Three Teens Set Boy on Fire – Why Does this Happen?

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Image via Sun-Sentinel.com

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.

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5 thoughts on “Three Teens Set Boy on Fire – Why Does this Happen?

  1. This is as disgusting and incomprehensible as another “trend” of attacking or killing the homeless. I doubt these young monsters will get much of a penalty.

  2. Children are barbarians, they have little impulse control and experience the world by experimenting and mimicry. Left to their own devices, which unfortunately they often are, they become savages. In gangs it is the young who perpetrate the most violence, if one child had committed this crime one would consider the person’s sanity, but in a group they are capable of anything.

  3. This pack of wild dogs type of behavior is happening more often. The news stories are not saying what ethnic groups these young men are from, but on TV you can clearly see. These people have no mercy. It is reported that they were laughing after the teen was set fire. It is a sorry situation that our children and grandchildren have to be around packs of bullies like this. These people need to be tried as wild dogs or monsters- forget the choice of trying them as adults or minors, there needs to be a special classification with criteria called inhuman. The punishment needs to be as severe as possible in order to send the message to such monsters that such behavior will not be tolerated. Some people are claiming that society is to blame instead of parental training or lack of any training. They all need to be put away in a special jail for monsters with their own kind to be treated as they treated others. Save our kids from these monsters, put them away for the rest of their days.

  4. This pack of wild dogs type of behavior is happening more often. The news stories are not saying what ethnic groups these young men are from, but on TV you can clearly see. These people have no mercy. It is reported that they were laughing after the teen was set fire. It is a sorry situation that our children and grandchildren have to be around packs of bullies like this. These people need to be tried as wild dogs or monsters- forget the choice of trying them as adults or minors, there needs to be a special classification with criteria called inhuman. The punishment needs to be as severe as possible in order to send the message to such monsters that such behavior will not be tolerated. Some people are claiming that society is to blame instead of parental training or lack of any training. They all need to be put away in a special jail for monsters with their own kind to be treated as they treated others. Save our kids from these monsters, put them away for the rest of their days.

  5. I think the legal system in our country needs to change the age at which a person is tried as an adult. In other countries it is far different. In European countries ages set for being tried as criminals are as follows: Great Britian set age 10 as the minimum age of criminality – when all other European nations set the bar at 12 or 14 or even 16.

    Please note that it is called THE MINIMUM AGE OF CRIMINALITY, not called being TRIED AS AN ADULT.
    So our country lags far behind in that legal definition and lets the bullies be tried as big babies and get away with almost whatever they do with very little punishment.

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