Guns, video games, isolation, and mental illness have all been implicated as causal factors in the recent school shooting by Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut. Intervention initiatives for school shootings, such as arming teachers, or enlisting full time police presence, have been proposed for schools both in the U.S. and Canada without any evidence showing they would keep children safe, and some evidence showing they would to do more harm than good. Prevention initiatives such as improved gun control and video game regulation are now at a Senate level in the U.S. This article will provide readers with historical and current research on the impact of violent media on aggression, report what we already know about past shooters, and propose a number of initiatives for prevention of future mass shootings in our schools and communities.
Historically guns have been used in wars and for societal control, with the occasional personal use of guns for murder of friends or family. Only in the past 20 year have guns been used for a wholly different purpose, for the unsanctified mass killings of strangers. In 1972, the Surgeon General determined there was sufficient research evidence linking aggression to media violence, to release a recommendation to restrict violent media content on television. 40 years later, I am still asked by parents, educators and health professionals, as well as media “Is there sufficient evidence that media violence causes aggression?” I’ve profiled current research showing causality between media violence and aggression in this January 2013 Child Development Series Newsletter, as well as have listed previous studies in the Zone’in Fact Sheet on www.zonein.ca . There is no doubt that aforementioned research indicates violent video game use, and viewing of violent media content, can cause antisocial or aggressive behaviour in some children…but not all children. Considering a who, what, when, where, why and how approach might be helpful when determining inherent video game risk.
Who – consider the child’s developmental and chronological age. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric Society have issued warnings that children between the ages of 0 and 2 years should not be exposed to any technologies, and those over the age of 2 years should be restricted to 1 – 2 total hours of technology usage per day, including educational technologies use in school. Children younger than 8 years of age cannot discern fantasy from reality, and consequently are in sympathetic, adrenalin charged states (fright, flight, fight) when playing video games. Chronic states of stress are not healthy for young children. Long term immersion in virtual reality can also distort self and other identity formation, creating social and emotional distress.
What – consider intensity of media violence and sexual content. The number of times a child kills while playing a video game is causally related to the intensity of consequent aggression. Rapid fire shooter games are the most popular of all violent video games. Social video games promote social behaviour, and antisocial video games promote antisocial behaviour.
When – consider duration of violent media content exposure. Are video games replacing time previously spent playing with family and friends? Does the child socialize with friends and family, or are they a “loner”? Children who are bullied often feel ostracized, and long to be a part of a group.
Where – consider whether the child’s use of technological devices is supervised e.g. are they allowed technology use in the bedroom, dining room table, car? You may need to lock up all technology during dinner and before bed to curtail unsupervised usage.
Why – consider why the child is using high amounts of violent media content. The average age of a gamer is 30, meaning Dad or an older brother might be hooked on games. Children report the most common reason they use video games is that they are bored or lonely, and have nothing else to do. Make sure children engage in a variety of activities that are healthy and promote socialization.
How – consider multiple platforms and accessibility of violent and sexual media content. When a child is given a cell phone or iPad, they can access just about anything without parental knowledge or consent. Consider violent media exposure at daycare or after school care, as well as unrestricted technology use in school settings.
With all this research showing the potential danger of video game use, particularly with young children, why hasn’t government stepped in to regulate and restrict the use of video games, and guns? While the video game and gun manufacturing industry and lobby groups are strong and formidable forces, which explains some of the dilemma and delay in legislation regarding restriction of use, the problem of mass shooters is complex, and will not be resolved quickly or easily with restrictive measures. Taking a look at the profiles of existing shooters will shed more light on what makes a shooter, which will assist parents, educators, health professionals, government, researchers and technology production manufacturers in implementing effective and efficient control measures.
Katherine S. Newman, author of “Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings” reports that the profile of recent mass shooters was not necessarily one of a loner, but rather of a young man who felt ostracized by a group in which he desperately wanted to fit in. The shooters all made attempts to tell their coveted group what they had planned, but were ignored and not taken seriously, escalating their desire to act. Whether a toddler, child, youth or adult, humans have a need to feel needed. Everyone, no matter what age, should be expected to do one chore per day which is of value to themselves and others. Building self-identity and self-worth is crucial in this day and age of the “Me” generation, and a young adult without identity or worth, either “acts in” and suicides, or “acts out” with aggression.
2). Medicated with prescription psychotropics
80% of shooter were either taking prescribed psychotropic medication, or withdrawing from same. In Canada, one in six children between the ages of 8 and 18 have a diagnosed mental illness, with many on dangerous psychotropic medication (stimulant, sedatives, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, or anti-psychotics). Toxicity psychosis from prescription psychotropic medication is evidenced by suicide and/or violence. Despite the fact that the FDA and Health Canada concur that to date, there are no known biochemical, structural, or genetic cause for mental illness, North America is consumed with what has been termed a “diagnosis and medication mania”. Children aren’t born “sick”, we make them that way. Lack of movement, touch, human connection, and nature, the four critical elements for healthy development and learning, have resulted in a rise in child obesity, developmental delay, learning disorders, behavior disorders, hyperactivity, and aggression. Sedentary, neglected, overstimulated, and medicated, the new millennium child is struggling to survive.
3). Long term exposure to violent media content with probable addiction
90% of video games contain violent content, and 8% of children and youth currently demonstrate an addiction to video games. R. Stickgold et al demonstrated that 7 hour exposure to the video game “Tetras” induced 3 days of visual imagery of falling cubes, even in subjects who had frontal lobe damage and no memory. This fact is striking in not only the permanence of visual imagery, but also the recalling of the visual imagery in the absence of conscious memory. Dr. Andrew Doan, Ophthalmologist and author of “Hooked on Games” reports that the brain is similar to a camera in that it stores visual images, sometimes for years, so parents need to understand that what their children watch will be with them forever.
4). Access to guns
A popular quote is “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”, yet people without guns, or people with hunting rifles, don’t become mass shooters. That said, presently there is one gun per person in the U.S. and rapid fire assault rifles are legal in most states. The 21st century is known for its pervasive fear mentality and gun obsessed culture, both of which have proven extremely deadly. While access to guns alone is unlikely to produce a shooter, combine guns with desensitization resulting from excessive exposure to violent media content, a cocktail of psychotropic medications from an early age, along with isolation and decreased socialization, and we are getting closer to the target of a shooter.
What can you do to prevent school shooters? Schools and communities might consider using the Schools Operating Safely – Child behaviour management policy and procedures as a prevention initiative to stop school shooters.
This article was written by Cris Rowan, author of “Virtual Child”, pediatric occupational therapist and biologist who is passionate about changing the ways in which children use technology. Cris provides health and education professionals products, workshops, training and consultation to enhance child development and learning.