On December 3, MTV announced the launch of “A Thin Line,” a multi-year initiative aimed at stopping the spread of abuse through sexting, cyberbullying, and digital dating. MTV says that the goal of the initiative is to empower America's youth to identify, respond to, and block the spread of the various forms of digital harassment. While MTV’s program deserves an honorable mention, the network misses the mark by ignoring its complicity in glorifying mores associated with sexting, bullying, and dating abuse; failing to promote the family; and failing to enlist religious leaders.
“A Thin Line” rolled out the same week MTV and the Associated Press released a report citing the full scope of digital abuse by teens and young adults. According to the study, 50 percent of 14-to-24-year-olds have been the target of some form of digital abuse; 30 percent have sent or received nude photos of other young people on their cell phones or online; and 12 percent of those who have sexted have contemplated suicide, a rate four times higher than that found among those who have refrained.
During the program launch Stephen Friedman, general manager of MTV, says "There is a very thin line between private and public, this moment and forever, love and abuse, and words and wounds. ‘A Thin Line’ is built to empower our audience to draw their own line between digital use and digital abuse."
While it helpfully encourages teens to report abuse, MTV seems incapable of getting to the root of the problem: namely, the cultivation of prudence that orients a teen’s choices at the outset. Empowering an audience of teenagers is futile if teens are not encouraged to tap the wisdom of their parents.
Soliciting parental wisdom regarding appropriate cell phone usage, accountability, and navigating the social morass of adolescence is a key to teens’ proper development. It is a parent’s joy and calling to do their best to instill moral wisdom and protect their children from evil. Sexting, bullying, and neurotic text messaging in dating relationships will remain a problem as long as teens are not aspiring to love what is good in community. The primary place where children are nurtured to this end is the family.
Parents themselves need to be encouraged to fulfill this responsibility. Many parents care more about their children’s financial success than they do about their character and integrity. Dr. Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege, laments that while many teens are academically successful and materially comfortable, they lack moral agency and the “ability to act appropriately in one’s best interest.” By promoting parents merely as a place to report abuse after the fact, MTV is missing a huge opportunity to enrich the public good.
MTV should do three things. First, do all it can to empower its audience to involve parents before abuse starts instead of after the fact. MTV could do more to promote the virtues of healthy family life in its programming.
Second, cease the glorification of careless sexuality and interpersonal conflict by canceling shows celebrating the thin line between “love and abuse, and words and wounds.” Programs like Jersey Shore, The Real World, The Hills, and My Super Sweet 16, glamorize greed, envy, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, and arrogance. MTV’s left hand profits from “thin line” programming while the right hand now condemns its own broadcasting ethos.
Third, MTV needs subversive innovation in order to broaden its partnerships. MTV’s current partners include Facebook, MySpace, LoveIsRespect.org, and others, but cell phone practices are moral issues requiring the insights of religious wisdom. Interpersonal ethics is an area begging for the time-tested expertise of our religious communities, and to ignore those institutions is to ignore the core foundations of civil society.
“A Thin Line” represents a new opportunity for MTV to demonstrate radical progressiveness. Instead, courageous moral leadership is traded off for band-aid solutions concerned only with consequences. Progressive institutions address real issues at their root causes. To be serious about confronting abuse, MTV needs to look in the mirror, and cooperate with rather than undermine the adults who are trying to impart the message of human dignity to the next generation.