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Media matters: R-rated films, violent video games may lower religious practice of teens, young adults

A steady diet of watching movies such as “Ted” and “Saw” through “Saw VI” may keep young people out of the pews, suggests a new study of R-rated films and religiosity.

Viewing films with content that in general may be hostile or dismissive of religious teachings was associated with decreased worship attendance and lower importance of faith in a study of young people by a Baylor University researcher published online in the Review of Religious Research.

It is not alone in making the connection.

A separate study of 500 young adults found that the more they played violent video games or viewed pornography, the less likely they were to spend time in such practices as attending services, prayer or Bible study.

Other studies have associated viewing R-rated media with drug and alcohol use, and viewing pornography with binge drinking and having more sexual partners.

But the new research suggests the viewing choices young people make also can influence their spiritual lives.

It is more complex than a simple “content in, action out” principle where young people emulate the behavior they see on screen. Still, researchers are finding many young adults appear to struggle with the radically different messages of “Machete Kills” or “Grand Theft Auto” and the Sermon on the Mount.

Testing the waters

Few young people, even the most religious, are outside the influence of R-rated films, Baylor University researcher Phil Davignon reported in his study analyzing data from three waves of the National Study of Youth and Religion.

Less than 1 percent of the teens and young adults who said their faith is not important at all said that none of the videos or movies they watch are rated R, but 86 percent said some, most or all of the movies they watch are R-rated.

Just 5 percent of those who said their faith is very important never watched R-rated movies, but more than seven in 10 said at least some of the films they view are rated R. Those who said their faith is extremely important were less likely to view such films, but 57 percent said some, most or all of the movies they watch are R-rated.

The frequency of viewing R-rated movies in the 2005 survey had a negative influence on both church attendance and how participants described the importance of their faith in the 2007-2008 wave of the study, Davignon reported.

Another study of undergraduate and graduate students at five universities found that the more participants played violent video games and watched pornography, the less likely they are to be religiously active or say their faith is extremely important or a major source of meaning in their life.

“Negative media use was related negatively both directly and indirectly … to religious faith,” researchers Carolyn McNamara Barry of Loyola University Maryland and Laura Padilla-Walker and Larry Nelson of Brigham Young University reported in the Journal of Adult Development.

Keeping dialogue open

The research cannot establish causal relations between viewing sexually explicit and violent content and spiritual practices. And the studies have limitations such as the inability to associate specific movies and games with lower attendance.

But the associations found are important, researchers say.

“These results are substantively significant because they suggest that religiosity may be influenced not only by traditional modes of socialization such as peers and family, but also by media content, such as that found in R-rated movies,” Davignon wrote of his study in the Review of Religious Research.

Today’s young adults may be particularly impressionable as they seek independence from parents while delaying commitments such as marriage and parenthood that could develop greater maturity and broader moral perspectives on media violence and sexuality. All at a time when the Internet and shifts in cultural attitudes have made such content more accessible and acceptable.

“It becomes a bit of a perfect storm,” Barry said.

Parents and religious leaders may not be without influence, however.

The Baylor study of religion and R-rated movies found young people were more likely to view faith as important if parents monitored media use.

A takeaway for religious groups appears to be the value of greater outreach to young adults, Barry said.

“They need to stay in the conversation,” Barry said. “Having that dialogue … is key.”

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