I’ve been f0llowing the unbelievably horrific news about a seventh grader being set on fire by three teenagers in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Around 3:00 pm yesterday, the younger boy was doused with flammable liquid by the others and set ablaze in front of an apartment complex. He survived but suffered burns on 75% of his body.
When something like this happens the first thing everyone wants to know is, what was the motive? In this case, it sounds like revenge. The younger boy had stopped someone from stealing his father’s bike the day before and refused to go to school on Monday for fear of retribution. The three who attacked him may have been involved with the would-be theft.
To me, that’s all beside the point. What I want to know is–what in the world could influence kids to set another human being on fire? The willingness to torch someone and then watch them be burned alive is about as barbaric as it gets. If we were talking about hardened murderers doing such a thing, we’d categorize it as deplorable though predictable behavior. But these aren’t hardened murderers — they’re kids.
The usual media suspects will be talked about as catalysts: violent video games, television and movies. It’s too early to speculate about much of anything in this case, but we can be fairly certain that these kids play violent video games and watch violent media–it would be hard to find a teenager in the U.S. who doesn’t–so it’s worth exploring these influences as part of the behavior matrix, while at the same time not drawing unfounded conclusions.
Though there isn’t perfect consistency in the enormous research literature on this subject, we do know that duration of exposure to violent media is a major factor when it comes to behavioral linkages. Lengthy exposure triggers learning processes, leading to development of “scripts” (strong neural associations in the brain) linked to violence, and a heightened chance of violent behavior as a result.
A 2004 study in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest captures research findings in this area very well. From the study abstract:
Well-supported theory delineates why and when exposure to media violence increases aggression and violence. Media violence produces short-term increases by priming existing aggressive scripts and cognitions, increasing physiological arousal, and triggering an automatic tendency to imitate observed behaviors. Media violence produces long-term effects via several types of learning processes leading to the acquisition of lasting (and automatically accessible) aggressive scripts, interpretational schemas, and aggression-supporting beliefs about social behavior, and by reducing individuals’ normal negative emotional responses to violence (i.e., desensitization).
We also know that the degree to which a viewer associates with a particular character(s) in media–either outright idolizing the character, or simply finding affinities that make him or her especially compatible with the viewer–plays a big part in media influence. We’ve seen this come up over and over again with smoking-in-media research, and the evidence supporting the violence connection is also convincing.
Clearly, there may be any number of other influence factors at play in this horrible event. Peer influence (which consistently comes out as one of the strongest of all adolescent influences when it comes to risk behavior) and parental involvement, or lack of, are high on the list of possible catalysts. This recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that in the medley of adolescent violence influences, media ranks rather low. Peer influence and verbal cruelty of parents are the real culprits, with exposure to violent media pulling up a distant third at best.
The reality is we’ll probably never have a firm explanation for this or any of the senseless acts of extreme violence perpetrated by adolescents–but as news of more and more of these attacks comes to our attention, it sure seems like we need one.