May 1, 2006

From the Archives

Harry Potter’s Influence Goes Unchallenged in Most Homes and Churches

Each generation has its popular legends and heroes – from Superman to G.I. Joe, and Rambo to Luke Skywalker. Through the years, these stories and many others have formed a type of American mythology. One of the country’s newest heroes is Harry Potter, the coming-of-age wizard who stars in J.K. Rowling’s imaginary world. Featured in a decade-long stream of novels and movies, the child wizard has generated a massive following among today’s youngest Americans. According to a study conducted by the Barna Group, exposure to Harry Potter – including reading at least one book or watching at least one movie – has doubled in the last three years. Currently, more than four out of every five teenagers (84%) have personally read or watched Potter.

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Missing in Action?

Harry Potter has experienced broad popularity because his appeal cuts across demographic and religious lines. The vast majority of teens – regardless of gender, ethnicity, faith, or other characteristics – has been personally exposed to the story. For instance, even a large majority of teenagers from groups that have objected most stridently to the stories of wizards and witchcraft have indulged in this fantasy world. Three-quarters of all church-going teens (77%) and born again Christian teenagers (78%) have seen or read Potter.

Despite widespread exposure to the Potter story, few teens – just 4% – say they have experienced any teaching or discussions in a church about the spiritual themes embedded in the wizard-in-training legend. Among born again teens, a minority (13%) recalls ever receiving any input from their church on the subject or spiritual themes of Harry Potter.

Parents are somewhat more likely than churches to address the spiritual themes of Potter with their children. However, only one-fifth of all teens and one-third of born again Christian teens said they had discussed the supernatural elements of Harry Potter 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.

How Potter Influences Teens

Compelling fiction certainly has an effect on people’s perspectives and values. But just how deep is the influence of Harry Potter? The vast majority of teens explain that they did not find much spiritual stimulation in Potter beyond experiencing a “fun-to-read” story. Yet, one out of every eight teenagers (12%) said that the Potter chronicles increased their interest in witchcraft. That translates to nearly three million young people whose interest has been piqued.

In examining the behavioral differences between those who had been exposed to Potter and those who had not, the research explored engagement in a dozen different witchcraft and psychic-related activities. On eight of those 12 dimensions “Potter teens” were no different than those who had not been exposed to Potter ” and in the four dimensions of difference, the results were mixed. 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. But 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. 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.

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Helping Teens

David Kinnaman, the director of the research, put the Harry Potter phenomenon into perspective. “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 hasn’t 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.”

Kinnaman, who is Vice President of The Barna Group, suggested that parents and youth leaders take to heart Jesus’ instruction that believers should be “in, but not of” the world. “The teenage years are an important transition from the leadership of parents to independence and reliance upon God. 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. 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.”

Detailed findings regarding the impact of, and response to the Harry Potter materials is found in a new report by Kinnaman based on the Barna data, entitled Ministry to Mosaics: Teens and the Supernatural.    The 47-page resource – available only through the company’s website is designed to help youth workers, pastors, and parents understand and respond to the spiritual needs of America’s youth when it comes to this significant ministry subject. The research was co-sponsored by Mark Matlock of WisdomWorks Ministries.

Research Details

The data described in this article are based on three national surveys of teenagers (ages 13 to 18). The studies were conducted in 2002 (612 interviews), 2004 (1448 interviews), and 2005 (2280 interviews). The 2002 research was conducted by telephone, while the two recent surveys were completed online. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the 2002 sample is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level; the 2004 and 2005 studies have sampling error rates of ±2.6 and ±2.2 percentage points, respectively, at the 95% confidence level. All teenagers in the 48 contiguous states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents in the survey sample corresponds to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. teen population. The data were subjected to slight statistical weighting procedures to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions.

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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