After Columbine, many Americans blamed the Net for the massacre. "Are videogames turning your kids into killers?" asked the cover of one newsmagazine. Last friday, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said video games contribute to an "ethic of violence." The truth is, many more kids kill themselves then others, often because of bullying, a subject about which Ashcroft had nothing to say. The question really is whether vicious kids and hostile school environments are turning kids into killers. It's a question neither politicians nor the media seem to want to ask. (Read more.)
What makes big news -- and what doesn't -- is always telling. We hear a lot about kids who get gunned down in schools by their peers. We usually hear even more about the evil influences on their lives, from gaming to violent TV and movies to the Net. Yet a vastly greater number kill themselves because of their peers. That doesn't draw many headlines or stories on the evening news, or denunciations from the President.
In the past 15 months, four students have been killed and a more than a score wounded in a series of U.S. school shootings, the most recent in Santee, California, where 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams allegedly opened fire from a bathroom in Santana High, killing two and wounding 13.
As usual, the government has tended to blame video games and violent movies and TV shows. Aschroft said "the entertainment industry, with it's video games and the like, which sometimes literally teach shooting and all, we've got to ask ourselves, how do we as a culture ... be more responsible."
It's a good question, but not in the way Ashcroft means. Many kids, like Tempest Smith of Lincoln Park, Michigan, simply couldn't take being teased and bullied any longer
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2,000 school-age children aged 19 or younger take their own lives each year. The rise in suicides by children ages 10 to 14 is especially alarming, say CDC officials.
Psychologists and researchers report that bullying, taunting or constant ridicule by peers is often a major factor in these suicides, as well as a constant thread running through the horrific series of school shootings.
The Detroit News recently told the story of 12-year-old Smith, who hung herself from her bunk bed in February, leaving behind diaries describing the continuous harassment she faced daily about her shyness, her clothing and religious beliefs. She wrote that these taunts made life unbearable. And hers is not an isolated case. In recent months, I've gotten e-mail from the parents and friends of an Ohio hacker who shot himself at 14 after continuous jeering about his gaming. He was suspended for writing an enraged essay criticizing the values of his school, a piece that contained threats to retaliate against kids who had been bullying him for years. I've also heard from the parents of a 15-year-old Goth in Pennsylvania who slashed her wrists and died after years of teasing from classmates. Kids who are non-conformist, rebellious, individualistic or different in other ways are routinely subjected to harassment all kinds, as well as life in schools that cling to outdated curriculums, punish non-conformity and isolate individuals.
"Everyone is against me," Tempest Smith wrote in her diary. "Will I ever have friends again? ... Will I ever live in peace?"
More than 90 percent of people who commit suicide suffer from clinical depression, according to studies by the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, D.C. "Often, it's these mental conditions that cause children to be teased in the first place," an association official told the Detroit News. Taunting also is cited as a factor in many of the cases -- including the horror at Columbine -- in which kids kill other kids. Yet 81 percent of Americans told the Gallup they blame the Internet for Columbine.
A handful of schools have instituted anti-bullying and harrassment programs, but the popular media and most politicians seem much more interested in kids who go over the edge and shoot others than in the many more who are driven over the edge and kill themselves. Maybe it's time to shift focus.