SOUTH BEND, Ind. — With the arrival of Lent, the Dunlap family of South Bend, Ind., will once again go unplugged. It’s something the family of seven has done for several years during Advent and Lent — fasting from television.

“For the first day or so the children aren’t sure what to do,” said Jay Dunlap, who has authored Raising Kids in the Media Age, which will be published in 2007 by Circle Press. “After a couple of days, their first instinct isn’t to turn on the television, but to figure out what and how they will play together. Within a day or two they are playing together more nicely and creatively.”

Dunlap’s approach highlights the important role parents play in their children’s consumption of media offerings. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the topic during his recent message for World Communications Day 2007.

In the Pope’s appeal, which was published Jan. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, he stressed the importance of proper formation of children by the media, and the formation of children to respond appropriately to the media.

“Educating children to be discriminating in their use of the media is a responsibility of parents, Church and school,” said Pope Benedict. “Any tendency to produce programs and products — including animated films and video games — which in the name of entertainment exalt violence and portray anti-social behavior or the trivialization of human sexuality is a perversion, all the more repulsive when these programs are directed at children and adolescents.”

According to recent studies, the media are consuming ever-greater amounts of time, hindering interpersonal relationships and presenting viewers with increased amounts of violence and sexual content.

According to “Dying to Entertain,” a new television study on television violence released by the Parents Television Council, violence on prime time television has increased 75% since 1998.

“This new study shows that violence on television is alarmingly more frequent and more disturbing than anything we’ve seen before,” said Tim Winter, president the advocacy group. “Not only was there more on-screen violence than ever before, but the discussions of violent crimes were more explicit and the violence depicted was far more graphic.”

Melissa Caldwell, senior director of programs with the Parents Television Council, said that producers, advertisers and parents are all to blame.

“There’s enough blame to go around,” she said. “Producers are pushing the envelope, advertisers are willing to pay for it and parents are watching it with their children.”

“The Nielsen data shows that ‘CSI’ is one of the top-rated shows for children ages 2 to 11,” said Caldwell. “The consensus of the medical health community and over 1,000 studies is that there is a direct causal relationship between media violence and aggressive behavior, reduced empathy and children having unrealistic fears about the world.”

Other studies have demonstrated different alarming trends. Another Parents Television Council study, “Faith in a Box,” found that negative depictions of religion were prevalent on all of the major television networks. If religion was portrayed at all, it tended to be negative with no other characterization offered for balance. On Fox, for example, one of every two depictions of faith was anti-religious.

A Washington Times study performed by Los Angeles-based Kelton Research found that 65% of adults surveyed admitted to spending more time with their computers than with their spouses or significant others.

Perhaps most surprising is the finding in a national study released by the cable network Nickelodeon that popular technology, such as the Internet, has not reduced television consumption. The amount of time parents and children spend watching television has increased by about two hours per week since Nickelodeon’s previous study in 2002.

“People are spending more time consuming media than in relationships, and the relationships suffer,” said Teresa Tomeo, host of Ave Maria Radio’s “Catholic Connection” and author of the recently published book Noise: How Our Media-Saturated Culture Dominates Lives and Dismantles Families. “Technology is supposed to make it easier to communicate, but it’s driving us apart.”

This is compounded, said Tomeo, because with iPods, laptop computers and cell phones, people can bring media with them anywhere.

Regardless of the content, Dunlap suggests that media affect our relationships with others.

“Whether you’re watching the greatest television show in history or junk, either way it turns our attention to the screen rather than toward one another,” he said. “The medium itself affects how we relate to the most important people in our lives.”

Dunlap said that the total bombardment of turning the home into a media center reminds him of the late Canadian philosopher and scholar Marshall McLuhan’s description of media as a “central nervous system existing outside the human body.”

“We’re reduced to nerves in the system, bound to react to the next stimulus that gives us a jolt,” said Dunlap, who is a teacher at Sacred Heart Apostolic School, a school run by the Legionaries of Christ for boys who are discerning a vocation to the priesthood. With the advent of television, cable, radio, satellite radio, iPods, computers and the Internet, Dunlap said that McLuhan’s description is “even more true than when he wrote those words in 1964.”

Friday Morning Quarterback — a trade publication that serves the radio industry — has speculated that the new Democratic-controlled Congress may put increased pressure on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to better enforce decency standards.

“Congress is hearing from people that want the airwaves cleaned up,” FCC Commissioner Michael Copps told the Register. “Congress has not stepped up to the plate regarding violence. It’s as big of a problem as graphic sex. It’s a glaring problem that we need to do something about.”

“I hope the broadcast community hears that,” added Copps. “I wish they would devote as much resources into developing family-friendly programming as they do in suing the FCC.”

Media industry watchers expect the FCC to issue a major report on media violence in the coming months.

Aside from the government’s response, it’s the individual response that counts.

“I loved the Pope’s statement because it shows how the Church gets it,” said Tomeo. “It starts with the parents. They must take control of the media outlets in their home.”

Both Tomeo and Dunlap offered tips for controlling the media inside the home. They agreed that the No. 1 thing parents can do is to remove televisions and computers from the bedrooms.

“Parents wonder why they don’t connect with their children anymore,” said Dunlap.

He also recommends filtered Internet access and rationing media access.

Tomeo also suggests doing an assessment of how much media usage is being done in the home, and taking further action.

“Families need to stop to think if they are spending more time with their gadgets than with other people,” said Tomeo. “Families should also get involved with activist organizations such as the Parents Television Council, and write letters, send e-mails and make telephone calls.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.