Back to School Lessons: The V (Violence) Joins the Three R’s

Diana Zuckerman, PhD

As kids go back to school, parents are in for a shock. Security measures are everywhere, and tighter than ever before. Some schools have learned their lessons from the Pentagon — since metal detectors are considered inadequate to keep schools safe, all kids must now wear photo ID’s hanging around their necks.

This kind of “solution” may reassure some of the parents, students, and teachers, who are worried about whether any schools are truly safe. Certainly, metal detectors have become an important safety strategy in the lives of many Americans. But the shortcoming of some of these strategies is that they are aimed at the enemy out there, when so many of the problems have already come inside.

The tragic murders of school children have taught us a lesson, but it may not be the lesson we needed to learn. As Congress debates whether the problem is the availability of guns or the pervasiveness of violence in the media, virtually nothing is done to prevent either. And that means that the “nice, quiet kid” with his ID around his neck may be entering school with a gun hidden conveniently outside and his brain filled with exciting, violent images of death and destruction.

There are few debates less worthwhile than whether violence in America is caused by guns or the media. Both are worthy of blame. If we want to make our schools and communities safer, we need to change children’s attitudes towards guns and violence as well as their access to guns and to images of violence.

Countless studies have shown that violence is pervasive in American “entertainment” and that children are exposed to it every day. Thirty years of research has proven that children who watch violent programs are more likely to hurt others, and to become criminals as teenagers or adults. It will take a few years to study the long-term impact of the increasingly violent and realistic computer and video games, but it is likely that they are even more dangerous, because of the interactive nature of these games.

There is one problem with media violence as the scapegoat: How do you explain the lower murder rates in countries that enjoy the same kinds of media violence as the U.S? Guns are the obvious answer. Guns are cheap and easy to buy in America, and you don’t need to be a research scholar to know that young children with guns have a power to kill large numbers of classmates and teachers that they otherwise would not have. More than 9,000 murders in the U.S. involve handguns every year, compared to 106 in Canada and 15 in Japan. Restricting access to guns would help to decrease violence, but, despite Littleton, Congress seems determined to preserve loopholes large enough for any alienated 15-year old to get through. Their excuse? Most who oppose gun control say that media violence is the real culprit.

They are missing the point — it’s the combination of guns and glorified media violence that is making our schools and communities unsafe. Films, TV programs, and video and computer games are pervasive, persuasive, and powerful teachers, and they often glorify violence and teach children, starting at a very young age, that violence is an acceptable strategy. If films, programs, and games were designed to instead teach the opposite lesson, and demonstrate just as powerfully how to resolve differences nonviolently, there would be fewer tragedies like the one in Littleton.

Restrictions on advertising might be helpful, but the real problem is the product, not the promotion of the product. Unfortunately, convincing producers, networks, and manufacturers to change their products will require major legal or financial incentives.

Parents need to do more to restrict their children’s exposure to media violence, and to stop paying for that exposure, but parents can’t watch over their children every hour of the day. Changing policies in the public and private sectors is also essential. One important example is the age restrictions on films and videos, which are often totally ignored. Warning “labels” on violent videos, similar to those on cigarettes, would also be effective. If age restrictions were enforced and if parents were confronted with labels warning about the dangers of violent movies and games, these products, many of which are geared toward young boys, would no longer be such a lucrative business. This would serve two important goals: decreasing children’s exposure to the most violent “entertainment” and forcing manufacturers to make their products less violent if they want to sell them to children.

Serious efforts to restrict access to R rated movies would require more low-wage personnel at theaters and stores, which is not too much to ask. Restricting access to violent video movies and games requires changing the written and unwritten policies of video rental stores, many of which currently rent almost anything to anybody, including young children. Warning labels and stricter movie theater and rental policies, such as always requiring an ID, would be applauded by many parents, who would welcome an excuse to say no and the assurance that their children couldn’t ignore those no’s.

The best public policies in the world cannot always prevent the murder of school children, but strengthening and enforcing existing policies can help protect children from violence. Communities are looking for answers and they need to look inside their own homes and businesses: if we want to decrease violence in America, parents, community leaders, and policy makers need to work together to decrease children’s access to TV programs, movies, and games that glorify guns and violence, as well as the guns themselves.