fptechnoApr 21, 2007 13:00:00 IST
In the rush to explain massacres like the one at Virginia Tech, experts including popular TV psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw dusted off a familiar scapegoat—violent video games, movies and other media.
"The mass murderers of tomorrow are the children of today that are being programmed with this massive violence overdose," McGraw said on CNN's Larry King Live.
"Common sense tells you that if these kids are playing video games, where they're on a mass killing spree in a video game, (or where) it's glamorized on the big screen, it's become part of the fiber of our society.
"You take that and mix it with a psychopath, a sociopath or someone suffering from mental illness and add in a dose of rage, the suggestibility is too high."
But even critics of violent media caution against looking for a single point of blame.
"Extreme acts of violence almost never occur in the absence of multiple risk factors," said Iowa State University psychology professor Craig Anderson, who recently collaborated on "Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents," which asserts that a steady diet of violent games and other media increase the risk for aggressive and violent behavior.
Co-author Doug Gentile said no researcher in the field thinks violence in video games, movies and popular music alone is to blame.
"If they took them away, would it have lowered the risk? It would have. Who knows if it would have prevented it?" he said.
Researchers said focusing on the role of youth-oriented entertainment could mask deeper, intractable issues such as child abuse, poverty, suburban alienation, declining parental involvement and shrinking school budgets that result in fewer nurses and counselors who might interrupt the cycle.
Some psychologists point out that new medications and treatments for psychiatric disorders mean that vulnerable kids are making it to campus in greater numbers than ever before.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that the gunman who left 32 people dead on the Virginia Tech campus, 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui, shared a familiar cocktail of troubling characteristics with other school shooters.
After the 1999 murders at suburban Denver's Columbine High School, experts, politicians and news outlets linked Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's fascination with the violent video game "Doom" to the gun and bomb attack in which they killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide.
In a video and photos he took of himself and mailed to NBC News, Cho, who also killed himself, referred to Harris and Klebold as martyrs and said he would also die "like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless."
Some of the photos in the Korean-born Cho's package appeared to have been inspired by "Oldboy," a South Korean film in which an unfairly imprisoned man goes on a deadly rampage of revenge.
Shooters who survived their killing sprees have reported deep feelings of alienation and anger. They fantasized that violence would solve their problems and give them a sense of control. And at the time of their rampages, they told interviewers, they often failed to understand there were actual human beings on the receiving end of their attacks.
Elliott Currie, a professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, said he was dubious of the links between violent media and violent behavior when he started looking into the issue.
"I thought we were making a mountain out of a mole hill," he said. "But it's not insignificant, particularly for a certain kind of kids."
Referring to the barrage of violent images offered on television, in movie theaters and in video games, he said, "The level of violence that we subject kids to is one part of the problem."
Still, he said, the prominent things that appear time and again are deep alienation, deep anger and a "catastrophically destroyed" sense of self-esteem.
"It doesn't just happen. It's years in the making," said Currie, author of "Crime and Punishment in America."
Indeed, in Cho's case, female students, teachers and his college roommates had raised red flags about his behavior, calling it threatening, harassing and suicidal. After the killings, family members reported he had been a troubled child who rarely spoke.
"For every kid who does something like this, there are probably 1,000 others who put up the flags and won't," said Currie, who said the United States needs to create reliable safety nets for kids at risk of spiraling out of control.
"We need to provide kids with stable, adult supervision and counseling. Somebody has to be on the case in a serious and long-term way."
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