Jun 12, 1998

 

Unlinking the Chain of Teen Violence

 

By Myriam Miedzian

 

The National Rifle Association this week elected Charlton Heston as its president hard on the heels of the Springfield, Ore. Schoolyard shooting. That’s somehow fitting, since the actor who played Moses handing down the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is the ideal choice to paint a moralizing gloss over the obvious link between the easy availability of guns and the lethal escalation of youth violence.

The NRA takes the line that children and their parents, not guns, are exclusively to blame. NRA chief lobbyist Tanya Metaksa recently struck a Biblical tone, exculpating guns by calling Kip Kinkel, the 15-year-old perpetrator of the Springfield tragedy, evil. But the clinical fact is that many young people are at risk for violent behavior. Dismissing boys like Kinkel as evil anomalies misses the point that youth violence often stems from medical conditions that are treatable.

It would be unthinkable to withhold medical care from a diabetic child, feed him sweets, then blame him for going into sugar shock. Yet this is exactly what we do with millions of children, mostly boys, whose medical conditions put them at high risk for violence. Those include attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity (ADHD), learning disability (LD), mild mental retardation, mild autism and conduct disorders. The majority of kids who suffer from such disorders go untreated while the entertainment industry feeds them a steady diet of violence and the gun lobby blocks regulation to take weapons out of their hands.

Kip Kinkel is one of these boys, diagnosed with ADHD and LD when he was 11, given access to guns but not to effective treatment. ADHD is six to nine times more prevalent among boys than girls, mental retardation nearly twice as prevalent, autism three times, and conduct disorder four to 12 times as prevalent. LD may be more equally gender-balanced but LD boys suffer disproportionately from ADHD.

As a result, boys are at greater risk for violent behavior, and the signs are usually apparent from a young age. Age 11 is often too late for diagnosis and treatment to head off' violent behavior in adolescence and adulthood. Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber's allotment of $30 million to violence prevention programs is a positive step, but funds must be targeted to early intervention.

One mother of a boy with ADHD, born the same year as Kinkel, described how as a baby her son invariably woke up crying and kicking. By age 3 he was punching her and throwing numerous temper tantrums. At this point the family sought professional advice and was told that without active intervention their toddler was likely to become a violent man. They got the help they needed early, and today, at 15, the boy exhibits no violent behavior. He channels aggressive energies into sports other than the shooting kind.

Early intervention may not always work, but it’s still a good investment. An estimated 30 percent of delinquent boys and 40 percent of the jail population suffer from LD. Up to 30 percent of criminal offenders are mildly retarded. Getting professional help to at-risk children would undoubtedly be less costly than the incarceration associated with non-treatment. Besides, do we withhold treatment from children with leukemia just because it doesn't always cure them?

Not only do many high-risk children go untreated, they see more than 10,000 TV murders by the age of 18, including endless scenes of people shot down, blown up and burned alive. They develop shooting skills in video games and listen to music lyrics that denigrate women and extol violence. They spend more time being "entertained" than with their parents or in school. No parent can hope to protect their children entirely from this onslaught of cultural violence combined with easily available guns. What can we as a society do about it?

We can work to counter the gun lobby and demand effective gun control legislation. We can establish a Children's Public Broadcasting System free of gratuitous violence. The Children's Television Workshop and Nickelodeon are working on a kids' cable channel, but it may eventually carry ads, including ones for violent toys. We need two commercial-free channels: one for younger children and another for preadolescents.

We can institute parental TV control devices. In 1991 the-Senate passed a bill that would have given parents a way to block entire channels they deem inappropriate for their children, but the House rejected it. The V -chip compromise blocks certain shows with violent content, but combining a CPBS and a parental control device is the only way to achieve a separate, sate, TV universe for children.

We can regulate violent entertainment. We provide legal protection for children against labor, liquor and pornography. Many 1st Amendment experts agree that laws protecting children from entertainment violence would pass Supreme Court muster. In Europe, film rating laws are enforced without stifling free speech. In the United States, MPAA ratings are "suggested" and therefore unenforced. Meanwhile, who is the target market for our multimillion-dollar, violent "R"-rated blockbusters? Young teenage boys.

Over the past decade, arrests of 15-year-old boys on murder charges increased more than 200 percent and arrests of boys 12 and under were up 100 percent. After Paducah, Jonesboro, and Springfield, we can't accept the NRA argument that youth violence is a moral failing of a few "evil" kids or parents. It is a national epidemic. We have options and tools at our disposal to treat it. Let's use them.

 

Myriam Miedzian is the author of "Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence."