Monday, March 22, 2010

Teens, Violence, and American Malaise

by Julia Buckley
My son is walking around the house with a toy gun, stalking his brother in the time-honored fashion. His round head and angelic face make him look like a Precious Moments figurine, but his commando stealth and narrowed eyes hint at the dreams of a soldier. In one sense I see this as a tradition: my own brothers often maintained amicable conflicts in their teen years--mainly a celebration of violence and testosterone which sometimes had them grappling on the floor of my mother's clean kitchen.

But my brothers didn't have access to all that boys have access to today: violent video games, far more violent movies, violent songs, violent images. According to this USA today article, school shootings are increasing because violence among young people is increasing.

Reasons for this phenomenon are complex: lack of parents at home, more access to guns, a belief that guns solve problems--those are some offered by the psychologists interviewed in the article. Added to these social realities is the very new notion of wanting to be famous for any reason--a sort of AMERICAN IDOL and reality tv-inspired idea that fame is something one deserves and can demand in whatever way necessary.

Naturally I look at my "normal" sons and worry that they, too, are affected by the violence. They used to play really sweet video games about animals escaping from the zoo, or little astronauts landing flying saucers on the moon; but now that they're a teen and an adolescent, they've decided that the only "cool" games are the ones which involve guns and lots of shooting. Like the people who say they read PLAYBOY for the articles, my sons suggest that they like these games for the realistic scenery, the amazing special effects.

But the reality is that they like the violence and the power they feel with the joystick in their hands--so close, really, to wielding a real gun. The violence doesn't end with the game, because they pretend to shoot each other all day. We warn them, we complain about their behavior, we threaten them. But they can't resist the lure of being powerful, even in play. Perhaps the only way to really address it would be to wean them off the games, which are their favorite things in the world.

If we did lose the games, though, they could always turn to the internet for their doses of violence, or the movies--even PG rated ones--which seem to be so much more violent than they once were.

According to the USA Today, this is distinctly an American issue. Perhaps before we address why our children are fascinated by violence, we will have to address why we adults are.

It is ironic, I know, that I like to write tales about murder and I'm quibbling over the kind of killing that fascinates my children. Perhaps we're all drawn to the notion of murder because of the power dynamic behind it, which in itself provides good drama.

But if in fact we are becoming more violent than we once were, is the violence a symptom of a larger illness? What makes it distinctly American? Are we any different now from the raw and violent America that rose in defiance of its motherland?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

When my almost-40 son was a pre-teen, there was much public discussion over whether the playing of fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons promoted violence and amorality (eg if you're a chaotic neutral hobbit, it's okay to steal the treasure). When I presented this concern to my son, he gave me a withering look and said, "Ma, I know the difference between fantasy and reality."

Sheila Connolly said...

I agree that violence is too much a part of our culture, but I remember all too well that when I was a child, there was much debate about whether watching all those westerns would make us violent. My mother had reservations about letting me watch Rin Tin Tin! So far in my life I haven't inflicted violence on anyone, and ours was the generation that protested against the Vietnam War, right?

Maybe all that screen/written violence serves as a proxy, so that we don't need it in our "real" lives.

Julia Buckley said...

Well, Liz and Sheila, your comments are very hopeful; perhaps violence merely follows trends of the time.

The Dungeons and Dragons thing makes me laugh (as does Rin Tin Tin!) because it seems so unlikely an example of violence.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, I can't remember the ins and outs of it, but I think some folks were trying to find a causal relationship between psychotic breaks and fantasy role playing.

Julia Buckley said...

Wow--that's very interesting. But when you examine the stereotypical D and D person, it's generally the staid intellectual with a bent for fantasy, isn't it?

Sandra Parshall said...

I think these things go through cycles. There's no doubt that violence -- in games, movies, etc. -- is the only form of entertainment that appeals to some kids, especially the boys. The concept of childhood is a fairly recent one in human history, though, and in earlier eras boys between 13 and 17 were dying on battlefields and girls that age were routinely marrying and having children. (In some countries this is still the case.) Maybe the behavior that appalls us in teens is an expression of frustration at being held back. Their bodies are telling them they're adults, but society is telling them they're children.

The US is always described as a violent society, but in recent years the national violent crime rate has declined. And no US city can begin to compare with Nairobi, Kenya, the murder capital of the world.

Julia Buckley said...

Some great distinctions and observations, Sandra! One can see the warrior in the boy, but also the boy in the warrior.

But how interesting--the idea that childhood is a recent phenomenon.