Issue 108, Winter 2008/2009

by Joan Bertin

To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, for every complex problem, there’s a simple solution — and it’s almost always wrong. Mencken must be smiling at the proposal to address the complex problem of teen smoking by including warnings to parents about movies that contain smoking, like the warnings about sex and violence.

Anti-smoking advocates argue that movies depicting people smoking should get an “R” rating, which would bar kids under 17 unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. Discouraging teen smoking is a laudable goal. Everyone knows that smoking is bad for your health, and that getting hooked young is particularly bad. But it’s a troubling conceit that controlling what kids see in the movies (or read in books, etc.) will prevent them from getting the “wrong” ideas or engaging in undesirable behavior.

Kids don’t exist in a cocoon that admits only socially approved messages. They observe real people smoking all the time, at home, on the streets, at parties and at friend’s houses. They also see people drinking and engaging in other risky behaviors. Whether they see films rated R for sexual content or not, they learn about sex from friends, the internet, books (including classics), and suggestive advertisements. Nor do ratings protect kids from violence — they read about, and sometimes experience, real violence — family violence, gang violence, random violence, war, torture. How young people, with different experiences, circumstances and personalities, respond to the multiple and sometimes mixed messages they receive from the media, parents, teachers, peers and the culture at large, is a complicated business.

Simplistic solutions suggesting false causeand- effect relationships apparently still have considerable appeal. Consider abstinence-only sex education. Conventional wisdom is that teens should refrain from sexual activity. This is the rationale for teaching them to “just say no,” and censoring information about sex that might give them other ideas. But it’s increasingly clear that abstinence-only programs don’t work (see below). To develop healthy attitudes and prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancies, young people also need information about sex, contraceptives and condoms.

Just as there’s no evidence that teaching young people about sex causes them to engage in sexual activity, there’s no evidence that media violence causes young people to commit violent acts — nor is it clear whether, or to what extent, media contributes to “aggressive” or “anti-social” behavior. Claims that seeing actors smoke onscreen will cause kids to smoke is the latest in a long line of efforts to attribute social ills to media or other cultural influences. Before TV, film, and video games, there were efforts to censor dime novels, true crime stories, and comics, all of which in their time were blamed for the perceived problems of youth.

Sanitizing culture to rid it of “bad” influences may be appealing. But it’s bad for kids and for culture. It’s a relatively transparent effort to manipulate, which rarely works, as we have seen.  Censorship, as the saying goes, protects ignorance, not innocence.