Tag Archives: teens

The Slender Man, Fakelore, and Moral Panic

I recently wrote a guest post for the Wild Hunt, looking at the reporting on a horrific teen crime in Wisconsin and its supposed connections to a fictional Internet figure known as Slender Man. Click in through to see the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

Such approaches to the attack suggest that the Internet in general, and the Slender Man story in particular, are to blame. Put another way, they imply that without Creepypasta’s wiki, the girls never would have stabbed their classmate. Even the mainstream press has done everything it can to connect the Milwaukee stabbing with the Slender Man story in readers’ minds: most are referring to it as the “Slenderman stabbing” now. In other places, headlines have made clear what they want readers to think: “Fantasy ‘Slender Man’ Meme Inspires Horrific Wisconsin Stabbing,” “Demonic Creature ‘Slender Man’ Motive For Waukesha Teen Stabbing?” “Could a fictional Internet character drive kids to kill?”

Throwback Thursday: The Comic Book Panic

LadiesHomeJournalNovember1953Cover

Every decade or so, we seem to have a cultural panic about something teens are into. These days, it’s violent video games, but that was far from the first target. Before that, it was heavy metal and role-playing games. The pattern repeats at least back to the 1950s, when the freakout of the times was over comic books and their alleged link to juvenile delinquency. This freakout went all the way to the U.S. Senate.

It also got to the point where magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal were describing the perils of comic books, an idea we mostly laugh at today. The article claims, for example, that the books’ detailed descriptions of crime teach kids how to become criminals. Like many anti-media pieces, it lists in great detail (and without context) the violent deeds described in the stories, as if a roundup is enough to explain the problems inherent in reading these books. It also, typically, cites an increase in “juvenile delinquency” and describes a number of youth-committed crimes in depth, with vague references to comic books (one young criminal’s older brother blames them, for example; I’m sure he’s an authority on the subject).

And, like every other teen pastime, so many kids were reading comics that there’s no real way to say the books — more than any other factor — inspired youths to commit crimes or even just act out. Sure, all of the crimes described in the magazine article can be found in comics, but so can plenty of other things that adults wouldn’t and didn’t find objectionable. Did those aspects of comics inspire teen behavior, too, or just the bad bits? Or maybe kids, like adults, like to see, hear, and read thrilling fiction because it’s just that — fiction.

One reason I like to look back on these moral panics is to show how we feel about them with the benefit of hindsight and perspective. Has any wave of youth violence ever been credibly linked to media? The answer, again and again, is no. So why do we keep blaming their interests?

Dorkly Comic: “Parental Guidance” & games

I don’t normally post cartoons like this without comment, but this so perfectly echoes the message of my blog, I couldn’t resist. Comic by Julia LePetit and Andrew Bridgman of Dorkly.

Leaders: don’t waste money on violent-game studies

Dear President Obama,

This month, you said two things: First, that you asked Congress to allocate $10 million to the Centers for Disease Control to study the “the relationship between video games, media images and violence.” Second, that “We won’t be able to stop every violent act, but if there is even one thing that we can do to prevent any of these events, we have a deep obligation, all of us, to try.”

That’s why I’m writing to you today. I’m not an avid player of video games. I don’t work in the game industry. I’m a journalist, writer and mom who has spent the past several years reading and writing about the relationship between kids, violent video games, and real-life violence. So far, what I’ve learned is that there isn’t one.

Yes, there are hundreds of studies, particularly from researchers Craig Anderson, Brad Bushman, and Doug Gentile, suggesting there may be a link between playing violent video games and short-term aggressive behavior immediately after switching off the game. But they haven’t been able to show that video games _cause_ that behavior, or that post-game aggression translates into violent acts later on. Some people are amped up after playing a particularly intense game of football, too, but we haven’t spent millions of dollars researching whether it makes kids bring guns to school.

If you dig deep into each of these researchers’ studies, they say as much.

There are other studies that reveal the positive influences of these games. For example, two studies from Ohio State University researchers David Ewoldsen and John Velez showed that when kids play violent games cooperatively – as many do – they come out of the games feeling pretty good. Canadian researcher Jayne Gackenbach has shown that playing violent video games can help soldiers overcome nightmares induced by the traumas of war, an outcome that seems like it could apply to other gamers trying to make sense of our violent world overall.

In Somalia, video-game-play is on the rise, and many parents are glad, because it’s keeping their kids off the dangerous streets. That’s also true at home: University of Texas at Arlington researcher Michael Ward found that in towns with more video-game retailers, juveniles commit fewer violent crimes – because they’re too busy playing to get into trouble.

By far the best text on the benefits of violent games and aggressive play for kids is Gerard Jones’ book “Killing Monsters.” I interviewed Jones in 2011 for a Wired.com article on why violent video games are good for teens, written at the time the Supreme Court voted against a ban on the sale of these games to minors. He said:

“For the world of adolescents, [reality has] mostly gotten more stressful and bleaker,” he said, citing the dire economy, stressed-out parents, the increasing demands of public education and two lengthy wars in the Middle East. “This is not a cheerful time to be coming of age in America. The need for escape, the need for fantasies of potency, and the need for a community of peers is greater than it’s been in a long time.” He has said, in other moments, that we cannot expect teens to accept forms of entertainment that have been sanitized of the violence they know exists around them every day.

However, one of the most important sources of information on the relationship between violent video games and young players is the players themselves. As a nation we have spent far too much time studying the supposed affects of games on gamers, and almost no time asking gamers questions about why they enjoy them. If you ask, they will tell you that they love the escape, the chance to explore violent ideas safely and without hurting anybody, the opportunity to play the hero, and much more. I interviewed and surveyed dozens of young gamers for a book I wrote for parents – a book that, given our current cultural climate, I believe parents need more than ever, but unfortunately has found almost no support in the publishing world.

So far, Congress has been smart, vetoing just about every bill that proposes a study of violent video games and young players. To start spending money now on such studies would be a tremendous waste of money that could be put to more productive use, such as providing more mental-health support for violent teens and their struggling families. If Congress does wind up putting money into video-game studies, however, please make sure those studies look at the potential benefits of violent games, not just our preconceived notions of harm, which hundreds of studies have already failed to support.

Thank you.

Chantel Garrett’s “Three Steps to Fix Our Mental Health System and Prevent Violence”


Brain images from people with schizophrenia. Photo by Flickr user http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca.

In the month since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary (which as far as we know, was not committed by someone with mental illness), I’ve been encouraged by how much of the conversation has been framed around mental health and the lack of services for those who need them. We saw that front-and-center with Liza Long’s powerful “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” post. We’ve seen it elsewhere, too. I want to call attention another such story today, because it makes great points about what’s missing and what society needs to do — not only to curb mass shootings, but also to help the many, many nonviolent people who struggle with mental illness daily but can’t get the help they need because it doesn’t exist or isn’t available to them.

Chantel Garrett wrote this piece about her brother, Max, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. In her article, she doesn’t just talk about how difficult it is for Max to stay afloat. She also offers concrete steps for repairing the system so that Max and others like him might hope for functional, fulfilling lives.

Mostly, I want to let Garrett do the talking here, because she does it well:

2) Change the law to more easily help an adult loved one get involuntary care when they desperately need it – before anyone gets hurt.

We must begin to fill the gaps in the mental health care system that could have potentially helped to prevent recent massacres at the hands of people in need of psychiatric intervention. Studies show that early intervention greatly improves the prospect for recovery. In my own experience with my brother, a first dose of anti-psychotics during a psychotic episode palpably reduces paranoia and hallucinations.

A few years ago, Max went off his medication, barricading himself in his apartment and warning his family to stay away. In an extremely psychotic state, he plastered the Web with terrifying words and images, predominantly aimed at the people who love him most. While punishing to read, as the time and severity of his symptoms wore on, his posts became our only proof that he was still alive – our only hope that he could still get help.

For two months, my parents and I campaigned the local police to knock down his door and get him to a hospital. My dad became a fixture at the police station. We sent the police chief Max’s blog and threatening emails. We explained his diagnosis, his years of involuntary hospital commitments and dire need for care before he did more permanent damage to his brain. His neighbors also called the police to complain. The police went to his house multiple times but said they didn’t have cause to forcefully enter. Their response was always the same. “We understand that he’s very sick, but what has he done? Call us when he’s done something and we’ll pick him up.”

Males with schizophrenia most often become symptomatic in their late teens to early 20s. From a legal standpoint, parents hands are often tied trying to get help for their sick child who is of legal age, with the current standard of “danger to oneself or others” far too hazardous.

The “dangerous” bar is too high to get someone with acute psychotic symptoms care when they need it most – and when they are the largest threat to themselves and, potentially, their family and community. Why should it not instead be a standard of gravely disabled – unable to care for oneself or for others? Surely, if the police could have somehow glimpsed at him and his apartment, they would have immediately seen that he was unable to care for himself.

We need to change the law, and create a mental health workforce working alongside officers and families to provide more proactive, onsite assessment of people who are credibly unable to care for themselves – before it gets to the point of “dangerous.”

Do you know someone who’s mentally ill and prone to violence when they’re in their darkest periods? If so, what do you think would help them the most?

Violent games didn’t cause Sandy Hook shooting


Did Call of Duty make Adam Lanza kill? Not likely.

I don’t know if this seems fishy to anyone else, but over the weekend, politicians and the press began speculating that violent video games must have had something to do with the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. For example, you had Connecticut’s own senator, Joe Lieberman, saying things like, “Very often these young men have an almost hypnotic involvement in some form of violence in our entertainment culture – particularly violent video games. And then they obtain guns and become not just troubled young men but mass murderers.”

That’s not the fishy part. Well, okay it is, but it gets fishier: a few days later, the UK’s oh-so-reputable Sun unearthed a plumber who swears that shooter Adam Lanza played Call of Duty for hours every day. I don’t even know where to start.

It’s hard to imagine how a plumber could have a good window into someone’s behavior over time, unless for some reason he lived in the Lanza home. So there’s that.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Lanza did play the game. Then there’s the fact that more than 55 million people play Call of Duty. Sure, Anders Breivik also played Call of Duty. I bet both Anders Breivik and Adam Lanza also ate toast, or wore pants, or saw The Sound of Music. In other words, this is a pastime so common that it can’t be linked to any particular sort of behavior. All sorts of people play Call of Duty. It has wide, massive appeal. One or two of them is potentially going to go off the deep end in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Their gaming habits aren’t relevant.

This week, the Internet has been awash with writeups arguing that video games did — or didn’t — lend a hand in the Sandy Hook shooting. I’m not going to go through them exhaustively, but you can check them out on the Backward Messages Pinterest boards. I do want to call two pieces of news and commentary to your attention.

In the first, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has introduced a bill to study the impact of violent video games on children. What a complete waste of taxpayer money. We’ve had dozens, even hundreds of studies — and even those that suggest a correlation between violent video games and aggression a) cannot prove that games lead to actual violence, b) only rarely show any verifiable link at all, and c) can’t prove whether it’s players’ need for an aggressive outlet which draw them to the games, rather than the games leading to aggression. Visit this blog’s video-games category to see articles on many of these studies.

In the second, the Washington Post looked at video games and gun violence in 10 countries and found, basically, “that countries where video games are popular also tend to be some of the world’s safest (probably because these countries are stable and developed, not because they have video games). And we also have learned, once again, that America’s rate of firearm-related homicides is extremely high for the developed world.”

A decade ago, studies showed that mass shooters tended to be kids who played video games less than average. Now that pretty much everyone plays a video game now and then — much more so than 10 or 20 years ago — it’s probably safe to say that these killers do play. But again, gaming is now so common that it’s akin to watching television or blockbuster movies; you just can’t say that engaging in it will lead to any specific outcome. And you can’t use one violent act to justify taking games away from the millions and millions of people who enjoy them safely.

In fact, it’s likely that Lanza enjoyed them safely, too. It’s likely that his gaming had nothing to do with his crime. It’s also likely that something in his mind went awry, and the fact that his mom trained him to shoot gunsnot the fact that he’d played a shooter video game — gave him the means to act on his brain’s break with reality.

Do video games make teens aggressive, or do aggressive teens like aggressive games?


A new study finds that teens who play violent video games are more aggressive than those who don’t. Or does it? Photo by Flickr User soleface23.

A new longitudinal study of 1,492 teens at eight high schools in Canada looks at those who play violent video games regularly, and those who don’t, and asks them questions about their behavior. Here’s what Brock University researchers Teena Willoughby, Paul Adachi, and Marie Good say they found:

Sustained violent video game play was significantly related to steeper increases in adolescents’ trajectory of aggressive behavior over time. Moreover, greater violent video game play predicted higher levels of aggression over time, after controlling for previous levels of aggression, supporting the socialization hypothesis. In contrast, no support was found for the selection hypothesis. Nonviolent video game play also did not predict higher levels of aggressive behavior over time.

Right now, there’s no way to access the full study without paying for it, and the writeups in the Telegraph and Kotaku don’t shed a lot of light on the study’s details. Importantly, though, Kotaku did ask:

However, the study leaves open the distinction between correlation and causation. Publicly available materials leave unclear in which direction the link might actually go: do the games cause teenagers to act aggressively, or are teenagers with aggressive dispositions more likely also to play violent games?

(In that light, it’s important to note that the Telegraph’s headline, “Violent video games make teenagers more aggressive, study finds/Teenagers who play violent video games over a number of years become more aggressive towards other people as a result, a new study has found” is misleading.)

At any rate, I do wonder how this study went down, and that’s partly because I’m familiar with the work of Jonathan Freeman. In his book Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence, he points out that when study subjects are given permission to be more aggressive, they are more likely to be. (If you click through to that link, you can see some examples of what he’s talking about.)

Now, not all the kids in the Brock study were aggressive. The researchers found that only the teens playing violent video games became more aggressive; the ones playing nonviolent games weren’t aggressive. But here’s the thing: did the kids know what was being studied? Do they know, by now, that many people think violent video games make you violent? If so, wouldn’t that seem like a kind of permission, at least to a teenager? At the very least, maybe they are unconsciously living up to some kind of expectation.

It’s also a concern that kids are self-reporting their actions, without any objective measure to back up what they’re saying. Maybe those who play violent games are more comfortable with aggressive behavior, and with reporting it. Or maybe they think it’s cool, so they brag about little incidents, or exaggerate and say they were aggressive when they weren’t. Teens are trustworthy plenty of the time, but there could be enough in a study like this, who may not take it seriously, to skew the results.

Or, as Kotaku points out, it may simply be that kids who are more aggressive in general are also drawn to video games where aggression is okay. Which brings us to another question: How much more aggressive are aggressive kids who don’t play violent video games? That’s worth studying, too.

By the way, Backward Messages may be taking a little vacation over the next couple of weeks. I’ll post if I can, but things may not be back to normal until early November.