April 8, 2008

School Shootings: The Cause

Four months ago, at Northern Illinois University, there was a school shooting. This event is similar to what happened on April 16, 2007 when reporters were in a frenzy to report on the Virginia Tech Shooting. As the news reported, a male Virginia Tech student killed many university students and professors, and then he committed suicide. This was an extremely traumatic and shocking event because it exemplified how even in the middle class, primarily white, academic world danger can arise. Consequentially, the public questioned the cause of this man's violent act immediately following the event, and they searched for someone or something to blame. Unfortunately for the media, popular culture and the media as a whole were held responsible. School shootings, such as Virginia Tech are infrequent, but extremely frightening events. In nearly all cases, popular culture and the media are targeted as the causes of violent behavior. Ironically, media has no proven association with violence. In fact, professionals state that mental illness is the key cause. However, because grave issues, such as the cause of violent impules require people to look into themselves in order to resolve the problem, it is easier to point fingers and redirect the blame. Additionally, the ubiquity of media is a new phenomenon, therefore several adults fear the effects of media on children because their childhood did not include computer games and frequent television use.

This entire cycle of placing blame on the media begins with news reporting. After the Virginia Tech shooting transpired, many news mediums were fast to name video game Counter Strike as the culprit in the event. Fox News reported that gaming is directly related to the deaths of the victims at Virginia Tech. The article quoted Jack Thompson (depicted to the right), a video game critic, stating that there are "real people that are in the ground now because of this game." To frantic parents, this statement was a relief because it explained some rationale for the terrible episode. In reality, the parents simply believed what they read without checking the facts. Thompson's commentary is simliar to past remarks associated with school shootings. After the Columbine Shooting in 1999, there was a widely covered lawsuit against video game production companies. The BBC reported that the lawsuit asserts "that many of the computer games produced by the 25 companies it names created the conditions that made the massacre possible." While there was no evidence to support this claim and the lawsuit was rejected in court, the idea that there is a relationship between video games and school shootings permeated society. Because the news maintains sensationalized reporting regarding school shootings, the true causes of adolescent violence remained silenced.

In actuality, mental illness is the primary causal factor for adolescent violence. In Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epedemialogy by Steinkopff, it is denoted that "patients who suffer from serious mental conditions are more prone to violent behavior." If this illness goes untreated, it can be tremendously dangerous to both the patient and others. Moreover, in a study that was conducted by the National Research Council Institude of Medicine, statistics reveal that five of eight school shooters had mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and clinical depression. The study also bares information about the perpetrators prior to the shootings. Many of these people had tried to kill themselves at an earlier time. Thus, this violent behavior is somewhat explicable after understanding mental illness and its severe effects. Some of these life-impeding symptoms include suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, learning disabilities, anxiety, et cetera. Therefore, even if the school shooters played video games, mental illness is clearly the real problem. There may be a correlation between school shooters and video games in that violent teenagers play violent games. however it is inaccurate to use this correlation to explain that video games (like the one depicted) rather than mental illness causes violence.

So the question that remains is why do people blame the media? The first reason is that mental illness and youth violence are two topics that are sensitive and quite personal for most individuals. To evaluate if a child has a psychological disorder, one must look deeply into their own households. This is a difficult and emotional task for most people. it is simpler to redirect the blame to an outward source. Secondly, as University of Southern California Professor Karen Sternheimer states, "media culture has expanded exponentially over the last few decade." Because there is so much access to media products and media is completely incorporated into society, people fear a loss of control. Parents no longer know exactly what their child is watching on the television or what their child is doing when they are playing video games. Just as ignorance regarding people of other cultures, religions and races produces prejudice, so does a lack of understanding of media.

As Professor Sternheimer points out in It's Not the Media, adults fears about the media causing youth to commit homicidal acts completely disregards children's ability to rationalize. Furthermore, an examination conducted by Professor Sternheimer reinforces the point that violence is learned through social contexts and personal life experiences. Her research reveals that the "meaning of violence is made within particular social contexts. " This means that one source, the media, does not inform kids about sadism. It is the varying life experience of each individual child that affects their understanding of aggression. The news should focus on school shooters' lives leading up to the event and their mental illnesses when reporting about these tragedies. Additionally, schools and parents ought to pay special attention to signs of mental illness and seek treatment immediately if it is necessary. In order to prevent future heart wrenching events in schools, video games can no longer be the scapegoats and people must look at the real issue.


DHL said...


Thank you refreshing us about an important topic like school shootings and giving the reader a different perspective of what may have caused these violent acts.

This post was well-written. You started with a good background of a recent event, and then seamlessly transitioned into your stance that "mental illness is the primary causal factor for adolescent violence." In addition to quoting facts from articles, you also gave statistics like "five of eight school shooters had mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and clinical depression" to support your argument. This is a scary, yet true correlation that is hard to ignore.

Realistically, many people play violent video and computer games like Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft, yet a majority do not develop violent behavior. So I agree that often times media is depicted as the scapegoat; however, the problem actually lies within the shooter and his/her family. I believe that people do not one day wake up and plan to kill people. Blaming the media only helps short term, but if we want to avoid these problems in the long run, school officials should be more cautious of those who may need to seek help, by keeping a close eye on those that show symptoms of an "outbreak".

The only advice I have is to fix the link to the images, so the viewer can read Jack Thompson's article. Also, it may be helpful if you can somehow link some text to Professor Sternheimer's book "It's Not the Media" in case the reader wants additional information. Other than that, I really enjoyed reading your post, it flowed smoothly. Look forward to reading more of your posts!

Nate said...

I liked this article, but any time someone attempts to pin down "the cause" of complex, and I suspect, disparate phenomena, they're asking for trouble. I am a bit curious how the author would answer the obvious question, which is, why do these shootings appear to be a relatively recent phenomenon?

I mean, I don't think depression or schizophrenia are recent phenomena, and if the incidence rates of these conditions have not significantly varied over time, then why were there not school shootings in 1956?

There is another point to be made here; if, and I do not doubt this is the case, five of the eight shooters had mental disorders, that's certainly significant, but the three out of eight who may not have been suffering from such disorders, who at least remained undiagnosed, must also be considered. After all, that's still around 38% of the cases.

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