From Donald Duck to Donald Dark, is a new breed of cartoon a threat to our childrens’ mental health? IAN WISHART brings together research from around the world that suggests violent cartoons and interactive games are turning kids into killers…
Once upon a time there were cartoon shows. You remember them, Mickey and Donald, Roadrunner and Wylie Coyote, even Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. Bright, bold and usually hilarious, those early Warner Brothers and Walt Disney hit shows had generations of kids cackling over their Cornies on a Saturday morning. Sure, they were violent, but in a harmless, toony sort of way. Back in those days, a burglary in Auckland was front page news, murders were running as low as three or four per year, and wagging school was an occasional “treat”, not an occupational choice. Youth suicide was virtually unheard of. In 1972, the suicide rate for 15 to 24 year old males was just 9 per 100,000 of them. Today it runs as high as 39 deaths per 100,000 in that age group.
For a long time, media watchdog groups have claimed a link between television violence and aggression in teenagers and adults. Now the international studies are lining up thick and fast – not only is there a link, but some experts believe television has declared psychological warfare on children and is literally training children to kill, as you’ll see shortly.
But first, a clue to the problem can be found in the spin surrounding it. For years, New Zealand TV executives have denied any link between TV violence and violence in society. “We reflect society, we don’t lead it,” has been the industry position for more than two decades.
However, while both TVNZ and TV3 have endeavoured to comply with a viewing watershed of 8.30pm before screening adult material, a much bigger problem has slipped below the radar for most people: the huge increase in violence and the occult in childrens’ programmes, screened directly in childrens’ viewing hours.
Donald Duck has given way to Beast Wars, Digimon and the latest craze hitting New Zealand, Yu-Gi-Oh. What most of the groundbreaking new childrens’ cartoon shows have in common are two things: Japanese animation and extremely dark, violent, occult and brooding themes.
Yu-Gi-Oh has already hit the news headlines in New Zealand after alleged counterfeit playing cards associated with the programme as merchandise were seized at Auckland by customs agents at the request of the authorised importer..
How dark is Yu-Gi-Oh? Well, for a start, it is unashamedly religious programming aimed at children, although admittedly no religion you ever grew up with. Instead, 41 year old Kazuki Takahashi, the show’s creator, wanted to revive “ancient Egyptian mysticism” as the underlying force in his programme.
The show follows the adventures of a young boy named Yugi:
“When Yugi was growing up, his Grandfather gave him an ancient Egyptian artifact called the “Millenium Puzzle” to try and figure out. It is said that whosoever manages to solve this puzzle will be granted dark and mysterious powers. Yugi eventually was able to solve the Millenium Puzzle, and when he did, something amazing happened!
“When the Millennium Puzzle activates, Yugi is filled with its magical energies and becomes Yami Yugi, his much more powerful alter ego. Not only is Yami Yugi a master dueler, but he is full of confidence and courage.”
In what must have been a merchandiser’s dream, Takahashi uses the artistic device of a magical card game that is played by Yugi and his friends, and, pf course, by tens of millions of children around the world who purchase the cards in bookshops and toystores.
“Duel Monsters is a card-battling game in which players pit different mystical creatures against one another in wild, magical duels! Packed with awesome monsters and mighty spell-cards, Yugi and his friends are totally obsessed with the game.
“But there’s more to this card game than meets the eye! Legend has it five thousand years ago, ancient Egyptian Pharaoahs used to play a magical game very similar to Duel Monsters. This ancient game involved magical ceremonies, which were used to foresee the future and ultimately, decide one’s destiny. They called it the Shadow Game, and the main difference back then was that the monsters were all real! With so many magical spells and ferocious creatures on the earth, it wasn’t long before the game got out of hand and threatened to destroy the entire world! Fortunately, a brave Pharaoh stepped in and averted this cataclysm with the help of seven powerful magical totems.
“Now, in present times, the game has been revived in the form of playing cards…”
And you can pretty much guess the rest. Yu-Gi-Oh has become an international obssession for kids everywhere.
Central to the show, and the card game, are the dark haunting characters and artwork typical of the Japanese comic style known as “Anime” (pronounced AH-nee-may). So popular has anime become in the US that several universities now offer lecture courses on the style and its origins. Wrote the Seattle Times recently:
“Anime often tackles such themes as death and betrayal, and the stories sometimes are so intense that they are edited for children in the United States.
“The animations are shown as television series or feature-length movies in Japan, where adults are as likely as children to be the core audience.
“The academic movement in the United States reflects the fact that so many students had already become anime aficionados on their own. As elsewhere in the country, the University of Washington and most colleges around the state have student-run anime clubs.
“While parents sometimes decry anime for its violence and gory graphics, anime fans argue that those more intense animations are geared toward adults, not kids.
“The craze borders on obsession for some. At Washington State University, a handful of students gather weekly to learn conversational Japanese simply to understand anime better. And diehards watch anime with subtitles instead of dubbed versions because they feel the dialects and the voice inflections get lost in translation.”
So if shows like Yu-Gi-Oh are part of the staple television diet in Japan, perhaps there are some clues there as to the long term effects on society. Correspondent Michael Zielenziger reports Japanese youth culture is in deep depression:
TOKYO – Kenji has seldom left his bedroom in five years. On a good day, when he forces himself, he can almost get to the front door of his mother’s small Tokyo apartment before fear overtakes him.
“It requires a lot of courage just to go downstairs and get the mail,” said the 34-year-old shut-in, who is thin as a twig and nearly as fragile. “I have two personalities: One who doesn’t want to go out and one who does. They are fighting with each other constantly.”
Kenji’s self-imposed confinement is surprisingly common in Japan today, after a decade of economic and social decline that has produced many worrisome effects. At least 1 million young Japanese adults, the vast majority men, imprison themselves in their rooms for months or even years at a time, according to Tamaki Saito, the first therapist to write a book on the subject. They sleep during the daytime and pace their rooms at night, hardly ever leaving except for a quick run to the 7-Eleven, if they can manage that.
Counsellors and psychiatrists say Kenji’s reclusiveness, known in Japan as “hikikomori,” is an illness that exists only in Japan and was unknown even there until a decade ago. Hikikomori sufferers shut themselves off from siblings and friends, even parents, whom they sometimes attack in violent outbursts.
Kenji’s behaviour is a symptom of Japan’s decline. A growing number of professional counsellors and other experts worry that the nation itself is becoming a lot like Kenji: isolated, apprehensive and unable to interact with the outside word.
“I fear that Japan, as a nation itself, is becoming hikikomori,” says psychiatrist Satoru Saito, who treats shut-ins and counsels families in his Tokyo clinic. “It is a nation that does not like to communicate. So what these young adults are doing is a mirror of what they see around them in adult society.”
Japan’s trains still run on time, its streets are safe and most people live comfortably. Handguns are illegal, drug problems do not permeate schools or streets, and random violence is virtually unknown.
Still, deep pessimism has infected many aspects of Japanese society:
– Japanese are killing themselves in record numbers, more than 31,000 per year, three times the number who die in traffic accidents. Their suicide rate is the highest among industrialized nations and is steadily climbing. The rate among workers in their 30s has risen nearly 45 percent since 1996.
– Japan’s birthrate is among the lowest in the industrial world and still declining, because young women are avoiding marriage and refusing to bear children. By 2005, Japan’s population will begin to shrink, a trend that demographers say will be nearly impossible to reverse. The labour force, likewise, will dwindle drastically.
– Alcohol consumption is declining across the globe, but not here. Though alcoholism is rampant and accepted as a release from work and social pressure, it is almost never discussed by opinion leaders or at the workplace.
– Japanese workers are increasingly dissatisfied with their lives, stressed out and depressed, and modern antidepressants have become legal only recently. A survey of 43 nations by the Pew Research Centre, released this month, found that Japanese are far more pessimistic about themselves and their children’s future than the people of any other relatively prosperous nation.
– The demise of Japan’s extended family structure is causing unprecedented strains. While divorce rates are low, couples are growing apart, living in sexless marriages, often in separate bedrooms. Stressed-out mothers force their children to study and go to “cram school” in order to pass competitive entrance exams to high school and college, while absentee fathers spend their time and energy at work.
“Whether it’s hikikomori, alcoholism or sexless couples, these are all different manifestations of the same problem,” says Masahiro Yamada, a prominent sociologist. “These are all symptomatic of the social and psychological deadlock of Japanese society.
“When you look around at Japanese society, you see that more and more people have just given up.”
Men such as Kenji appear desperate to fit into society. Yet when they pursue even modest individuality, they generate friction that leaves them burned out or too weak to cope.
Though Kenji seldom leaves home, he agreed to speak about his condition after twice begging off, tearfully explaining on the telephone, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just can’t come.” When he finally did agree to talk, he said it was the first time in five years that he had left his apartment or spoken to anyone except his mother.
After just two trips outside their apartment, he became angry and “unstable,” his mother said. He since has retreated to his room again, and his mother refuses to let him come to the phone, speak to outsiders or be photographed.
Kenji once was a mischievous child who loved playing third base. But he remembers being suddenly “frozen out” by classmates at his Tokyo grade school at age 12, when they inexplicably stopped talking to him.
“First it was just the boys, but within a week it was the girls, too,” he says. “I thought it would pass after the winter school vacation, but it didn’t change at all. Since I wasn’t a student who studied hard, without having any friends I couldn’t find a reason to go to school. It was too painful.”
Today, some 20 years later, he talks about those events as if they had happened yesterday.
Articulate and thoughtful, now he spends his days reading newspapers, watching TV and thinking.
Psychiatrists describe hikikomori as a syndrome in which young adults, usually men in their 20s and 30s, shut themselves off from the world, away from friends, school or work, for six months or more. These individuals do not suffer from other known psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, autism or panic disorder. Hikikomori is different from agoraphobia, which occurs in the United States, whose victims fear leaving home to visit an unsettled social environment but can mix with friends or relatives in their homes.
Stress and fatigue also trigger the social isolation. Dai Hasebe dropped out of junior high school after his parents enrolled him in a juku designed to help him pass the competitive high school entrance exams. In elementary school, the 12-year-old hadn’t gotten home until after 10 at night.
“After a while, I just got tired,” says Hasebe, now 19, who has spent most of the past six years secluded in his parent’s three-room Tokyo apartment. “There was no particular incident,” such as bullying or a harsh conversation with a teacher, that made him stop going to school, he said. “I was just relieved not to have a schedule.”
Hasebe now wears shoulder-length hair and a moustache and whiles away each afternoon building scale models in his bedroom. He constructs Japanese Zero fighter planes and French helicopters, draws precise diagrams of military equipment and designed a sort of 21st-century fantasy gladiator, a silvery pterodactyl with a rocket launcher that stands sentry in the entryway of his family’s home. Hasebe hardly eats; his pants barely stay on his hips even when they’re tightly belted.
Dr. Kosuke Yamazaki, a professor of child psychiatry at the Tokai University School of Medicine, thinks hikikomori patients’ frustration is the leading cause of domestic violence in Japan, as lonely, isolated and troubled adult children lash out in a cry for help. “They behave like brutal tyrants,” he said.
Many of his patients often expressed fear that they would kill their parents by accident. “They say they have a personality that sometimes rages out of control.”
Masahisa Okuyama, whose son suffers from hikikomori, founded the KHJ support network, which now has 31 chapters across Japan. Its name is formed from the initials in Japanese for obsessive neurosis, persecution mania and personality disorder.
“Parents are also victims of this disease,” explains Okuyama, a former advertising executive, who was beaten by his 27-year-old shut-in son. He abandoned the family’s suburban home for a small apartment out of fear that his son would kill him.
“He hates me, but the relationship between parent and child is so strong,” Okuyama says. “He can kill me or I could kill him. Let’s face it, we’ve been dissolved as a family.”
More than half the parents in one suburban group of 120 affected families say they’ve been attacked by their children. One woman pulled up her sleeve and revealed an ugly black-and-blue mark, the result of being assaulted by her son. Another woman sleeps in her car for fear that her son will beat her.
Around one table, a group of 11 parents discussed how best to reach out to their children. Most cooked dinner for their children and left food outside their bedroom doors. Some said their children left their rooms only when their parents went to bed. With tinges of guilt, many admitted that they found it difficult to communicate with their children when they were younger.
Kenji desperately wanted to find a way to rejoin society. “I sometimes look back and say, `How did I become like this?’” he said.
“When you are raised by a wolf you grow up a wolf,” Kenji said. “You can’t go back into normal society. That’s how I feel. Teachers tell you, `You are free to grow up and become what you want.’ But adults can’t show us any example where that’s true.”
While it would certainly be unfair to blame all of Japan’s growing social chaos on its dark, occult-obssessed youth television, it would also be a mistake to ignore its impact. And lest New Zealanders get too comfortable, it is worth remembering that New Zealand’s youth suicide rate is nearly four times higher than Japan’s.
Is Yu-Gi-Oh going to make it any better? Not if the names of some of its game cards are an indicator. The programme screens at 4.30pm in New Zealand, making it “prime time” accessible to all children. And according to international reports, children are lapping up television’s new obsession with the occult like there’s no tomorrow:
It was a report in the Times of London that first illustrated the extent of the problem. Journal-ist Daniel McGrory discovered the huge range of pagan TV programmes for kids was encouraging many to begin exploring paganism, and even satanism, by searching websites on the internet.
“Teachers’ groups are worried that nobody is monitoring the effect this fascination with the occult is having on its teenage followers. There are no official figures in Britain for victims driven to suicide, but experts have no doubt that some young people have suffered from the malign influence of satanic cults.
“It took 15 suicides in two years before the authorities in Saxony demanded an investigation. Here, teachers’ unions and experts say that the authorities do not take the menace seriously enough. They warn of the dangers to teenagers of dabbling unsupervised with sinister websites. Some of these describe in lurid detail how they should drink blood or carry out blood-letting to seal their pact with Satan. They also encourage impressionable teenagers to join in “chat rooms” to express how miserable they are,” wrote McGrory.
“Parents are advised not to rely on Internet filters to prevent their children from accessing sites featuring satanism and witchcraft.
“For many young people interest was aroused, innocently enough, through television programmes such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which a teenage girl does battle with all manner of satanic forces.
“In a recent survey of 2,600 children aged 11 to 16, more than half said that they were interested in the occult. The worry is that more than 15 per cent of those questioned by Mori said that they were worried about what they had discovered on the Web.
“The Association of Teachers and Lecturers wants schools to introduce classes advising young people of the risks of delving into the occult on the Internet. Peter Smith, the general secretary, said: “This goes beyond reading a Harry Potter story. This represents an extremely worrying trend among young people. Parents and teachers should educate children and young people about the dangers of dabbling in the occult before they become too deeply involved.”
“Experts believe that there are now more than 1,000 cults operating in Britain and that their popularity has spread through the Internet. They are becoming adept at snaring young professionals through so-called self-help websites—for stopping smoking, losing weight, meeting a partner or playing the stock market.
“Ian Haworth, general secretary of the London-based Cult Information Centre, tours schools to dispel the idea that only vunerable youngsters fall prey to satanic cults. He says that recruiters are also active at college and university campuses, distributing free magazines that offer links to scores of Internet sites. “There is no doubt the Internet means that many more youngsters can dip into areas of the occult without realising what they are letting themselves into,” he said.
In the case of Buffy, copycat psychosis appears to be the order of the day. In one celebrated case last year, a British teenager was arrested after becoming convinced that he, too, was a vampire, and beheading his elderly neighbour before drinking her blood. A young German couple were similarly found guilty of the ritual vampire murder of a man – they drank blood from his corpse before having sex in a coffin they’d purchased for the occasion.
Similar strong followings for Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch are also making an impact. Britain’s Pagan Federation recently reported it was receiving more than a hundred calls a month from children and teenagers wanting to know more about joining an occult group.
Pagan Federation spokesman Andy Norfolk told journalists youngsters’ questions had become “much more mature” than those of the “how do I cast a spell?” variety, and tended to deal with “the religious aspects of witchcraft.”
“We don’t get asked how to become a witch, but rather we get asked what a young witch should do.
“Many of those who write seem to have already found their spiritual path and wish to learn more.”
Although the Pagan Federation denies actively recruiting children, it has appointed a “youth affairs” officer who also happens to be a school teacher, and its adult members have published a series of books for children, some available in New Zealand, with titles like The Young Witches’ Handbook, which includes spells for passing school exams or attracting a lover, or Spells for Teenage Witches, “a self-help book for young people”.
In the US meanwhile, prominent newspapers like the Miami Herald have begun to investigate the rapidly plunging standards of broadcast television:
MIAMI – Fifty years ago, when a married Lucille Ball was having a baby on I Love Lucy, network censors wouldn’t allow use of the word “pregnant.” This past year, on Friends, Rachel had a baby resulting from a one-night stand – and on the day it was due tried to speed up the delivery via a quickie sexual encounter with her male roommate.
Forty years ago, Ozzie and Harriet never had a scene of any kind take place in the Nelsons’ bedroom. This year, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a fistfight between Buffy and a vampire turned into roughhouse sex so violent that it literally knocked the house down around them.
Thirty years ago, network officials told singer Helen Reddy they would cancel her show unless she started wearing a bra. This year, contestants on Fear Factor were ordered to strip naked on camera to stay in the game.
Twenty years ago, an outraged NBC censor vetoed a Saturday Night Live sketch where Bill Murray and Gilda Radner’s nerdy characters put on a dopey high school nativity pageant: “You can’t give noogies to the Virgin Mary!” This year, Cameron Diaz hosted SNL and sang dirty children’s songs that purported to be about hirsute shellfish and rain-soaked kitty-cats.
It’s not puritan paranoia: This is not your father’s broadcast television. TV, once expected to be a polite guest in our living rooms, has turned into more of drunken party-crasher. Sex, violence and language that in earlier days would have triggered FCC threats and congressional investigations is now routine. Says show-biz historian and critic Michael Medved of TV standards: “I’m not sure I would use the word SHIFTING. I think the word COLLAPSING might be more appropriate.”
You think he exaggerates?
Every week the CBS crime show CSI features mutilated corpses that would gag a maggot. Televised urination has become so routine that when FX’s The Shield had a cop whizzing on a suspect, producer Shawn Ryan bragged that “we shot it in a very tasteful way, as p——— scenes go.”
That’s the sort of comment that outrages Laura Mahaney, vice president of the conservative Parents Television Council, which is lobbying advertisers to boycott The Shield. “What you’ve seen is a run to the bottom of the barrel, where the networks are seeing who can put the filthiest stuff on the fastest. You never would have seen references to oral sex or inferences of oral sex even five years ago. Now you do all the time, even on shows at 8 p.m … It’s like a freight train run amok.”
Whether you share Mahaney’s disgust, it’s hard to argue with her facts. A brief, chaste lesbian kiss on the 10 p.m. L.A. Law scandalized the country in 1991; this season, when lesbian witches on the 8 p.m. Buffy the Vampire Slayer levitated because the oral sex was especially good, it passed almost unnoticed.
Producers, network executives and other TV experts say there are several reasons television’s standards, which were relatively static for its first 40 years, have changed so dramatically over the past decade, but prime among them would have to be a disappearance of the will to fight the flood anymore.
Adds Medved: “There’s always been this sort of push-pull between Broadcasting Standards people and producers. Obviously people in the creative community want to test to see what they can do. There’s almost an element of gamesmanship to it. But what’s been happening in the past few years is that the creative people push, but on the other side, no one pushes back.”
Critics argue it’s because the very people hired to be censors have themselves grown up on a sex and vio-lence TV diet and become inured to it, blind to what now surrounds them.
But while levitating nude witches engaging in oral sex on Buffy doesn’t make them bat an eyelid, those same TV censors are quick to leap on anything seen as non politically-correct. In the US, black comedian Arsenio Hall got a big laugh after cracking a black joke on the Tonight show, while one of David Letterman’s scriptwriters found herself censored for trying to tell a similar one-liner. An example in New Zealand this year was the ongoing furore over whether two Christian videos should be banned.
In a column for National Radio’s Mediawatch programme, commentator Karl du Fresne picked up the story:
“Those videos expressed views that were understandably unpopular with gay activists. One was that the gay activist lobby was demanding not just equal rights, but special rights; the other was that homosexuality was a factor in the spread of HIV and Aids.
“Neither of these, you might think, qualifies as an outrageous or even exceptional proposition. Yet the videos ended up before the Chief Censor, who considered them so potentially injurious to the public good that he imposed an R16 restriction. Not satisfied with that, a gay activist group appealed to the Film and Literature Board of Review, which declared the videos objectionable in anyone’s hands.”
A court fight ensued, and eventually the Court of Appeal ruled that the videos should be cleared for release, but the Film Review Board then asked the Government to consider outlawing what it calls “hate speech”.
In March, while most of New Zealand’s attention was on the Iraq crisis, a parliamentary select committe chaired by MP Diane Yates, released its own report on the issue, “and oddly enough,” writes Du Fresne, “the main thrust is that the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act should be modified to encompass hate speech.
“That would mean politically incorrect opinions such as those expressed in the Living Word videos could be banned without the pesky Court of Appeal getting in the way. And the Chief Censor wouldn¹t have to bother himself with nitpicking, high-flown notions about freedom of expression.
“Interestingly enough, nowhere in the report is any attempt made to define “hate speech”. It’s one of those wondrously loaded phrases, like “social justice”, that can mean whatever the user wants it to mean. In the context of the committee’s report, it seems to mean anything that might offend a minority group.
“Presumably it would be left to the Chief Censor to define hate speech, and in so doing to determine what New Zealanders are allowed to say, see and hear. This places unprecedented and dangerous power in the hands of a bureaucrat and casts him in the role of a commissar in Soviet Russia. It also tugs the censorship laws in an entirely new direction, and one that I suspect Parliament never intended when it passed the Act in 1993.”
Amid the irony that the chief target of censors may soon be the so-called “morals cam-paigners”, rather than programme-makers, dark entertainment like Yu-Gi-Oh continues unchallenged to prep the pre-teen market with violent occultism while Buffy and Charmed do the trick for their older siblings.
One very harsh critic of the high-violence, high occult kids shows is Lt. Colonel David Grossman, a military pschologist who used to study methods of brainwashing US soldiers to make them better killing machines. Now he tours the US like a voice in the wilderness, warning that today’s television content and violent role-playing computer games are on a par with the best military technology in training kids to murder.
Grossman has studied social and crime trends in a range of countries, including New Zealand, and his diagnosis is grim.
“To understand the why behind outbreaks of this “virus of violence,” we need to understand first the magnitude of the problem. The per capita murder rate doubled in the US between 1957—when the FBI started keeping track of the data – and 1992. A fuller picture of the problem, however, is indicated by the rate people are attempting to kill one another – the aggravated assault rate. That rate in America has gone from around 60 per 100,000 in 1957 to over 440 per 100,000 by the middle of this decade. As bad as this is, it would be much worse were it not for two major factors.
“First is the increase in the imprisonment rate of violent offenders. The prison population in America nearly quadrupled between 1975 and 1992. According to criminologist John J. DiIulio, “dozens of credible empirical analyses…leave no doubt that the increased use of prisons averted millions of serious crimes.” If it were not for our tremendous imprisonment rate (the highest of any industrialized nation), the aggravated assault rate and the murder rate would undoubtedly be even higher.
“The second factor keeping the murder rate from being any worse is medical technology. According to the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps, a wound that would have killed nine out of ten soldiers in World War II, nine out of ten could have survived in Vietnam. Thus, by a very conservative estimate, if we had 1940-level medical technology today, the murder rate would be ten times higher than it is.
“The magnitude of the problem has been held down by the development of sophisticated lifesaving skills and techniques, such as helicopter medevacs, 911 operators, paramedics, cpr, trauma centers, and medicines.
“However, the crime rate is still at a phenomenally high level, and this is true worldwide. In Canada, according to their Center for Justice, per capita assaults increased almost fivefold between 1964 and 1993, attempted murder increased nearly sevenfold, and murders doubled. Similar trends can be seen in other countries in the per capita violent crime rates reported to Interpol between 1977 and 1993.
“In Australia and New Zealand, the assault rate increased approximately fourfold, and the murder rate nearly doubled in both nations. The assault rate tripled in Sweden, and approximately doubled in Belgium, Denmark, England-Wales, France, Hungary, Netherlands, and Scotland, while all these nations had an associated (but smaller) increase in murder.
“This virus of violence is occurring worldwide. The explanation for it has to be some new factor that is occurring in all of these countries. There are many factors involved, and none should be discounted: for example, the prevalence of guns in our society. But violence is rising in many nations with draconian gun laws. And though we should never downplay child abuse, poverty, or racism, there is only one new variable present in each of these countries, bearing the exact same fruit: media violence presented as entertainment for children.”
Grossman’s identification of media violence as a catalyst for child violence is bourne out by confirmation that the two teenagers who committed the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado were addicted to the computer game Doom. It is worth noting that at the time Grossman was making these comments, back in 1998, the Columbine massacre had not yet happened. Grossman says the reason modern media violence is insidious is because it indoctrinates, glorifies and desensitises mass murder.
But haven’t we always had killing? Haven’t soldiers always gone into far more brutal battles than video can match? “Dur-ing World War II, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall had a team of researchers study what soldiers did in battle. For the first time in history, they asked individual soldiers what they did in battle. They discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier,” explains Grossman.
“That is the reality of the battlefield. Only a small percentage of soldiers are able and willing to participate. Men are willing to die, they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation; but they are not willing to kill. It is a phenomenal insight into human nature; but when the military became aware of that, they systematically went about the process of trying to fix this “problem.”
“From the military perspective, a 15 percent firing rate among riflemen is like a 15 percent literacy rate among librarians. And fix it the military did. By the Korean War, around 55 percent of the soldiers were willing to fire to kill. And by Vietnam, the rate rose to over 90 percent.
“The method in this madness: Desensitization. How the military increases the killing rate of soldiers in combat is instructive, because our culture today is doing the same thing to our children. The training methods militaries use are brutalization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and role modeling. I will explain these in the military context and show how these same factors are contributing to the phenomenal increase of violence in our culture.
“Brutalization and desensitization are what happens at boot camp. From the moment you step off the bus you are physically and verbally abused: countless pushups, endless hours at attention or running with heavy loads, while carefully trained professionals take turns screaming at you. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked and dressed alike, losing all individuality. This brutalization is designed to break down your existing mores and norms and to accept a new set of values that embrace destruction, violence, and death as a way of life. In the end, you are desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival skill in your brutal new world.
“Something very similar to this desensitization toward violence is happening to our children through violence in the media—but instead of 18-year-olds, it begins at the age of 18 months when a child is first able to discern what is happening on television. At that age, a child can watch something happening on television and mimic that action. But it isn’t until children are six or seven years old that the part of the brain kicks in that lets them understand where information comes from. Even though young children have some understanding of what it means to pretend, they are developmentally unable to distinguish clearly between fantasy and reality.
“When young children see somebody shot, stabbed, raped, brutalized, degraded, or murdered on TV, to them it is as though it were actually happening. To have a child of three, four, or five watch a “splatter” movie, learning to relate to a character for the first 90 minutes and then in the last 30 minutes watch helplessly as that new friend is hunted and brutally murdered is the moral and psychological equivalent of introducing your child to a friend, letting her play with that friend, and then butchering that friend in front of your child’s eyes. And this happens to our children hundreds upon hundreds of times.
“Sure, they are told: “Hey, it’s all for fun. Look, this isn’t real, it’s just TV.” And they nod their little heads and say okay. But they can’t tell the difference. Can you remember a point in your life or in your children’s lives when dreams, reality, and television were all jumbled together? That’s what it is like to be at that level of psychological development. That’s what the media are doing to them.
“The Journal of the American Medical Association published the definitive epidemiological study on the impact of TV violence. The research demonstrated what happened in numerous nations after television made its appearance as compared to nations and regions without TV. The two nations or regions being compared are demographically and ethnically identical; only one variable is different: the presence of television. In every nation, region, or city with television, there is an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within 15 years there is a doubling of the murder rate. Why 15 years? That is how long it takes for the brutalization of a three- to five-year-old to reach the “prime crime age.” That is how long it takes for you to reap what you have sown when you brutalize and desensitize a three-year-old.
“Today the data linking violence in the media to violence in society are superior to those linking cancer and tobacco. Hundreds of sound scientific studies demonstrate the social impact of brutalization by the media. The Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that “the introduction of television in the 1950’s caused a subsequent doubling of the homicide rate, i.e., long-term childhood exposure to television is a causal factor behind approximately one half of the homicides committed in the United States, or approximately 10,000 homicides annually.” The article went on to say that “…if, hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults” (June 10, 1992).
“Classical conditioning is like the famous case of Pavlov’s dogs you learned about in Psychology 101: The dogs learned to associate the ringing of the bell with food, and, once conditioned, the dogs could not hear the bell without salivating.
“The Japanese were masters at using classical conditioning with their soldiers. Early in World War II, Chinese prisoners were placed in a ditch on their knees with their hands bound behind them. And one by one, a select few Japanese soldiers would go into the ditch and bayonet “their” prisoner to death. This is a horrific way to kill another human being. Up on the bank, countless other young soldiers would cheer them on in their violence. Comparatively few soldiers actually killed in these situations, but by making the others watch and cheer, the Japanese were able to use these kinds of atrocities to classically condition a very large audience to associate pleasure with human death and suffering. Immediately afterwards, the soldiers who had been spectators were treated to sake, the best meal they had had in months, and to so-called comfort girls. The result? They learned to associate committing violent acts with pleasure.
“The Japanese found these kinds of techniques to be extraordinarily effective at quickly enabling very large numbers of soldiers to commit atrocities in the years to come. Operant conditioning teaches you to kill, but classical conditioning is a subtle but powerful mechanism that teaches you to like it.”
Operant conditioning, for the record, is rote learning to kill. Stimulus, reaction. Stimulus, reaction. In airforce training, it is flight simulator computer games – missile lock, fire. Training to operate purely on instinct and adrenalin. Something, says Grossman, that interactive computer games do so well with today’s kids.
So what sort of traction is the issue getting in New Zealand? We invited TVNZ chief executive Ian Fraser to comment, but there’s been no response. However, a working party is due to report back to the Government this September on whether children’s television is too violent.
Investigate approached the Broadcasting Standards Authority for comment on whether our programme standards covered protecting children from the occult.
“We’ve never really thought about it. No one’s ever complained,” reported the BSA. Maybe no one’s ever realised they could.
additional reporting: Glenn Garvin, Michael Zielenziger, KRT