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Why Do the Young Become Homicidal?

Politicians and media play the blame game, avoiding root causes of youth violence, USC sociologist Karen Sternheimer finds.

Why Do the Young Become Homicidal?
Blaming violent video games for violent kids is nothing new. In 1999, the culprit was the first-person shooter game Doom and the tragedy was Columbine.

But holding video games responsible for violent youth ignores the fact that as play has skyrocketed, youth violence has plummeted, USC College sociologist Karen Sternheimer said in an article in the winter issue of Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association.

Annual sales of video games and accessories now top $10 billion. Yet in the 10 years following Doom’s 1993 release – not to mention many other brutish titles since – juvenile homicide arrest rates fell 77 percent. And students have less than a seven in 10 million chance of being killed at school, Sternheimer found.

“If we want to understand why young people become homicidal, we need to look beyond the games they play,” Sternheimer said.

Placing the blame on video games exonerates the environment that a child lives in that might nurture violence: poverty, instability, family violence, unemployment and mental illness, Sternheimer argued.

“It is equally likely that more aggressive people seek out violent entertainment,” Sternheimer said. “After adult rampage shootings in the workplace, which happen more often than school shootings, reporters seldom mention if the shooters played video games.”

In the end, blaming video games also removes the culpability of the criminals when they are white middle-class boys who live in the safe suburbs of America, Sternheimer said.

“When boys from ‘good’ neighborhoods are violent, they seem to be harbingers of a ‘new breed’ of youth, created by video games rather than by their social circumstances,” Sternheimer writes. “White, middle-class killers retain their status as children easily influenced by a game, victims of an allegedly dangerous product. African-American boys, apparently, are simply dangerous.”

In her article, Sternheimer analyzed newspaper coverage and FBI statistics detailing trends on youth crime. She has been studying these issues extensively for the past several years while compiling information for her books, Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions About Today’s Youth (Rowan & Littlefield, 2006) and It’s Not the Media: The Truth About Pop Culture’s Influence on Children (Westview, 2003).

A highly touted 2001 analysis of previous studies in Psychological Science found that video games did increase aggressive behavior. But it is rarely noted that the analysis used college students and measured aggression in terms of reading “aggressive” words on a computer screen or blasting opponents with sound.

“They don’t offer much insight as to why a few isolated kids, and not the millions of others who play these games, decided to pick up real weapons and shoot real people,” Sternheimer said.

Two other more recent studies in leading journals could not support a finding of increased aggression among players of violent video games. Sternheimer found their results were rarely cited in news accounts.