Space Invaders. From Google Chrome (retrieved from https://chrome.google.com/). Public domain.
I was around 10-years old and on a family visit to my Uncle Den’s house on the Gold Coast. That’s where I was first exposed to – and immediately fell in mad, passionate, 10-year old love with – ‘Space Invaders’ and the Atari © console. I could play the game over and over and over and over again – and I never got bored! I sat for hours in front of the television on the living room floor, playing my favorite fixed shooter, laser canon, ‘kill the aliens’ video arcade game – right in the comfort of ‘my own’ living room! When we eventually left that day, I begged my parents all the way home, “Please, please, please, please, please – buy me one of those? Please~!? I’ll do anything you ask – anything!”
My parents, perhaps seeing my almost instant obsession with a minimally interactive image on the ‘boob-tube’ that was doing absolutely nothing to develop my actual intellect, politely declined to acquiesce to my repeated, emotionally charged and passionate requests. (Or perhaps they understood early on the potential consequential relationship between habitual exposure and addictive personalities. I don’t really know!)
In retrospect, at the time, it was probably a really good decision on my parent’s part. Becoming a parent myself a decade and a half later changed my perspective on the way I approach many of the choices I make that affect mine and my children’s lives – especially those that I believe are going to transform the little minds that have been entrusted to me. Something else funny happened after I became a father. Not only did I care about and become more conscious of the stream of media (among other things) to which my own children were constantly exposed, but l also became painfully aware of what we as a society were and are exposing all of our children to – and it’s not necessarily good!
It continues to concern me when I am seated in a restaurant and the young family adjacent are almost entirely reliant on the ‘iPhone’ or ‘iPad’ as a babysitter, to keep their young children ‘quiet, respectful, and amused.’ I have to believe they probably do that at home too. Perhaps many of these young parents are not cognizant of the relationship they are promoting between their child and the device which they devotedly clutch in their tiny little hands.
Much of the media we view these days is overtly violent. There is very little positive that is reported in the never-ending news cycle of violence, and considering the long-established showbiz mantra that ‘sex and violence sells,’ it’s hard to go to the movies – unless it’s a Disney movie – and not expect to see tumult in some form (passionate or otherwise).
Desensitized to Violence
As a society, we have become largely desensitized to violence. Why is that?
Theoretically, desensitization to virtually anything represents a form of habituation. If you continue to use drugs, over time, you need more and more and more of that drug to experience the same high. This is an example of diminished response to a stimulus after repeated exposure.1 Therefore, is it not logical that repeated exposure to violence – after the initial strong emotional response – would cause that emotional response to be dampened?
Many adolescents in the US today are directly exposed to violence in their communities and in their homes, and indirectly exposed to violence through television, movies, and video games. In fact, researchers suggest that in a nationally representative sample, 43% of teens witnessed violence in the past twelve months while 40% were directly victimized.2 Our society is exponentially more violent today than it was five decades ago. That is not an assumption based on more enhanced and more immediate access to the almost real-time reports of violent acts. That is a statistical fact which I will discuss in greater detail in my next post.
While much lab-based study has been conducted into desensitization to violence, it appears that study results are transferable if what we’re seeing in the ’outside world’ is any kind of indicator. Studies in the controlled environment suggest that when repeatedly exposed to media portrayals of violence (including movies, news, documentaries, video games, music, and others), individuals show signs of increased depressive symptoms and anxiety which diminish over time with repeated exposure, along with less empathy for the victims portrayed in the (media) study.1-4
Despite the pretention that the degree of transferability between the reactions to media violence and real-life violence is open to discussion, as academics we do tend to agree that real-life violence is more intense than fictitious or media violence, with real-life violence being linked to the internalization of more prolific clinical problems resulting in depression, anxiety, and trauma.2
Some suggest that desensitization to violence and a pattern of pathological adaption increases the likelihood of subsequent violent behavior in some individuals.5-7 This view is supported by many in the field of psychology who are working toward understanding this association.
What Does Psychology Really Say?
Lt. Col David Grossman is a US Army Ranger, paratrooper, and former West Point Psychology Professor. He is also one of the nation’s foremost experts in the psychology of killing. With titles that include On Killing 8 and On Combat 9 both of which are required reading for the US Military at West Point, and founder of the Killology Research Group, it is reasonable to accept that Lt. Col Grossman has more than a passing insight into the psychology of school shootings.
While Grossman acknowledges the ‘go-to’ (media) excuses of drugs, bullying, mental health, and broken homes, without discounting them as contributors (as the research above suggests), he argues that there is some form of conditioning or ‘training’ that these shooters must go through that enable all the elements to come together in one horrific performance. There are literally dozens of academic studies that support this position, and I can almost guarantee that you have never heard of most – if not all of them.
Most significantly, Grossman offers up quantitative proof of the built-in human preservation mechanism, or ‘safety catch,’ that prevents us – or in some cases, at least makes us hesitate – from killing one another. This mechanism is real. To maintain an effective military, that so-called ‘safety catch’ as he puts it, must be overcome, or trained out the individual in order for the soldier to do their job – to kill. In the case of the US Military, this is done by using a psychological process called ‘operant conditioning.’10 In operant conditioning, a participant makes a mental association between a particular behavior and a consequence.
Widely considered the father of operant conditioning, B.F. Skinner proposed that with staged reinforcement, certain behaviors could be shaped into and out of individual participants.11 It does not, however, take into account certain inherited cognitive factors and remains thus, a thorough yet incomplete explanation of how humans learn.
Training at Home – Operant Conditioning
Grossman proposes the real-life scenarios staged by today’s ultra-violent video games have trained a whole new generation of shooters. Video simulation is used successfully to train the military, and it is reasonable to assume that the average military recruit has been screened for ‘fitness to serve’ to a greater degree than any child playing video games in the basement of their parent’s house.
The gaming industry is a worldwide, multibillion-dollar industry, and tends to disagree. The gaming industry argument states that “only correlational data exists on the subject, and correlation does not prove causation.”10 While scientifically, this may be true, it has been a well-known and widely accepted fact since 1749 that “Children’s utter incapacity render them almost wholly at the mercy of their Parents and Instructors for a set of habits to regulate their whole conduct through life.”12
Remember the adage, “If you control the information…..”
In a recent publication of Counterterrorism Digest, an unclassified participant distribution from the US National Counter-Terrorism Center, an author spotlight three-page article discussed the ‘Gamification of Terrorism.’13 ‘Gamification’ is a term that is used to apply game-like attributes to non-game activities. Used as an already familiar word in the competitive world of business, the term is often thrown around as referring to something that is harmless and fun. Considering recent events, it is simple to see, that is not necessarily always the case.
Gamification of Terror
Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant mounted a Go-Pro camera to a helmet and provided a live-stream ‘first-person shooter’ perspective of the massacre he allegedly committed at a mosque in New Zealand. The field of view from the helmet camera provided an almost surreal perspective of his field of vision, seeing only the barrel of his gun (and where it was pointing) in front of him, sweeping across the bottom of the frame. Practically identical in almost every way to that which you would see in a first-person shooter video game. It was chilling! Not to be outdone, a shooter at a Poway synagogue and another in El Paso Texas sought to launch identical livestream massacres in the weeks that followed in an attempt to ‘better Tarrant’s score.’
This is not a recent portrayal association of or with violence. The Columbine shooters (whom I shall not name here) seemed to be obsessed with the Oklahoma City Bombing that occurred in 1995 and bragged to friends about “topping McVeigh’s score” (leakage).13 On some social media sites, retro graphics scoreboards, reminiscent of something you might have seen in an old arcade game, celebrate high-scores where the most deadly attacks are ranked and celebrated, with attacks referred to as ‘achievements.’ Not in the Middle East, not in some faraway land or ‘s***hole country,’ but right here, in America, the good ol’ US of A – maybe even your neighbor right next door!
What is perhaps most troubling when considering this trend, is the possible make-up, the psychological profiles of the people who create, view, and participate in this gamification of violence.
Perhaps there’s a way to gain insight, to possibly begin to understand. Perhaps it’s worth visiting the medium in which many of these thoughts and ideas are born, the medium where operant conditioning first takes place. Perhaps it would serve those in academia, perhaps many of the so-called ‘industry experts,’ perhaps our representatives in government, perhaps it would serve all the PARENTS who think their kids are responsible social media users, to simply get online.
Get on Twitter, tumbler, 4chan. Click on a few links, follow a few hashtag trends, venture down a couple of rabbit holes. This is not the ‘dark web.’ “I assure you, Alice, you won’t have to venture far.”
You might find yourself shocked by the number of STAN accounts (STAN – a term used to refer to an overly obsessed fan who glorifies something or someone) set up for the worship of the Columbine, the Parkland, or the Stoneman Douglas shooters. There are kids out there that honestly think these shooters are heroes. There are kids out there screaming for help!
That’s not a topic covered in the mainstream media very much, is it? Or… as one kid put it, in a tweet that I read earlier tonight: “A moment of pain – for a lifetime of glory. I just wanna be someone.”
As in many of the posts I explored – such as the one above – the depression, the hopelessness, the sense of despair that these children are eliciting through the communication medium of their generation can’t possibly be going unnoticed by the adults around them – it can’t! Can it?
But I am honestly not shocked. It’s hard to be a kid, even harder to become an adult.
Perhaps ‘Pedro’ from Twitter sums it up best…
You have this generation of kids that have 24/7 access to rape porn, sites like best gore, chat rooms like 4chan and who because of technology are socially illiterate combined with a 24/7 rage news cycle means Tech is breeding a generation of potential mass shooters #Columbine 7:29 PM · Feb 13, 2020·Twitter Web App
Do you know where your children are tonight, and what they’re viewing?
‘til next week…