As students returned to school this fall to find greatly heightened security following last year's school shootings, that haunting question remains: What leads children to turn guns on their schoolmates and teachers?
In the search for answers, movies, TV, video games, and the Internet have begun to receive some long overdue attention as contributors to violence among youths.
But why aren't we talking about the violence that is marketed to younger children through toys and products linked to TV programs, movies, and video games? This is how many children are first drawn into a culture of violence.
Research tells us that the roots of violent behavior are established when children are very young. For instance, the American Psychological Association has concluded that patterns of aggressive behavior at age 8 are highly predictive of aggressive behavior in adulthood. And we know from research that media violence contributes to aggression and violence in young children.
Both the quantity and quality of violence marketed to young children have continued escalating since children's TV was deregulated in 1984 and it became legal to market toys to children through media. First it was done through TV shows like "GI Joe," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," and "Power Rangers." Now, movies are often the preferred vehicle for marketing violent toys and products to children.
Many of the movies are rated PG-13 or even R, but their toys are marketed to children ages 4 and up. To name but a few: "Godzilla," "Small Soldiers," "Spawn," "Jurassic Park," and "Starship Troopers."
Often, toys linked to these movies are also linked to other media such as TV, video games, and comic books. This cross-feeding starts with toys for the youngest children and begins the cycle of children's involvement with entertainment violence.
Witness a recent visit to the toy store. Prominently displayed are "The Mummy" toys linked to the PG-13 movie of the same name. The box for the "Impaled Mummy" action figure reads "Ages 4 & up." The figure has a skull head and visible, blood-covered internal organs. As directed on the box, a child plays with this toy figure by putting a spear through his back and watching the effects. For children who don't yet read, this is shown graphically through pictures.
Toys such as these, which are recommended for young children but linked to movies rated for older children, are not uncommon on toy store shelves.
"Small Soldiers" characters such as Freakenstein, who is made of body parts found on the battlefield, and Chip Hazard with his blow-apart legs - both also marketed to children ages 4 and up - sit on shelves next to "Godzilla," "Spawn," and a host of other violent toys.
These toys are highly profitable for the entertainment industries. "Small Soldiers" toys, for example, were the third-bestselling new toy of 1998, as reported in the March issue of Playthings magazine.
These violent and grotesque toys can be especially harmful to young children, who can't make sense of them as adults can. The toys channel children's play - a central vehicle for learning during the early years - into narrow, more violent scripts. Children accept at face value what these toys seem to be saying: Violence is fun, violence is exciting, violence doesn't hurt. You can use violence to solve problems with others.
These toys and their merchandizing campaigns lay the foundation for the violent behavior we see among youths. The toys and the lessons children learn from them as they play desensitize children to violence from an early age and prime their appetites for the violent video games, movies, and other media.
That society is beginning to look more seriously at the problem of media violence marketed to youths, and that the government is beginning to show more leadership in this, is cause for some hope.
But trying to attack the problem without looking more closely at its roots is not likely to bring about meaningful change. Genuine efforts to ameliorate youth violence must uncover the unethical marketing practices toward young children that yield high profits for the entertainment industry but cause serious harm to the rest of us.
*Nancy Carlsson-Paige is a professor of education at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass. Diane E. Levin is a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. They are co-authors of 'Before Push Comes to Shove' (Redleaf Press, 1998).
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society