It may not be 1984 anymore, but George Orwell’s prediction of the future was nearly spot-on. At any given moment in any public place, everyone’s eyes are glued to a glowing LED-lit screen as if it were life support. While the popular app Candy Crush could be perceived as merely a waste of time, our portable devices are the homes to something much more detrimental: 24/7 negativity at the speed of a simple swipe, a tap, and a swift scroll; they are Pandora’s Box reincarnated.
While some negative media is beneficial and informative, such as the mass news coverage on police brutality in the last two years, it also changes our views on the world. For instance, despite its heightened prevalence in the news, there has not actually been more racially-based attacks by police officers in the last two years or even ten, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But with this increased media attention, it makes us believe it has. While that is not the case, at least it drew awareness to the dire matter. These days, our media is being poisoned by something even more sensational: grown men reenacting the iconic film Mean Girls, titled “The GOP Debate.” We have become malleable sponges passively absorbing what the media serves us on a platter of pixels. Perhaps, and more realistically, we’re being force-fed the flavors of the week.
In 2007, the media painted our world with the Iraq War. Every news outlet saturated our perceptions of politics with repetitive reports for a notable three month period. As analyzed by Maxwell McCombs (University of Texas at Austin) and Amy Reynolds (Indiana University at Bloomington) in Media Effects, “public opinion polls during the same time [showed that people] thought the Iraq War was the most important issue as they began to think about electing a new president in 2008.” They call attention to the notion that because of phenomena like this, the media has a near supreme reign over the mindsets and opinions of the world. Although McCombs and Reynolds do note that “traditional journalism” is for informational purposes, they emphasize the fact that journalism has tripped and fallen into a land of persuasion. Besides the introduction and advancement of new technologies for media platforms, this trend is unfortunately nothing new. A 1981 study exemplifies the relationship of man and media by comparing public opinion and content of the New York Times during the years 1954 to 1976. Using this information and 27 Gallup polls, a strong positive correlation of +0.71 emerged.
Our generation is a special one marinating in constant negative media. In 1995, the National Election study Pilot Study noted that the “viewing of crime dramas significantly increased concerns about crime.” This statistic is worrisome given the growing volume of crime-based television programs. Entertainment media impacts our thinking; it gives us ideas.
Although there are many similar cases from past years that escalated further, a recent almost fatal crime involved two teenage girls who were inspired by a popular film with links to other real-life murders. They were also inspired by a school shooting from a town ten miles away: Columbine — a name recognizable to the majority of Americans due to its mass-coverage on the news in 1999. According to the Denver Post, these two girls plotted to “execute a mass shooting” and all of the evidence was laid out in a neat digital paper trail. Like Dylan Klebold of Columbine, one of the girls involved, Sienna Johnson, was heavily influenced by Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and wrote about it in a journal entry. While Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the screenplay) is an incredibly artistic, clever, memorable, and powerful director, and even his most avid followers would never think of actually killing someone, situations like this should remind society of the impact of negative media.
Another incredulous scenario was inspired by the video game Slender, a cult favorite. In 2014, two Wisconsin girls (both age 12) lured their close friend into the deserted woods of Milwaukee during a sleepover. Their motive was simple: to stab their friend because they wanted to please Slender Man — a fictional character from the game. The extent of their vicious, inhumane actions were so severe that the two girls are being tried as adults for attempted first-degree murder. As of March 2015, one of the girls was 13 years old and the other was still 12. Barely even teenagers, a video game was able to impact and derail the trajectory of their futures.
What does this all say? Is the media our enemy? Is there some external force trying to corrupt the minds of our children and dictate American politics? Is this creativity and freedom of expression or is this fear-mongering and manipulation? Are journalists becoming the loud speakers in a totalitarian nation blaring propaganda? Is the 2016 presidential campaign a product of the media and are we its victims? Should we escape the media or continue to bathe in its entirety, cross our fingers, and hope for the best? Is the modern world merely the set of a sci-fi thriller with a subpar cast?
So, how does anything aforementioned relate to our nation wading in a treacherous pool of negativity?
This is the part when (acclaimed psychiatrist) Aaron T. Beck’s Cognitive Theory of Depression flails its arms to remind us of its very real existence. Beck’s model consists of one major factor; he stated that depression stems from negative thoughts. Though research does show hereditary and biological causes of depression, Beck’s Theory still holds validity to some extent. Beck was a cognitive theorist, so his findings were a breakthrough in that field and are still referenced today.
With Beck’s philosophy and pop culture’s romanticization of suicide in mind, it is regrettably not a surprise that self-inflicted demise is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-24 in America, according to the Center for Disease Control. Indie-turned-pop singer Lana Del Rey, who to many teenagers epitomizes 21st Century coolness, is infamous for her beautification of premature death, drugs, and other concepts we would have categorized as taboo in the 1950s. Her initial claim to fame was an album titled “Born to Die.” From the release in 2011 onwards, she inspired existential nihilism to become trendy amongst millennial teens with her “die young” tattoo and melodic desensitization. However, unlike other less-talented Lana Del Rey copycats who get away with promoting these negative ideals as a poor attempt to appear “edgy,” she has actually gotten reprimanded for her reverse rosy-tinted view of the world. In 2014, Frances Bean Cobain, daughter of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, publicly asserted that “the death of young musicians is nothing to romanticize.” This was in response to Lana Del Rey’s statement saying, “I wish I was dead already.” Though Del Rey claimed the sentence was taken out of context by the interviewer, it is understandable why Cobain sprung to action. Around this time, Lana Del Rey had recently released another dreamy indie pop album titled “Ultraviolence” — another glorification of negativity and suffering. This album, like her others, simply perpetuated her fantasy of an early death masked in sonorous sounds that the average listener would prefer to call “sophisticated.” Even though the two have made amends, we need more people like Frances Bean Cobain — who was not afraid to remind Lana Del Rey that her words have impact and meaning with or without specific intent.
To slightly shift focus, take synth-pop superstar Passion Pit, for example. After a period of silence from the group, “Gossamer” (their second studio album) arose in 2012. Behind the youthfully euphoric one-man-band synths is Michael Angelakos, a bipolar man who is currently 28 years old. Straightforward songs from “Gossamer,” such as “Take a Walk” and “Carried Away,” leave a small amount of interpretation up to the listener. “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy,” on the other hand, gives away some of its meaning in the title and nothing more. With a minimal amount of research, one can discover that Angelakos wrote this track to figuratively describe his constant battle with his mental disorder. The chilling chorus conveys to the reader the continual confusion he experiences daily, debating with reality and bipolar disorder. Despite the theme of negativity, which was based off of his past suicide attempts, substance abuse problems, and mental illness, what makes Passion Pit’s music positive is the constructive underlying message: there are other people going through the same issues. This is what makes negative-themed music positive. There is a great difference between lyrics that enforce and enable and lyrics that save and support. Unfortunately, not enough music falls in the latter category.
The majority of readers may perceive this essay to be anti-media or yet another persuasive piece exploiting the emotions and experiences of the reader. On the contrary, this essay is completely the opposite. I am writing this from an objective standpoint. I am writing based off of personal observation — nothing more. I am not saying that we should throw our cell phones off of the Brooklyn Bridge to rid ourselves from digital mind-control. I am not suggesting we put paper bags over our heads to ensure we don’t accidentally become engrossed by a technicolor billboard. I am not standing behind the concept that were are in “digital hell.” I am not alluding to any notion pertaining to the rejection of technology, for that matter. I am writing this to draw awareness. I am writing this to hopefully offer a new perspective. I am writing this as a call to action.
If George Orwell’s Animal Farm model of some members of society being “more equal than others” were to be applied to our culture, why should we allow the effects of negative media to be the supreme level of authority? Why are we the sheep?
Nobody ever aspired to become a sheep of the digital age.
We need to start from the most minute aspects of our own lives and work from there. Positivity starts from the individual, but as a whole, as a globe, we must then work together in unity. I recognize that this takes on a vibe somewhere between the Lorax and John Lennon, but it is imperative for the mood of the world (and even those simply around us) that we all do our part. Even in everyday conversation, bringing in positivity can affect not just the person to whom you’re talking, but also, consequently, everyone that person encounters that day. When we take a step back from the negativity we innately accept, everything appears clear, as opposed to enveloped by a hazy coating. Positivity is contagious; spread it; smother the world in it.