By Mark Pattison
WASHINGTON (CNS) – It can be tedious and painstaking work to watch hour after hour of television and to take note of each and every bad and unwholesome thing that occurs on the screen. Yet, some people do this as their job.
You can see their efforts when you look at that black box with the white numbers and letters at the start of every TV show. Still others do it to score points with their constituencies, either parental or political.
Despite the obvious drudgery of looking at bad stuff, people who do that work know what all the bad words and acts of violence are and when skin is better covered up by clothing.
Now, imagine having to watch hour after hour of not only TV, but also movies and videos – not to look for bad stuff, but for good stuff. That requires value judgments to be made. It may be more challenging, but the job satisfaction can be worth it.
That’s what Common Sense Media is proposing with its new character development rating system.
Valuable Character Traits
After polling parents about what character traits they most want to see displayed in the entertainment their children view, 11 qualities drew the most favor: courage, teamwork, self-control, perseverance, integrity, humility, gratitude, empathy, curiosity, compassion and communication.
Then Common Sense’s reviewers had to be trained on what to look for on screen when those traits are displayed.
Remember, too, that there are hundreds of movies released every year, an estimated 400 scripted TV series, plus videos and video games. That could be a lot to slog through. But Common Sense’s reviewers did, and have the results posted on their website, commonsensemedia.org.
“Every review now that we do for movies and TV, reviewers will look specifically for those 11” traits, said Yalda T. Uhls, director of creative community partnerships for Common Sense Media.
Children may be seeing some of these traits already, but not in context, Uhls told Catholic News Service. “You can’t just put a kid in front of this stuff and expect them pick it up,” she said. “You need to connect it to their daily experience. … We want to help parents be able to do that.”
Two of the many such programs are “Guess How Much I Love You,” an animated adaptation of the classic children’s book, which demonstrates gratitude, and the since-canceled – but not before 126 episodes were made – Disney Channel animated series “Phineas and Ferb,” which teaches humility; Phineas and his largely silent stepbrother never tried to lord it over big sister Candace, who was almost always out to bust them for any of their summertime hijinks.
Interested in movies that inspire compassion? For kids ages 3 and up, there’s “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”; for ages 5 and up, there’s “Frozen”; for ages 6 and up, try “Despicable Me”; for ages 9 and up, the 1949 version of “Little Women” (just to show that not all films have to be cartoons to display character strengths); and for ages 12 and up, there’s the documentary “Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football,” about Muslims playing high school football in a Detroit suburb.
Uhls is one person with faith in media. “If media can teach negative, it can teach positive,” she said.
“Kids love this stuff, and sometimes they’ll respond to it more than (to) a parent or a teacher, especially as they get older.”
She added, “You can’t tell a straight-ahead narrative with no conflict in it and expect a teenager to trust it. At a certain age, kids sort of bring their own point of view to it. We want them to bring a little critical thinking to it. Characters face ethical dilemmas. We all face ethical dilemmas. It’s nothing black and white. We want to help parents and kids and anyone who’s working with your children to bring out the morality, the moral, the part of the lesson that hopefully will help with what they can identify with, what they can learn from.”
This kind of work doesn’t come cheap. This project was funded with grants from the Templeton Foundation and the Bezos Family Foundation – established by the parents of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Uhls is hopeful funding will continue. “Maybe we can create little lessons so teachers can use this in schools,” she said.
Mark Pattison writes about entertainment for Catholic News Service.