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Teen Violence: Does violent media make violent kids?

NCR Staff

As shocking episodes of youth violence unfold in one all-American community after another -- Pearl, Miss.; Paducah, Ky.; Littleton, Colo.; and now Conyers, Ga. -- grief and incomprehension fuel a demand for answers, an explanation of how young people from seemingly good homes and average backgrounds could commit such astonishingly brutal deeds.

Video games, TV shows and movies, music and Web sites that celebrate violence figure high on the list of the usual suspects.

By any measure, these forms of popular culture have an enormous impact on shaping the imaginations of young people. Yet for some who study the situation in times of calm as well as crisis, the predictable thrust and parry of media critics and defenders that follow the latest tragedy often raises all the wrong questions.

Suspicions of direct cause-and-effect are important. Did scenes of a student shooting his classmates in the movie “The Basketball Diaries,” for example, push a given child to walk into school and start shooting? However, experts say such thinking may obscure the more pervasive social effects of violent programming.

The ‘mean world’ syndrome

“The impact may not be on potential perpetrators, but on the rest of the population, who begin to believe that violence is inevitable, that crime is everywhere and that they must be afraid,” said Sr. Elizabeth Thoman, a member of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary and executive director of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, Calif.

Thoman’s center produces media literacy programs for schools across the country.

She said the public fear generated by media violence -- the “mean world” syndrome -- shows up in all sorts of socially toxic ways, from a diminished sense of community to “tough on crime” legislation, from barred doors to the death penalty.

Perspectives such as Thoman’s, however, have been largely shunted to the sidelines in the aftermath of Littleton and now Conyers, Ga., where six students were injured May 20 when a sophomore opened fire.

In the wake of the Littleton shootings, most commentators directly implicated movies, music, video games and the Internet in the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The killings became the focal point of a Senate committee hearing on violent media.

President Clinton convened a summit and promised an ongoing national campaign against youth violence, while Vice President Al Gore announced a new agreement with on-line providers to restrict violent material, changes that would “honor the lives of those who were killed.”

While politicians declared there was a clear consensus on the detrimental effects of media violence on youth, executives of entertainment industries cautiously deflected criticism: It takes an already disturbed young person to move from watching a violent movie or playing a “first-person shooter” video game to killing real people, they said.

Independent media critics such as Thoman say that what is needed is something deeper and more systematic, including grassroots education for both children and adults, leading them to question their own media choices and making them aware of the ways they can be manipulated in a pervasive media culture. Parishes and schools are ideal places to begin this education, they say.

The U.S. bishops have addressed the issue in the form of a 1998 document, “Renewing the Mind of the Media,” which is now being developed into a 12-minute video.

Henry Herx, head of the bishops’ Office of Film and Broadcasting, said that parents may have a “certain lack of imagination” about how much media has changed since their childhood.

“When they were kids, they were watching rather stylized violence,” Herx said. “They weren’t involved with the kind of up-front, intense depiction of violence and sexuality that I think really does shake young people.”

Thoman, however, faults “Renewing the Mind of the Media” for dealing with the issues of sex and violence in the same document. It focuses heavily on the problem of pornography and uses the same “three levels of concern” of hard-core, soft-core and frivolous portrayals for both sexuality and violence.

“There is a pleasure factor to sexuality, where there is no pleasure factor to violence,” Thoman said. “When you lump those things together, it’s hard to separate what is legitimately pleasurable in human sexuality from the problematic aspects of violence. ... We shouldn’t feel positively about violence.”

“Renewing the Mind of the Media” calls on government to “reassert regulatory functions” over the media in the public interest. It suggests writing letters to media outlets and setting up discussion groups in dioceses, parishes and Catholic education, as well as dialogues with media and business leaders.

A recent update of a 1993 document from the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Committee, “Family Guide for Using Media,” also outlines ways for parents to examine the values being promoted in the media in light of Catholic teaching and asks them to look at ways the media manipulates or shows bias.

With large corporations controlling much of the media, “the ordinary person feels powerless,” said Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, spokesperson for the U.S. bishops. “Sure I can turn my television off, but is there some way of saying that these are public airwaves?”

Walsh said churches are in a position to mobilize public opinion, particularly as an interfaith effort. “The Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim communities have to form coalitions” to combat any mistaken idea that only splinter groups object to media exploitation, Walsh said.

What a young father views

Thoman said the question of what parents are watching is overlooked in the debate that springs up periodically about the effects of media violence on youth. Of particular importance, she said, are young fathers. “How does a young man who has grown up with action movies and video games suddenly change his viewing habits when he has a 2-year-old boy?” she asked.

While he may think that he grew up watching violence and turned out OK, he needs to question if the violence in the media and the culture is the same today. “Does entertainment satisfy him without shocking him? Does he go for ever more adrenaline-rushing images?”

Thoman said that boys’ high schools, particularly those run by religious orders of men, need to address the role of media literacy and the development of masculine images in a media culture, beyond simply telling boys and young men not to watch such entertainment.

According to Thoman, one of the most successful examples of local efforts to cope with the impact of the media can be found in Bemidji, Minn., where the elementary school of St. Philip’s Parish has been “taking the bull by the horns and really seeing media as a ministry.”

Building on the media literacy lessons taught at every grade level in the school, the students of the St. Philip’s theater group helped write and produce a humorous video -- “The No-Skills Family Watches TV” -- that has been widely distributed in the area as a teaching tool.

The video, with all the roles played by students, opens in a board room, where advertisers and producers discuss how they will get the viewer to stay to the commercial -- by using “jolts” like kisses, humor and violence. “Quicken the pace with a car crash -- shoot the driver -- naked people in the back seat!” one character exclaims.

The wise, long-suffering cat of the “No-Skills” family offers commentary as the humans gather, entranced, in front of the television. A “Manipulation Control Center” monitors the viewers through binoculars, delivering jolts to get them to the commercials. The ads are clever parodies with fake products and celebrity endorsements, like the basketball player who shills “Hypie Anti-Gravity Shoes”: “You can have it all -- power, money friends and status. Don’t waste one more moment being pathetic.”

According to Sandra Pascoe Robinson, media literacy educator at St. Philip’s, the humor has been an important tool to break through people’s defensiveness. “I have found that talking about media awareness is such an emotionally charged topic,” she said. Laughing about the “No-Skills Family” provides a springboard for conversation. “There’s a knee-jerk reaction -- ‘I don’t have a problem, and don’t ask me to turn off the TV.’ But as soon as the humor is there, the guards are down and we can talk,” she said.

First-graders as critics

Robinson has found the most receptive audiences in very young children. Even children in older grades already have their viewing patterns established, she said. “I’m finding the first-graders to be incredibly astute at looking at their shows and critiquing them,” Robinson said.

Robinson noted how the children at St. Philip’s have carried their newfound media skills into their homes. They are encouraged to see critiquing the media as a way of taking care of their younger brothers and sisters -- “to see this as a collective responsibility,” she said.

The children are also bringing the message back to their parents. “There are some parents struggling with their own issues with media, and this is part of the very emotional response I get at times,” Robinson said. She said one mother told of how her elementary school-age daughter challenged her father’s preference for action films, leading to dialogue about the violence in the movies he was bringing home.

Many parents are naive about what messages their children are receiving, said Robinson, a mother of three children in their late teens and early 20s. “All TV, all movies are educational,” she said. “What are they learning? If you step back and look critically, some of the messages are very frightening. ... Violence is entertaining, sex is no big deal, the more things I have the happier I’ll be -- those are the three big messages I see.”

Robinson recalled a lesson she gave to a third-grade class at another parochial school. When she brought up video games, “two boys way in the back jumped up and machine-gunned the class,” she said. “The response was strong and automatic and violent. That was part of their favorite video game.”

She questioned media leaders who say that the violent entertainment they produce has no effect. “In that half-hour program there are 25 commercials -- because media is an effective way to sell things,” she said. “So how can they say they’re not selling violence as entertainment, as fun, as funny?”

In late April, the Center for Media Literacy launched a Web site funded by grants from religious communities and devoted to the topic of violence and the media (www.medialit.org/Violence/indexviol.htm). The center was “literally in the midst of uploading pages” when the story from Littleton broke, Thoman said. The stories of the killers’ media influences -- music, video games and the Internet -- began to hit the newscasts, and the latest round of public debate fired up again.

Thoman has not seen the nature of that debate change much since 1993, when the center launched a campaign on media violence. “After the Littleton experience, we still hear the same questions -- does watching violence cause violence?” she said.

Meanwhile, news coverage of Littleton has provided ample opportunities to view the media packaging the center seeks to demystify. “Within hours of Littleton, we heard about the ‘teen rampage’ or the ‘Rocky Mountain tragedy,’ ” Thoman said. “Every station found a way to package this thing with music and drama.”

With techniques familiar from the Gulf War to Kosovo, “it’s more than just reporting the news, it’s reporting the news in a way that’s entertaining, so you’ll be there when the commercials are on,” she said.

For a copy of the video and discussion guide for “Renewing the Mind of the Media,” call the U.S. Bishops Office for Publishing and Promotions at (800) 235-8722. For a copy of “The No-Skills Family Watches TV,” contact St. Philip’s School Conflict Management Program at (218) 751-4938.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999