After the horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut, politicians, the NRA, and others started pointing fingers at the violence in entertainment, especially video games. We have to accept that we do live in a violent culture, and we can’t deny that consuming entertainment doesn’t have an impact on children. However, we have to be careful of focusing just on products of the entertainment industry. Many influences shape a child’s life, and if we ignore all of the factors, then we are not doing enough to stop the cycle.
During my time in the classroom, I’ve overheard countless conversations between students about the horror films they saw over the weekend, with or without their parent’s knowledge. Many students would look at me with confused expressions when I asked them to stop describing how a killer ripped off limbs, gutted a victim, or ate a body part. I’ve had to send students to the office because they were wearing a T-shirt celebrating Scarface; I’ve seen Al Pacino holding a gun in a variety of styles. Many students, both boys and girls, could recite lines from the film and reenact the famous last scene. Many saw the culminating scene in the Brian De Palma film as a glorious and awesome way to die; it’s a goal, not a punishment. I don’t know if the 1983 film is as popular with teens across the nation, but in my area of Southern California, it was basically required viewing.
When you look for it, violence seems to be prevalent in all forms of entertainment. Explosions in Transformers, mutilated bodies on CSI, rewards for headshots in Call of Duty, bomb instructions on the internet, and toys that look like weapons can make it seem there is no escape. With all of this violence in entertainment, it is very easy to blame it for the reason why students act in any violent manner. Some of my colleagues took this route; many were parents that claimed blocking all offensive entertainment would solve the majority of our problems. They were very convincing, and I almost fell for their way of thinking.
Then I remembered when I was a teen. During my teen years, heavy metal and rap music was blamed for swaying children to do wrong. I was told the reason I was depressed and wanted to commit suicide is because I listened to Ozzy Osbourne and Poison. I shocked my counselor when I informed her that I listened to “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles when I attempted suicide. The song didn’t urge me to kill myself; my reaction to my situation is why I was suicidal. No TV show, film, game, or song was responsible for my state. I couldn’t handle what was going on in my life, and I didn’t know any other way to cope.
Recalling what life was like for me as a teen made me stop and think about what conditions my students lived in. I’ve taught middle and high school. I can’t reveal a lot of details about the identities of my students, but a few of their stories have stayed with me for years.
A girl once asked me why her brother didn’t bleed a lot when he got shot. The bullet hit him in the chest, and he fell backwards to the ground. She had seen movies and TV shows that showed copious amounts of blood whenever anyone got shot. I explained that without an exit wound, most of the blood stayed inside his body; he bled internally. No one told her this, and all this time she wondered why he died because the wound didn’t look serious.
One boy confided in me that he wanted to go to college and be a doctor. He was bright, and he asked me a lot of questions during class; I was pleased that he was enthusiastic about science. I started to tell him what courses to take in high school, but he stopped me. His father was in prison, and his older brother had been arrested that weekend for armed robbery. I tried to convince him that his goals were still attainable, but nothing I said could change his mind. He still did well in class, but the spark was gone.
I lost count how many fights I’ve witnessed. Boys fighting boys, and girls fighting girls. And it’s true, girl fights are vicious.
A group of boys didn’t know I could hear their conversation. They were discussing getting their first guns and finally finishing their initiation into a gang.
One of my seniors enrolled in the military after graduation because he thought it was better to get paid and die than die on the streets or end up in prison.
Violence just wasn’t in the entertainment, it was in their lives.
Many parents have told me that overcoming the influence of real violence is more difficult than the influence of fictional violence. They struggled to bring reason into their child’s life. They kept informed the best they could, but some couldn’t be present as much in their child’s life as they wanted to. Many parents worked multiple jobs, leaving the care to grandparents, older siblings, or no one. A number of my students couldn’t get their homework done because they were responsible for the care of younger siblings.
Not all parents were stellar. Some taught their children to hate those not of their culture. Teachers are expected to teach students to respect everyone, but it can be difficult to do when parents tell their children to hate homosexuals and other ethnic groups. In some families following the footsteps of a father or older brother was expected, even if the path was violent.
I had students who needed counseling; some got the help they needed, some didn’t. It takes a lot of paperwork to get a student help. You have to go through channels and follow all of the steps. Getting to the stage when parental approval is needed can take weeks. You finally have everything in order, and the parent refuses to sign, claiming the student really doesn’t act that way or the student doesn’t need help. Some parents think their child needing help is a reflection on their parenting skills, and they don’t want people to think they are bad parents. Without parental consent, the help a school can provide is limited.
Was I ever concerned about a student coming to school with a gun? Yes. Did I think he or she would bring a gun because of a TV show, movie, or game? No. They had easy access to guns. There was someone they could get a gun from, plenty of people willing to give one of my students a gun for free.
It’s easy to blame entertainment for shootings at schools. The media is violent. There’s the answer. Case closed. But it’s not that simple, it never has been. I’m not a parent, but I’ve been a part of the development of over 1000 children ages 12-18. Over the course of my career I’ve come to realize that children are influenced by their entire environment. What they see and hear in fictional works and in real life influences how they act and what they decide to do. The presence of people in their lives to counteract the negative influences and bring balance to their lives is essential for them to make the right choices.
Blaming media is not a new move. Today it’s video games and movies, in my teen years it was heavy metal, and in my mom’s day it was Elvis Presley. We should discuss the violence in our entertainment, the images children are exposed to in advertising, our relationship with guns—every aspect of violence in our culture should be examined. Time needs to be devoted to studying how to rid real-life violence from the daily lives of children. A lot of work is needed to do this because of how complicated the matter is. Poverty, the lack of psychologists and trained counselors in schools, poor health care, and other socio-economic factors all contribute to a hostile environment. We need to acknowledge all of the reasons shootings at schools happen and deal with these issues.
Dealing with all of the issues will take time, but one thing that must be done is restricting access to guns. When a student can tell you where to buy a gun for $100, then you know easy access to guns is a big contributor to the problem. Every piece of entertainment featuring a violent act could disappear tomorrow, but the guns would still be there. People claim that video games are training children how to use a gun, but if every FPS game vanished from the shelves, there would be a friend, a sibling, a parent right there to teach them how to use a gun. Just because a child gets angry after playing a violent game doesn’t mean the game is the cause; we must take into account the child’s entire environment. What if the child is hungry? What if the child is being abused at home? What if the child’s friends are pressuring him or her to join a gang? Using isolated events as evidence does not help anyone. Blaming the media while refusing to address the more serious concerns solves nothing. If we’re going to go after violence in media, then we have to go after all the reasons why someone wants to commit violence and the easy access perpetrators have to the guns they use.
Remember, game companies showcase the violent action to get people buy a game. Gun manufacturers advertise to children to sell them a gun.