At 10, my granddaughter is old enough to ask questions. Her parents protect her from the violent images of the news. Yet major events, from George Floyd to the Capitol insurgency, are inescapable and have sparked difficult parent-child conversations about racism and violence in America.
Last month in this space, my column titled “The Jan. 6 Warning” exposed the Capitol Riot and the big lie that incited violence and continues to threaten our democracy. When my daughter read the column to my granddaughter, her reaction was “Is grandpa safe?” Her 10-year-old mind flashed on television footage of Capitol violence. Would the mob go after Grandpa now?
We adults urgently need to ask ourselves: have we come to this? What do we do to our children when they see our anger and divisions? What future does our democracy have when our children associate politics with violence and the expression of opinions at the risk of their lives?
Our peril can be understood, in part, through the concept of “media effects”. Research began in the 1930s with the dawn of radio. In the 1970s, the pervasive impacts of television prompted extensive study. Several theories are now well established to explain the media effects we observe today, including the rise of media echo chambers.
To illustrate, consider the week my wife and I spent at Motel 6 in Killeen as we took shelter from Hurricane Harvey. Hour by hour we watched the weather channel. Constant images and descriptions of devastation and destruction heightened our anxiety until, for mental health reasons, we turned off the television and decided not to watch.
Within a week the storm passed and he was sure to get home. On the other hand, we cannot extinguish the constant images of political and racial anger, division and violence. We’ve allowed them to woven themselves too deeply into the everyday fabric of our society – to the point that our children observe the adult world and conclude that divisiveness is the norm.
The “culture theory” of media effects explains that the consumption of media violence cultivates the expectation that the world is a dangerous place. Over time, a “resonance” occurs when real-world experiences are inserted into the frames provided by the media world. Then, as our verbal and physical abuse generates heightened media representations, we are increasingly inclined to reflect on, seek out, and pay attention to those media images.
Our division is further amplified by “selective exposure”. With media choice overload, we reduce clutter by selectively consuming media that we believe will satisfy our needs by reinforcing what we already love and believe.
So, conservatives consume Fox News, liberals consume CNN and MSNBC, and both consume daily news feeds from their favorite digital and social media outlets, right or left. These echo chambers then cultivate on each side the expectation that the world is a dangerous and divisive place – until conservatives and liberals define the real world in terms of their opposing media worlds.
And what about our children? Despite her parents’ best efforts to protect her from age-inappropriate footage, my granddaughter couldn’t avoid every replay of the Capitol Riot. Nor could she avoid associating these violent images with Donald Trump and the pervasive vitriol that consumes our political life. These images and words have cultivated in his mind an expectation that speaking your mind is dangerous. And that provided the framework into which she embedded my newspaper column asking, “Is grandpa safe?”
Yet the innocence of his reaction offers a hopeful lesson. Upon hearing my column about the Capitol Riot, my granddaughter’s first response was not about politics. Her first response was concern for someone she loves.
If only we adults could do the same and, in love, put people above controversy. We must turn back before it is too late – if not for ourselves, then for our children.