The power of stories
We human beings come from a long line of storytellers. For many centuries our ancestors sat around campfires telling tales. Though the hearth of the kitchen table replaced the campfire for contemporary U.S. families, the storytelling didn’t stop. The stories came in all different sizes and shapes. Some recounted the news of the day with a bit of drama, humor or exaggeration for spice. Some were for entertainment, while still others were intended for a moral lesson. Some were forgotten in minutes while others survived for thousands of years.
One of the wonderful things about stories is that they have meaning for everyone, both children and adults, who hears or reads them, no matter what his or her age. For example, a story like “The Good Samaritan” can teach a young child the importance of helping one another. However, an adult who knows that Samaritans were a despised lower class is also reminded of the harm done by prejudice. Same story but different levels of understanding.
Stories teach us who we are and who we want to be
Stories have long occupied a critical role in teaching cultural norms and values. Stories are a very potent tool to communicate what is, and is not important to a group. Stories identify our heroes and the characteristics giving them that status. For example, Charlotte’s Web underlines the importance of bravery and honesty. The Three Little Pigs stresses doing a job well and thoroughly. Whether they’re children’s stories or adult novels thousands of words long, stories have great power in defining and shaping culture.
Outsourcing storytelling to mass media
While the important role of storytelling has remained constant over time, a monumental change has happened in the past sixty years. Since World War II we have delegated an ever larger portion of the storytelling function to mass media, especially television and video games. This has changed who tells the stories and how they are told.
Parents, teachers, pastors, elders, authors, and sages have been replaced as the primary storytellers by teams of Hollywood and video game scriptwriters, producers, directors and gamers. Tales told in gatherings, large or small, or tales read under the covers late at night have been replaced by multimillion-dollar electronic productions.
Whereas stories used to be heard or read, mass media stories are delivered with a wide array of audiovisual effects. And, while stories used to slowly make their way through a society, mass media stories are spread to billions of people all over the world in a matter of seconds.
The promise of digital voices
There are clear benefits to this new type of storytelling. The technology driving this change, for example, throws open new windows of understanding and enables our stories to cross geographical and cultural boundaries. Some have taken this art to new heights and expanded our understanding of the human experience. Many media savvy young people are combining new and old traditions by creating digital storytelling projects that give voice to their stories and perspectives.
The downside: Delivering “eyeballs to advertisers”
Unfortunately, there is also a downside. While the goals of former storytellers were entertainment, education or inspiration, the primary goal of most mass media storytelling is to “deliver eyeballs to advertisers.” Most of the mass media storytelling is now done to sell things. That shift is purpose is a crucial one. It means that the purpose of the story is to get and hold our attention long enough for the advertisers to get their message in front of us. Selling is primary. Entertainment, education and inspiration are often secondary considerations. Whatever kind of story works at delivering eyeballs is the one that proliferates.
One of the things that reliably get people’s attention is violence. Another is sex. Because they work so well at getting attention, they are dominant themes in many of mass media stories. Even though the primary goal is not to teach, a great deal of learning is going on because stories are such good teaching devices.
Violence is a clear case in point. Because violence is so prominent in mass media stories, the average child will witness 200,000 acts of violence before he or she graduates from high school. This includes 20,000 murders. The real impact of this diet of violent entertainment, in my opinion, isn’t just violent behavior. The most harmful effect is that it has created and nourished a culture of disrespect. Whoever tells the stories defines the culture. For every young person who picks up a gun to shoot another student or teacher, there are thousands who aren’t doing that. But too many are calling each other names, pushing, shoving, and hitting with increasing frequency. The storytellers have redefined how we’re supposed to treat one another. Too often, we’ve gone from “have a nice day,” to “make my day.” Our kids have not missed the lesson.
What stories are you telling?
This generation of children is exposed to more stories, more powerfully presented, than any in history. Some are good. Too many are not. We, as parents, have to be more careful in choosing our children’s media stories. We also need to arm our children with the digital skills to tell the stories that reflect their values, not those of advertisers. Why? “Because whoever tells the stores, defines the culture.”