How can people find interest in serious and rational ideas if they are constantly fed trivial entertainment?
British theorist William Stephenson formulated a theory, namely, the "play theory", of mass communication. For him, the principal function of the mass media is to provide people with pleasure.
Offering pleasure-oriented content, the mass media allows the audiences to enjoy themselves and escape everyday worries and stress. The media becomes a source of fun and amusement for them. They hardly depend on it to receive information and education.
But neglecting the other important functions of the media such as informing and educating people can have grave consequences on the cultural environment.
How can people find interest in serious and rational ideas if they are constantly fed trivial entertainment by the media?
Nowadays, in our newspapers, reports about rapes appear all too often, making us anxious about growing debauchery in society. Crimes committed by teenage gangs are reported about frequently, too, indicating an increase in juvenile delinquency.
We are also witnessing a tendency of gender-insensitive, abusive, and indecent remarks on Facebook. In recent years, we observed the involvement of young people in religious terrorism as well, which shows the youngsters' failure to think rationally.
Also, young people often seem far too sensitive these days. As they become so easily offended, they are vulnerable to committing completely unreasonable acts such as suicide when scolded or insulted by someone, or if any of their desires is not fulfilled.
Only those suffering from a lack of rational attitude and good taste are likely to commit such acts.
Many in our society today show an enormous appetite for fun-filled, entertaining elements. Recently, a fairly frivolous and gaudily performed song "Babu Khaiso" (have you eaten, babe?) became immensely popular.
When the option to create avatars became available on Facebook, the social networking site was immediately flooded with users' cartoon doppelgangers. But do many people today show a similar interest in our political history and reading serious literary works?
In my professional capacity, I meet with students of different leading universities regularly. I have been observing for several years now that the knowledge of many students about our Liberation War is frustratingly inadequate. They also do not know much about the political events of post-independence Bangladesh.
When I ask today's university students about famous books such as Jawaharlal Nehru's "Bishwa Itihaas Proshongo" or Rahul Sankrityayan's "Volga theke Ganga" or the famous novels of Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Shaukat Osman, Showkat Ali, and Shahidullah Kaiser, I discover that most of them have not read these books.
They are also not familiar with many important and much-discussed works of world literature. The sorry state of their knowledge indicates that the habit of reading serious books has fallen in decline over the years.
Recently, I asked some graduate students of the University of Dhaka if they knew the discipline of Professor Emeritus Serajul Islam Choudhury. To my sheer surprise, a few of them answered in the negative.
After a few days, I asked some first-year students about the distinguished scholar and found that they did not even know his name.
Professor Serajul Islam is still highly active in publishing books and newspaper columns. Yet, some students of the country's most reputed university do not know about him.
Although people's deeper engagement with mass media content is one of the typical traits of today's society, I have observed that in our society many students do not read newspaper reports and columns. But television dramas, films, reality shows, and music programmes attract a big audience.
Brightly-coloured entertainment pages of the newspapers often publish stories and pictures of showbiz stars. Also, the information that Argentinean football superstar Lionel Messi will not leave the La Liga club Barcelona becomes front-page news of our national dailies.
So, it is not surprising that many people in our society today know a lot about the heroes and heroines of Bangla and Hindi entertainment-driven cinemas, glamorous performers of television dramas, superstars of world football, celebrity cricket players, and popular musicians.
Mass media contents significantly influence the upbringing of the youngsters and behavioural patterns and tastes of the adults. And do we think of the impact of the contemporary pleasure-driven media products on many in our society?
In almost all of our contemporary television dramas and web series, our society seems calm and untroubled where people do not need to grapple with serious social issues.
Young men and women wearing trendy outfit appear as protagonists and they only talk about mundane matters concerning their romantic longings or married life.
They are seen living in expensively furnished apartments, enjoying meals in high-priced restaurants, using the latest mobile phones, driving spanking new cars, and visiting holiday resorts.
But they never discuss the country's past. And burning issues of the day do not seem to bother them, too. Their lives only pivot around their relationships and they remain fully unconcerned with social situations.
These characters neither read books and newspapers nor are they seen discussing contemporary problems or historical events. Do the dramas, then, not convey the idea, subliminally, that books, newspapers, social and political awareness, and sense of history have no importance in people's lives?
Most of these productions also have a happy ending. Thought-provoking dialogues are not used, but puerile humour and frivolous remarks often accompany the narrative events. So, these dramas, devoid of artistic expression and social message, provide nothing but trivial entertainment.
They stand in total contrast to the deeply-reflective, socially-significant television dramas produced in our country in the 1970s and the 1980s.
For some time now, the majority of our alternative films have also been embracing entertainment rather than probing deeper into the causes of critical social problems.
Nowadays, some alternative directors arrange for a great deal of publicity about the inclusion of a movie star or famous artiste in their films. It has become obvious that the directors are keen to use the fame of those celebrities to attract audiences.
Did Satyajit Ray cast glamorous film actors or actresses in "Pather Panchali" (1955), "Aparajito" (1956), and "Hirak Raajar Deshe" (1980)? He did not. Yet these films became cinematic masterpieces because of their formal innovations and socially-purposive statements.
Some of our filmmakers should realise that if a film can convey artistic and political ideas, drawing on innovative yet comprehensible cinematic devices, it can make a profound impression without the appearance of a popular star.
In our country, seminars and talk sessions often take place on oppression against women and various disadvantaged groups. But do the discussions regarding the rights of women reach the impoverished and uneducated people living in slums and distant rural areas?
When the discussants talk against patriarchal domination, at that very moment some women may be subjected to mistreatment by domineering males.
The underprivileged people in our society usually watch action-packed, song-and-dance based unrealistic films where women often appear as sex objects. Can we expect them to have good taste when their thoughts are shaped by tasteless and titillating cultural products?
Attempts are not made to provide them with the opportunity to watch artistically-impressive yet easily-understandable films set in rural areas such as "Pather Panchali," "Aparajito," "Shurjo Dighal Bari," "Matir Moina," "Padma Nadeer Majhi." Socially-meaningful messages of these films would surely have a beneficial effect on the mentality of these people.
If the mass media displays a greater interest in disseminating content marked by triviality and escapism, and neglect the necessity of creating critical faculties in audiences, we cannot expect that – ignoring the constant transmission of mindless entertainment – many will become enlightened and discriminating.
When television dramas and films never show young people reading books and newspapers or thinking about social issues and historically significant incidents, many will likely develop apathy towards the pursuit of knowledge. Their thoughts and tastes will inevitably be conditioned by the lifestyle glamorised by the media.
If people are constantly bombarded with media content highlighting shallow entertainment, we cannot bring about positive changes in their attitude by lamenting in seminars, roundtable discussions, serious articles, and classrooms about the lack of knowledge, rational ideas, and good taste among many people today.
The abundance of entertainment in the media ensures the financial benefits of a few, but we should realise how this is debasing the temperament and taste of many.
Dr Naadir Junaid is a professor at the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.