Noise: How Our Media-Saturated Culture Dominates Lives and Dismantles Families (Ascension Press, 2007, 190 pages).,
On a pastoral visit to a Carthusian monastery in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI offered a penetrating reflection on the problem of the noise in today’s society. Speaking to the monks on the gift which their mission of silence and solitude brings to the Church he said:
“Technical progress, markedly in the area of transport and communications, has made human life more comfortable but also more keyed up, at times even frantic…. In the recent decades, moreover, the development of the media has spread and extended a phenomenon that had already been outlined in the 1960s: virtuality that risks getting the upper hand over reality. Unbeknown to them, people are increasingly becoming immersed in a virtual dimension because of the audiovisual messages that accompany their life from morning to night. The youngest, who were already born into this condition, seem to want to fill every empty moment with music and images, as for fear of feeling this very emptiness. This is a trend that has always existed, especially among the young and in the more developed urban contexts but today it has reached a level such as to give rise to talk about anthropological mutation. Some people are no longer capable of remaining for long periods in silence and solitude.”
The suggestion of an “anthropological mutation” is remarkable, coming from a theologian as precise and measured as Pope Benedict. His words reveal a growing urgency in the need for society to think deeply about the impact of social media on the human person as such. How does over-exposure to audio-visual stimulation affect us on a physical, emotional, social, and spiritual level? Can the intemperate use of digital technology damage us, and, as the pope seems to suggest, even deform us as human persons? If so, in what way?
It is imperative that we begin to ask these questions. Teresa Tomeo’s book is a great stimulus, through its survey of some of the observed effects of media use, specifically on children and families.
Noise is a book directed primarily to families, in an attempt to help alert parents to some of the dangers which unregulated access to the media poses for their children. Her concern is mainly regarding the negative content communicated through the various media channels, although she does speak in a limited way about some of the effects of lack of silence in general. The purpose of her work is not only to warn about the dangers which social media poses to families, but also to encourage parents to fight against these threats in proactive and creative ways through educating their children, limiting their exposure to social media, and pressuring the secular media to improve standards of decency. She expresses a hope that families will work to “take back” the media, so that it may be used for the communication of wholesome values. Tomeo writes: “we see a seemingly impossible task in front of us, actually changing the output and influence of the media in our world… a mission that will restore the true, good and beautiful in a world that is in great need” (p. 163).
Her knowledge of the topic is enriched by her own experience in working for the radio and TV industry. Testifying regarding her time of employment with the secular media, she speaks of a struggle to retain her faith in an environment where broadcast standards were rapidly “spiraling downward,” in which she was continually pressured to forsake objective reporting for the sake of increased ratings. For example, at a “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” conference she interviewed the keynote speaker – a man whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver. After filming what she believed to be a “powerful piece which would raise consciousness about drunk driving for her viewers,” she was horrified when the producer rejected the interview and asked her to capitalize on the man’s grief by taking him back to the scene of the accident and film him in tears.
Within the industry she witnessed increasing pressure from corporate headquarters to sink lower in “the realm of moral decency and journalistic integrity” in order to “crank up the ratings.” Eventually, after reading a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics that encouraged parents not to allow any television viewing for toddlers, and warning of the harmful effects on children which exposure to violence, sexual conduct, and unhealthy food causes in them, Tomeo decided to quit the secular media industry in order to work for Christian-based media companies.
Tomeo explores some of the observed effects of media exposure through a mixture of statistical surveys and personal testimonies. She begins by looking briefly at the harm caused by a lack of self-reflection due to media stimulation. She argues that media dependence drains our capacity for love and inhibits our growth to human maturity. “We are literally being entertained to death,” she writes (p. 32). She also claims that overexposure to the media causes more and more people to forsake the arduous task of thinking logically. She writes, “the intoxicating allure of entertainment found in the media has generated potentially millions of consumers who are simply not thinking. We seem to be merely responding, usually to the position that requires the least amount of thought” (p. 37).
Given the corrosive effects of media over-exposure on human development, Tomeo exhorts parents to take responsibility for protecting their children from it wherever possible.
Next she proceeds to offer documentation on the more specific threats posed by the most used forms of social media: television programs and movies, radio, internet, music, video games, and advertisements. One in five children are reported to have received sexual solicitations while in a chat room. Law enforcement officials believe there are an estimated 50,000 predators using the internet to access children. Obesity is highest among children who watch more than four hours of TV a day. The average student will witness 200,000 acts of violence before graduation from high school, and 16,000 simulated murders.
Tomeo concludes most chapters with practical advice. She encourages family dinner together as a way of combating the narcissistic tendency to drown oneself in isolating technology. She advises parents to be aware of what their children are exposed to, in order both to protect them from the sexually explicit, violent, and materialistic content, and to create opportunities to discuss why these messages are so harmful. She suggests creative ways of limiting the amount of time children are allowed to spend “plugged in.” She exhorts families to take an active role in changing the standards of the media by complaining directly to producers about inappropriate content. Her experience in the industry leads her to believe that their overriding concern for financial profit will cause producers to modify their decency standards if a significant enough outcry demands it. Finally she asks all to pray regularly for all those involved with the media industry.
Tomeo focuses primarily on the observable effects of the media, but she does not look at the deeper philosophical questions about modern technological modes of communication as such. She seems to assume that the media are essentially neutral and only become dangerous by immoderate use and immoral content. She leaves unasked the question of whether technological communication itself has any effect on us merely by being what it is, regardless of the message it is seeking to communicate. Does the primacy of disembodied modes of communication affect our capacity for true dialogue with one another? Does the ever-increasing efficiency of the tools at our disposal bias us toward a specific approach to reality in general? In other words, does our obsession with efficiency ingrain a false way of relating to one another and the world around us? Does it accustom us to approach the whole of reality as a set of objects to be used and then discarded? Does it damage our capacity to sit before the “other” and wait for them to reveal their true selves? Does the silent and gradual self-revelation of a carrot in the ground, or a caterpillar in a cocoon, or a child in the womb, teach us something about the nature of truth that a computer never can? Does the use or over-use of technology blunt our capacity to respond to the world in wonder?
In conclusion, Tomeo’s book is an invaluable aid to parents seeking to guard against the new threats which this digital age uniquely poses to the wellbeing of their children. Her overview of the available studies is extensive and her writing easy to follow. And I believe her work can be a springboard into deeper inquiry. For in understanding the nature of the digital noise which surrounds us, we can come to appreciate the transformative depth of silence and solitude, which as Pope Benedict suggests in his address to the Carthusians, has the capacity for opening us up to a transformative encounter with the living God, with the “fullness” of the Reality that lies beyond the tangible.