In 1997, fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal fired a .22 caliber handgun at an informal prayer group in his high school in West Paducah, Kentucky, killing three students and wounding five. In 1998 in Pearl, Mississippi, sixteen-yearold Luke Woodham first killed his mother, and then went to school and shot nine students, killing two. In the same year, fifteen-year-old Kip Kinkel shot and killed his parents and two classmates and wounded twenty-three others. In 2000, a first-grader in Michigan shot and killed another six-year-old after a schoolyard quarrel the day before.
Events such as these have raised concerns about an increase in juvenile crime despite statistics that reveal a decline. According to the Justice Department, the juvenile arrest rate is at its lowest level since 1966, having decreased 68 percent from 1993 to 1999. The arrest rates for four major crimes—robbery, rape, murder, and aggravated assault— dropped 36 percent from 1994 to 1999. Burglary is down 60 percent since 1980, and juvenile arrest rates for weapons crimes fell by 39 percent from 1993 to 1999. Despite these statistics, tragic events such as school shootings have led the public to perceive an increase in both the severity and frequency of juvenile crimes. A 2000 Gallup Poll revealed that Americans believe juveniles to be responsible for 43 percent of all violent crime in the United States, even though statistics from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) claim that juveniles are responsible for only 12 percent of all violent crime.
Just as Americans disagree on the severity of the problem of juvenile crime, they also debate its causes. Many argue that the proliferation of violence in the media contributes significantly to violent behavior in young people. When Michael Carneal was asked by police if he had ever seen anything similar to his actions before, he replied that he had seen it in the 1995 film The Basketball Diaries. The film, which depicts the descent of a promising young poet and basketball player into a sordid life of heroin addiction, contains a dream sequence in which the central character breaks down a door at his high school and kills his classmates with a shotgun. The parents of the three slain girls in Kentucky claim that the violence depicted in the movie— particularly in that scene—influenced Carneal to commit his crime, and they have filed a lawsuit against the makers of the film, Time Warner and Polygram Film. The parents are not alone in their argument, however, as sociologists, psychologists, and even the entertainment industries have begun to examine the amount of violence in the media and its effect on young people.
In 1994, the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) launched the National Television Violence Study (NTVS), which evaluated the content of violent television programming from 1994 to 1997. The study found that the violent content of television shows increased from slightly over one-half of prime time programming to two-thirds of all programming by the end of the study. Seventy-five percent of violent scenes showed no punishment for the characters’ aggressive actions. In addition, many of the villains and heroes on television and in movies experience little or no injury from their gunshot wounds, stabbings, or broken limbs. Psychologists claim that the sheer volume of violence depicted in the media teaches children to respond to everyday situations with aggression. Moreover, because the media do not realistically depict the negative consequences of violence, critics assert, young people are further encouraged to imitate the actions of heroic figures on television.
The NTVS study also revealed that juveniles who watch a lot of television seem to be less disturbed by violence in general and are less likely to see anything wrong with it. By the time most young people graduate from high school, they will have witnessed an average of 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders on television and in movies. Experts claim that such exposure to violence decreases a child’s sensitivity to another person’s pain and suffering. Having seen so many acts of violence, children may lose their capacity for empathy and become less distressed by real acts of violence. Psychologist Leonard Eron concludes that “there can no longer be any doubt that heavy exposure to televised violence is one of the causes of aggressive behavior, crime, and violence in society. The evidence comes from both the laboratory and real-life studies. Television violence affects youngsters of all ages, of both genders, at all socio-economic levels and all levels of intelligence. The effect is not limited to children who are already disposed to being aggressive and is not restricted to this country.”
Other experts maintain that there is no conclusive evidence that links media violence to aggression. Jonathan Freedman, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, claims that factors other than media violence contribute to juvenile aggression and that the scientific evidence is not consistent enough to prove a causal link between fantasy violence and violent behavior: “The scientific evidence does not support the view that exposure to media violence causes aggression. Kids were aggressive long before media or television was around. So there are a lot of reasons why kids can be aggressive. It’s an easy out—it’s an easy scapegoat.” Freedman and others argue that child abuse is a much more conclusive cause of juvenile crime than violent images in the media.
Richard Rhodes, author of Why They Kill: Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, concurs, claiming that children learn violent behavior from their family and peers, not from violence in the media: “Violence isn’t learned from mock violence. There is good evidence . . . that it’s learned in personal violent encounters, beginning with the brutalization of children by their parents or their peers.” Rhodes and others maintain that a child’s interpersonal relationships, not entertainment choices, define his or her perception of acceptable behavior, and that it is the parents’ responsibility to teach their children the difference between fantasy violence and reality.
The shooting in Kentucky led to an inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission in 1999 into the marketing practices of the entertainment industries, which found that the television, film, and music industries deliberately marketed products that were inappropriately violent to children under seventeen. In response, the industries agreed to increase their self-regulatory efforts at providing age-appropriate material to young people, but they continue to maintain that fantasy violence does not lead to aggressive behavior in juveniles. Whether violent images in the media contribute to juvenile crime is one of the issues debated in Juvenile Crime: Opposing Viewpoints, which contains the following chapters: Are Juvenile Crime and Violence Increasing? What Causes Juvenile Crime and Violence? What Factors Contribute to Gang-Related Juvenile Crime? How Can Juvenile Crime Be Combated? Examination of these topics should give readers an understanding of the various issues surrounding the problem of juvenile crime.