For the children who survived the schoolyard slaughter in Jonesboro, Ark., the shootings are an acute, potentially life-altering tragedy. For millions of children around the country, they represent yet another chapter in a chronic problem, also life-altering, but far less dramatic: the continuing saturation of media violence.
As families consume TV news with dinner, devouring endless clips of the slaying's aftermath and teary interviews with friends and families of the victims, parents may not be aware that the media's coverage of the tragedy can have a negative effect on their own children.
The average sixth-grader has witnessed 8,000 murders on television and in the movies. Certainly, average sixth-graders are not likely to shoot their classmates, however much television they watch. To blame the media for this recent spate of children killing children is simplistic. However, hundreds of studies clearly show that as surely as cigarette smoking is linked to cancer, exposure to media violence is linked to aggressive behavior.
Equally concerning is the evidence that, through ongoing exposure to television and film violence, children begin to normalize it. Research shows that they can become desensitized to violent acts and to the victims of violence. Paradoxically, they also can become more fearful of becoming victims of violence themselves.
Finally, in another parallel to cigarette smoking, ongoing exposure to media violence increases children's appetite for more violence in entertainment and in real life.
In spite of the clear evidence that it is harmful to children, sensationalized media violence probably will continue to saturate society. Violence sells. As with their counterparts in the tobacco industry, it is unlikely that TV executives will voluntarily place the well-being of children above their own financial interests. For better or worse, it is up to parents, teachers and other caregivers to try to mitigate the effects of chronic exposure to media violence on their children.
There are things parents can do. The most obvious and sometimes the most difficult is to set limits on the amount of media horror to which your children are exposed. Sit down and watch television with your children so that you have a sense of the kind of violence that they are seeing day after day.
When violence is reported on television news and in newspapers, help children differentiate between reality and fantasy. Share your own feelings about it so that children can learn to associate sadness and anger with violent acts. Remember that one sound bite or a brief conversation cannot undo the horror of an 11- and 13-year-old gunning down their classmates. Give your children the essential gifts of opportunity and support for processing this latest tragedy.
How children respond to the recent schoolyard murders in Arkansas will depend on their age, temperament and experience. Some children may be overtly frightened by the shootings. Some may be afraid that it could happen to them. Some may feel distanced from the possibility of violence in their own lives. Some may be unable to grasp that this really happened to real people. Some may take a protective stance of cynicism and apathy. However children respond, all of them will need help and guidance from the adults who care for them.
Jonesboro is at the epicenter of this tragedy, but the aftershocks will be experienced by children all over the country.