understanding, as grownups, of what is going on. Contemporary technology removes the boundaries between communication, advertising and entertainment. Our devices on which we work, and connect with real people, are one click away from ads, entertainment, gaming and more. In order to get and hold our attention, advertising and media uses some very specific techniques to captivate us. These are what I describe as moral excitotoxins. They are small promotional ingredients that are infused both in our media and entertainment itself; and in the massive amounts of marketing and advertising used to promote them.
Years ago, when I was getting my degree in marketing and communications from Saint Louis University, we studied the use of subliminal advertising. (as something deceptive and unprofessional) Creative designers, who were determined to push the envelope on decency standards, would insert subtly erotic images in the ice cubes of alcohol ads, or foul language in the shadow of an ad for outdoor gear. They were expanding the use of the most powerful advertising mechanism to influence human behavior. The seven deadly sins.These are the deadly moral toxins, the addictive soul-poisons which now have become mainstream, and are doing incredible damage to our children and to our society.
A chemical excitotoxin is a substance, like MSG, when added to a food, does two things. It triggers pleasure responses inside the brain and creates desire in us for whatever the chemical is associated with. (See the linked article above to know a bit more.) MSG and Aspartame are called flavor enhancers, but they do nothing to really enrich the actual taste of food. They are brain manipulating chemical advertising put into a food to increase our desire for it, because of the association we make between that food and the chemically-induced “rush” our brain experiences with it.
Media and advertising excitotoxins have a similarly addictive qualities because they affect us on a very deep level. The twisted genius of the advertising and media industries is that they discovered that placing small amounts of what appeals to mankind’s most base selfish instincts in the midst of something very normal or otherwise pleasant, creates a positive and very captivating association. There is SO much in our culture that conflates virtue and vice together for very memorable, and behavior-manipulating, advertising and entertainment. Small impressions of vice are used to sell us on some product or experience, and to sweeten the deal, a little virtue is added … to soften the acceptability of the vice. Like a gourmet flavor profile that blends sweet, salt and heat, the use of moral excitotoxins excite our selfish passions in a very palatable way. They normalize slavery to our appetites. These poisons super-power our ego, and invite us to embrace habits of sin in such gradual ways that we barely realize we have abandoned goodness and God.
When we are immersed in a society in which advertising and media excito-toxins are as common as diet cola, and are very highly sophisticated in the way they are delivered. What in the world is a parent (or a grand-parent) supposed to do? Many try valiantly to fight the good fight, and spend extraordinary amounts of time trying to limit access or redirect children’s experiences away from the stuff that is tasty poison. Other folks try to be more easy going and hope by not drawing undue attention, that somehow the bad will pass by their children and not make a deep impression. Unfortunately, both of those approaches can backfire. What I will recommend might enhance the effectiveness of whatever approach you are trying to navigate with. Helping children discern virtue and vice in what they read, watch and listen to can help. Here are some helpful questions to talk over with your children to sensitize their judgement to notice the content in the media and advertising they experience.
The Deadly Seven Question Key
These are seven simple questions, conversation starters, to help your children learn to discern the bad from the good. This process can be part of a simple and natural conversation while they are watching something or right after a book, an ad, or a video ends. You can teach a young person to be a “spotter” to see that there is yukky content that certain greedy strangers use to get us to think that what is bad … is something good instead. But we aren’t going to let strangers to be the boss of our heads.
These seven questions can help your children avoid bad appetites … that make our hearts hungry for bad or ugly thoughts and behaviors. Children are concrete. They find comfort in knowing what’s bad is bad, and what’s good is good. Here’s the list of questions that can fuel a conversation about any ad, book, film, or music and the toxins that give us an appetite for yukky things.
Here are the questions:
1) Is it Angry?
(Wrath) Are there angry people being mean just to be mean? Is the violence used to look exciting and entertaining? Is killing senseless without any compassion for those who are hurt or killed? That’s yukky. We don’t want the angry appetite to eat us up. Children can learn to distinguish that violence that tastefully depicts acts of valor, in order to show self-sacrifice to save others is noble…and not yukky.
2) Is it Greedy?
(Avarice) In an ad or a story, is the greedy character who wants and/or gets more, more, more, shown as happy and cool? Some greedy people want us to want more all the time in order to get us to buy more stuff from them. Is greed shown as normal in lifestyles that make us want more, more, and more also … all for ourselves, not caring what others have or don’t have? That’s yukky! We don’t want the greedy appetite to eat us up! Self-less generosity is the antidote to the toxin of greed.
3) Is it Sketchy?
(Lust/Explicit) To respect children’s innocence, don’t use the word “sexy.”
It is now too common, and has to much “positive” connotation now associated with it. Use the word “sketchy”. That has a fairly reliably negative connotation … descriptive of something not to be trusted. The “Is it sketchy?” question relates to when private body parts are nearly or fully uncovered, or shown or described in gestures that should be private. This includes special forms of private tenderness that married mommies and daddies share … when those are used in public in ads or for entertainment … That’s yukky! We don’t want the sketchy appetite to eat us up! Some things are private because they are really really special.
4) Is is Envy-y?
(Jealousy) Envy is a very common moral toxin because, like greed, it is effective in getting people to buy stuff. Some of the greedy people think it’s great to make feeling envious or jealous seem as normal as breathing. Envy turns our emotions inside out. It makes enemies out of friends, just because they might have something we want. It pickles our spirit and … That’s yukky! We don’t want the envy appetite to eat us up! We want to celebrate God’s gifts to everyone.
5) Is it Lazy?
(Sloth) Laziness is a very tempting toxin for all of us. All the messages and images in ads and media to keep things easy and convenient are subtle affirmations of laziness and sloth. A low-effort life is stagnant, stale and ultimately lonely. Laziness is a form of selfishness that tells everyone in our life … ”nothing, including you, is worth my effort.” People weren’t meant to be sloths. Living in sloth-y slo-mo doesn’t build internal muscle and strength … That’s yukky! We don’t want the lazy appetite to eat us up! The ability to work hard is a gift that comes with many blessings.
6) Is it Gorg-y? (Gluttony) Subtle relentless conditioning had desensitized everyone to the toxin of gluttony. The “fun” of limitless self-indulgence is hidden in vast amounts of food and drink advertising and media. The effects are evident in the explosion of obesity statistics, and in the amount binge-focused drinking on college campuses and more. For children, self-mastery with food and drink is an important gateway to habits of virtue in other areas. Understanding gluttony is simply knowing not to eat or drink excessively. Gorging on anything till we feel sick is not fun … That’s yukky! We don’t want the selfish gorg-y appetite to eat us up! Moderation enjoys food and drink in an unselfish way.
7) Is it Me-Me?
(Pride) The most poisonous toxin is pride. Any image or message that invites us to put ourselves first, or to celebrate our own goodness, in a way that places God and others as an afterthought, is an appeal to pride. It is an insatiable appetite that requires continual feeding. Children can see the ugly reality of a self-absorbed person. When someone lives as if it’s ALL about ME … That’s yukky! We don’t want the selfish all about me-me appetite to eat us up! Healthy self-confidence flows from a heart that is grateful for God-given gifts and is eager to use them for the good of others.
These questions about the deadly seven help us help children to see the actively destructive quality of the ugly appetites that can abuse our soul. While excitotoxins invite us to reckless sins of commission, the anti-virtues tempt us toward sins of omission. My next article will focus on the far more subtle anti-virtues hidden in advertising and media that are more passive yet no-less deadly.
God bless and protect you and your family till next time!
Copyright 2019 Cathy Gilmore