For over thirty years I have represented teens throughout the nation charged with homicide. I have not conducted any laboratory controlled studies on the relationship between violent video games (or for that matter slasher movies or violent music lyrics) and homicidal or aggressive behavior in young people. I have however, come to many understandings about teen homicide and youth violence sitting for hours on end in windowless jail interview rooms with shackled teenagers who have taken the lives of friends, neighbors, family members and strangers. And what I have learned is that the relationship between the killing and what video game the kid plays, what movie he watches or song he listens to is so tenuous as to be irrelevant. If there was any truly meaningful link between homicide and media exposure from any source, then by now one would have seen a whole body of supportive forensic research being used in our courts. If any of this research being trotted out now held even a glimmer of hope for a person accused of murder, attorneys all over the country would be mounting vigorous defenses based upon this connection – but we haven’t. And the reason we haven’t is that the connection between the psychological and behavioral dynamics of youth homicide and violent video games and violent movies is simply not there.
Critics of violent media typically trot out studies which supposedly show that children (in a controlled setting) become more agitated or aggressive in the aftermath of watching a violent movie or playing a violent video game. These studies however have precious little to do with the reality of teens that kill. They do not account for the myriad of familial, social and psychological factors that present themselves in the vast majority of homicides perpetrated by teens and young adults. However, these types of studies gain easy traction with the public and politicians because of a widespread distrust of teenagers and the unspoken belief that even average, well-adjusted 16 or 18 year olds, can’t be relied upon to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
The video-creators of Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil (or for that matter film directors like Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone) are also easy targets for the public’s wrath – much easier than say gun manufacturers. Our nation has a long and enduring history of making our musicians, film makers and television producers whipping boys for the messy, intractable social issues it doesn’t want to confront head on – and that is exactly what we are seeing now. In fact, witness that the only area of common ground between liberals and conservatives in the whole post-Newtown debate is tightening the reins on video-game makers.
Pointing the finger at video game makers also stems from an unwillingness to look directly at ourselves and our families for the real answers. The two principal factors at the heart of these terrible tragedies are long term mental illness and the prolonged exposure to physical violence and sexual abuse in the home. A number of years ago, I represented a young teenage girl who shot her father with his own gun. The state’s theory was that she was under the influence of heavy metal music (Motley Crue) which put thoughts in her mind of the occult and suicide. (Outside the courtroom the prosecutor told the press that “research suggested that teenage fans of such music may be prone to violence.”) As the evidence came in, it became clear that music had nothing to do with the homicide. In finding her not guilty, the judge decided that she killed her father because he was beating her mother and she was fearful he was going to rape her.
Many children who kill also have psychological and behavioral adjustment problems which can be traced back to their pre-school and early elementary school years. In some of these cases parents simply do not see these problems; in others, they see the problems and either don’t know what to do or don’t care to do anything. Our unwillingness to accept the fact that serious mental illness in children and adolescents is simply way beyond the ability of most parents to effectively address is one of the most profound challenges we face in preventing youth violence.
We have for the first time an historic opportunity to move forward the national dialogue about violence in a meaningful way. Obviously restricting access to high-capacity weapons is a needed step, but we are deluding ourselves if we believe that any legislation curbing media violence in any of its forms will prevent future tragedies like Sandy Hook Elementary School.