Media Teaching Kids to Kill

Wrestling Ploys, TV and Death-Metal Music

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NEW YORK, FEB. 3, 2001( Debate over media violence and children has been renewed by the conviction of a 13-year-old Florida boy, who said he accidentally killed a 6-year-old girl while imitating TV wrestling moves.

The New York Times reported Jan. 26 that Lionel Tate, found guilty of first-degree murder, was 12 when he lifted Tiffany Eunick into the air and dropped her onto a table in July 1999. He was tried as an adult and will be sentenced March 2.

The boy´s lawyer, James Lewis, told the jury that Lionel was emulating the wrestlers he regarded as heroes when he kicked and body slammed Tiffany after his mother left the two unattended.

The World Wrestling Federation has denied any responsibility for the boy´s behavior. The WWF issued a statement saying that the defense´s strategy linking the case to professional wrestling was «a contrived hoax.»

At least four other children have died in incidents linked to copycat violence from wrestling shows, The Telegraph newspaper of England noted Jan. 21. But the Florida case is the first to put the blame squarely on the effects of television.

In January 1999, 12-year-old Jason Whala told Washington, D.C., police that he had thrown a toddler to the floor in a «jackknife power bomb» after the child cried while he was trying to play video games. The boy was convicted of second-degree murder and sent to juvenile prison until the age of 21.

A few months later, a 3-year-old boy died after his 7-year-old brother hit him with a «clothesline,» another wrestling move. The boy told police he was copying moves that he had seen performed by his favorite WWF stars.

Less television, less aggression

That the violence witnessed on television and video games has a detrimental influence on young children was confirmed by a recent American study. Reducing the amount of time that primary school children spend watching television and playing video games can make them less aggressive toward their peers, the British Medical Journal reported Jan. 27.

Researchers led by Dr. Thomas Robinson, assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, looked at 225 third- and fourth-grade children at two similar public elementary schools in San Jose, California. The schools were selected because they were in the same district and had comparable academic and sociodemographic factors.

At one school 120 participants received no intervention and served as a control group. At the other, 105 children received 18 lessons, 30 to 50 minutes long, over six months on reducing the use of television, videos and video games. Children were challenged to abstain from watching television for 10 days, and then to watch no more than seven hours a week. They were also taught to become more selective in their viewing and game choices.

At the outset, the youngsters were watching 15.5 hours of television a week, as well as 5 hours of videos, and 3 hours of playing video games. The overall time fell by about 30% by the end of the course.

Results were measured through questionnaires, in which children were asked to rate their classmates´ aggressiveness at the beginning and end of the study. Researchers also randomly selected 60% of the children from each school for direct observation during breaks from lessons.

Peer reports of aggression were alike at the two schools at the outset, but in the intervention group, reports of aggression had dropped by 25% by the end of the study. Children in the intervention group were also involved in 50% fewer incidents of verbally aggressive behavior in the playground than the children at the control school. Both boys and girls benefited from the intervention, and the most aggressive students experienced the greatest drop in combativeness.

«Kids spend more time watching television than doing any other thing besides sleeping,» said Dr. Robinson. «It´s not unreasonable to expect that this will translate into large impacts on their health and behavior over time.»

Music and cartoons

It´s not only TV and videos that can promote belligerence. The lyrics of many modern songs are downright bloodthirsty, The Guardian noted Jan. 24. For example, one song of the band Slayer celebrates «gleaming blades» and «flowing blood.»

This group is now the subject of legal action by the parents of 15-year-old Elyse Pahler, who contend she was slain in a ritual inspired by the band´s songs. The three boys guilty of her murder are now in prison. David and Lisanne Pahler believe that Slayer´s paeans to serial killers and necrophilia contributed to their daughter´s death. The Pahlers are suing the band and the companies that have distributed their music.

«This case isn´t about art,» says David Pahler. «It´s about marketing. Slayer and others in the industry have developed sophisticated strategies to sell death-metal music to adolescent boys. They don´t care whether the violent, misogynistic message in these lyrics causes children to do harmful things. They couldn´t care less what their fans did to our daughter. All they care about is money.»

Attorneys for the band and the music companies — including Def Jam Music, Columbia Records, Sony Music Entertainment and American Recordings — say that Slayer´s work is protected by the right to free speech enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. media are the only ones under attack for violent content. Japanese films, and even cartoons, are accused of relying on bloodthirsty content. A recent example, the Los Angeles Times noted Jan. 12, is the film «Battle Royale,» where 42 ninth-graders are abducted to a remote island and forced to play the ultimate game of Survivor: Kill or be killed until only one is left.

The film is setting records at the box office and has provoked a nationwide debate over free speech and traditional Japanese values. While violence in Japan is extremely low compared to Western nations, public opinion has been disturbed by a recent string of grisly felonies linked to teen-agers. Several of the accused said they had difficulty distinguishing between reality and virtual reality, adding that they were inspired by films, television news and comic books.

As for cartoons, children´s TV slots in the United States are being filled by a wave of fast-action Japanese-style animation television shows, the New York Times reported Jan. 28. Many of the shows are imported directly from Japan, and their lower cost is appealing to network executives.

The Times observed that the style of the Japanese cartoons, called «anime,» is influencing domestic animators, whose new cartoons are often no less violent than, and stylistically similar to, the cartoons imported from Japan. The cartoons are pitched to young boys who have grown up on video-game violence, and they contain a constant stream of ferocious action.

While the debate continues over where to draw the line between freedom of expression and the need to safeguard society, one thing is certain: Today more than ever parents need to pay attention to what their children are watching and listening to. They also have to make sure that the next generation´s values don´t come principally from the mass media, but are formed by Christian culture and traditions.

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