It's a bird. It's a plane. It's ... Harry Potter.
Today's youngest Americans have found a new hero and he's up for the "best hero" category for this year's MTV Movie Awards. Not only that, but Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has been nominated in two other categories in a TV network watched by the majority of 12 to 19-year-old teens. And in the last three years, exposure to Harry Potter has doubled, according to a new Barna Group study.
Currently, more than four out of every five teenagers have personally read or watched Harry Potter. Although largely objected by Christian parents and leaders, Harry Potter has been seen or read by 77 percent of all church-going teens and 78 percent of born-again Christian teenagers, the study found.
While more youths have been exposed to the wizardry of the fantasy world than have not, only 4 percent say they have experienced any teaching or discussions in a church about the spiritual themes embedded in Harry Potter. Among born-again teens, 13 percent recalls ever receiving any input from their church on the subject or spiritual themes in the legend.
Parents showed a slightly higher likelihood of addressing the supernatural elements of Harry Potter. One-fifth of all teens and one-third of born again Christian teens said they had discussed those elements with their parents.
"Overall, a majority of teens Christian or other are ingesting the mythology of the child wizard without any guidance from their parents or church leaders. Instead, teens are feeling their way through the spiritual themes either on their own or with the influence of their peers," stated the Barna report.
Beyond exposure, the survey measured the impact of the fantasy story on the young lives. Most teens did not find much spiritual stimulation in Potter except for the "fun-to-read" aspect of the story. Nevertheless, one out of every eight teenagers said that the Potter chronicles increased their interest in witchcraft, which means nearly three million young people has had their interest piqued.
Best-selling British author, journalist and filmmaker Caryl Matrisciana had highlighted various newspaper headlines stating that the Harry Potter phenomenon fuels children's interest in witchcraft and hundreds want to know about local witchcraft covens and learn about spells and other activities.
David Kinnaman, director of the research and vice president of The Barna Group, stated, "While the Potter books generated an unprecedented following, it has been the movies that have helped propel the story into the mainstream of the Mosaic generation. But while the vast majority of teenagers and adolescents find entertainment value in Potter, most Christian leaders and parents have responded by either condemning the series or ignoring it. That response hasnt worked because most teens still consume the stories along with dozens more like it but without the critical input that would help them make sense of the supernatural dimension described in the Potter universe."
For the most part, there were no behavioral differences between those who had been exposed to Potter and those who had not. However, the study found that those exposed to Potter were slightly more likely to use a Ouija board, to have had their fortune told, and to believe they personally have psychic powers. And those not exposed to Potter were actually more likely to say they have been physically present when someone else tried to use psychic powers.
"The research cannot pinpoint cause-and-effect relationships, but it appears that many of the teens who were most likely to be misdirected spiritually by Harry Potter were already struggling in other ways," reported The Barna Group. "That is, many teens who said Potter increased their interest in witchcraft were already isolated from others or were already dabbling in witchcraft-related activities. For this segment of teens, reading the wizard tales helped to confirm attitudes and behaviors that were already present in their lives."
Kinnaman made a few suggestions to parents and youth leaders in addressing the Potter phenomenon.
"The teenage years are an important transition from the leadership of parents to independence and reliance upon God, he said. Instead of simply trying to isolate children from all the spiritually dangerous material available in our media-saturated culture, parents could prepare their kids to be missionaries to their peers and to our society. Even though the approach and even the outcome will look different for every teen, helping teens to respond biblically to the messages of popular culture such as those found in Harry Potter is an important function of parents and church leaders. You do not get a free pass if you are not interested or if you do not enjoy stories like Potter. Young people are avidly consuming contemporary pop legends. Adults can guide them in knowing how to interpret that information and to respond in a Christ-like manner.
"The Bible notes that believers should always be ready to answer questions about their faith whenever people ask, Kinnaman continued. While not minimizing the spiritual danger of stories like Harry Potter, the upside of such content is that it raises questions of purpose, destiny, relationships, isolation, redemption, spiritual power and more the very topics that are so important to the message of Christianity. But, as things stand, many parents and church leaders are letting those spiritual opportunities go to waste."
The recent Barna results are based on three national surveys of teenagers aged 13 to 18. The studies were conducted in 2002 (612 interviews), 2004 (1448 interviews), and 2005 (2280 interviews).