The Unthinkable: Children Who Kill
Does Television Have an Effect?
Not only has the perpetuation of youth violence become an alarming issue in America, but also the fact that kids are shooting other kids with remarkable accuracy. Michael Carneal, who shot eight times into a prayer group in Paducah, Kentucky in 1998, managed to get eight hits, although he'd never before shot an actual handgun. Five of the victims were shot in the head and three in the upper torso. Three died and one was paralyzed for life.
Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a West Point military psychologist, says that violent television and violent videogames play a significant role. They condition children to become violent without teaching them the consequences. Grossman, who trains health professionals on how to prevent killing, wrote On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. He discusses the sophisticated ways that societies have found to overcome the instinct to avoid killing, and with media expert, Gloria DeGaetano, has written Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill - a call to action against media-inspired violence. In short, the same techniques of social reinforcement that are utilized with soldiers are being turned on kids.
According to them, thirty years of scientific studies support the fact that violent programs desensitize children to violence. While the murder rate doubled between 1957 and 1992, the aggravated assault rate---the rate at which people are attempting to maim or kill one another - has multiplied many times more.
"In the workshops I conducted for teachers ten years ago," says DeGaetano, who once worked as a police officer, "I predicted that we would soon see more twelve-year-olds committing unspeakable crimes like mass murder." Although only a few may act out, he admits, all of our children are being damaged by the high doses of violence, because increasingly more brutality is becoming acceptable as part of life. "Sensational visual images showing hurting as powerful and domination of others as permissible are dangerous."
We have to be taught to kill, Grossman claims. It doesn't come naturally. "Within the midbrain," he says, "there is a powerful, God-given resistance to killing your own kind. Almost every species has it. Only sociopaths lack this violence immune system." Even with trained soldiers, only a percentage of them can easily bring themselves to actually kill in situations other than self-defense.
The training methods used in the military to prepare soldiers to kill include:
Brutalization - put through a program of verbal abuse to break down one set of values and install a new set that makes violence acceptable
Classical conditioning - associating a stimulus with a response according to a specific reinforcement schedule, such as violence linked to pleasure
Operant conditioning - another type of conditioned response that relies on a reward for an initiated action
Role models - the drill sergeant personified violence and aggression
The same factors are used in violent media programming. From young ages, kids are trained to accept violence as a natural part of life. Cartoon characters batter each other. In the early 1990s The Journal of the American Medical Association published a definitive study on TV violence. Comparing regions with television to regions without, and keeping most other factors the same, it was found that in every society where television was introduced, there was an explosion of violence on the playground. Within fifteen years, the murder rate had doubled, which is "how long it takes for the brutalization of three- to five-year-olds to reach the prime crime age." In one Canadian town in which TV was introduced in 1973, there was a 160% increase in shoving, pushing, biting and hitting among young children. In control communities observed during the study, there were no such changes.
Children come to associate violence with entertainment. They eat and drink while watching, so that violence becomes part of a pleasing routine. They laugh when there's violence in comedies and eagerly ask to see the most violent films. The stimulation associated with this programming is erotic. Interactive videogames also have operant conditioning features, rewarding violent acts that are accurate with higher scores. They learn to point and shoot, point and shoot. The "targets" look human, but the consequences of actually taking a human life are never realized in games. "Our children are learning to kill," says Grossman, "and learning to like it."
As for role models, not only does the media make kills larger than life, even heroic, but kids learn from other kids as well. Three months before the school killings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, another 14-year-old child in Stamps, Arkansas, hid in the woods and fired at his schoolmates as they came out of school. This was fifteen days after the sensational killings in Pearl, Mississippi. After the Columbine massacre, there were copycat attempts around the country to do the same thing on a grander scale, and a number of disenfranchised kids expressed admiration for the two suicidal shooters.
Television networks pay attention (in great detail) to attention-starved kids and that provides role models and rewards.
The solution, Grossman says involves the following:
- Gun control
- Supervision of television programs
- Purchase of nonviolent videogames
- Pressure the media to stop glorifying killing and killers
- Learn what children can handle at different ages and use more controls
- Teach children the consequences of violence
According to a 1999 study by the American government, by the time a child reaches the age of 18, he or she will have seen 200,000 dramatized acts of violence and 40,000 dramatized murders. Fully half of the videogames that a typical seventh-grader plays with are violent. Through this exposure, some troubled children develop a taste for violence. The boundary between fantasy and reality that adults can distinguish is much more difficult for children. Add to that the desensitization and conditioning that goes on daily from the media and it's clear that violent programs do have a negative impact.
While media programming might not be solely to blame, some of the recent school shootings were admittedly influenced by violent games or images:
Grossman certainly has a compelling argument, but there's also something to be said for the biological studies of violence. Let's examine a recent one.