It is easy to blame movies or video games when children turn violent. The real causes lie elsewhere.

There are claims that the 15-year-old who knifed his teacher in a private school in Chennai last week was influenced by the ultraviolent Bollywood movie “Agneepath” and its method of securing revenge. Such a claim once again raises the issue of the impact of media violence on children.

Violence remains an immensely popular mode of entertainment with media studies claiming that some form of violence exists in more than 60 per cent of movies and television. Many psychologists nowadays, however, believe the role of movies and television in inciting kids to violence is nowhere near as pervasive as that of violent video games that today's kids spend increasing amounts of time playing. The reason is that the violence in movies and television is consumed passively; it is merely viewed. In video games, kids actively practise causing violence.

Fatal obsession

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two 18-year-olds responsible for the Columbine High School massacre in the United States in 1999 where 12 students and a teacher died, were addicted to violent video games. Even more disturbing is the case of Michael Carneal. In 1997, 14-year-old Carneal fired nine shots in 10 seconds in his high school in Kentucky in the United States. Eight scored hits, with three being head and neck shots that killed their victims. Such proficiency with a firearm went well beyond the military standard for expert marksmanship. Yet, Carneal had never fired a pistol in his life. His obsession with computer games converted him into an expert shooter.

According to noted American mental heath professional Dr. Phil McGraw, the biggest negative effect of video games is that they tend to resolve anxiety by externalising it. ‘So when kids have anxiety, which they do, instead of soothing themselves, calming themselves, talking about it, expressing it to someone, or even expressing it emotionally by crying, they tend to externalise it,' he says. ‘They can attack something, they can kick a wall, they can be mean to a dog or a pet.' Furthermore, video games do not educate children about the moral consequences of engaging in violence. Killing someone does not land you in jail. It earns you extra points.

In November 2008, in a study published in the journal Pediatrics, Dr. Craig A. Anderson of Iowa State University and his colleagues asked the question: Do children become more aggressive after playing video games or are aggressive kids more attracted to violent video games? Their sample included 181 Japanese students aged 12-15, 1,050 Japanese students aged 13-18, and 364 American kids aged 9-12. The study focused on how the sample's video game habits related to their behaviour 3-6 months later. The findings, across the board, were that children exposed to more video game violence became more aggressive over time than those with lesser exposure. This remained the case even after researchers took into account how aggressive the children were when the study began. This study has special relevance for us in India since its findings are based on a sample whose composition was not only cross-cultural but also heavily weighted towards kids from an Asian society.

The propensity of the media to incite violence in kids is disturbing but can be fixed by active parenting. You can restrict your child's access to violent movies. You can turn the TV off when it gets too violent. You can monitor the kinds of video games your child plays. Furthermore, psychologists agree that while media might help give expression to the angst that leads to the kind of violence seen in Columbine, Kentucky and Chennai, its roots lie elsewhere.

Drastic change

It is here that we as a society need to be on guard. We have reached a stage in our evolution where the old feudal maxim of being happy with what you have no longer has currency. In the old days, it helped maintained the fabric of a feudal society where one's position was determined by the accident of birth by discouraging ambition and curtailing competition. Ambition and competition, however, have emerged as the catchwords of today's India. Children are pushed by the social ethos to do more in order to get more. Yet getting ahead is related not so much to talent and performance as feudal holdovers such as religion, caste, regional chauvinism, and nepotism. You can spend the first 18 years of your life studying until your eyes feel like they are about to fall out and then find yourself unable to enter the college you want despite having the marks because you were born in the wrong community. Last year on June 17, a student who had scored 85 percent marks committed suicide because she could not get into the college of her choice. That was as much an act of violence as the one where the 15-year-old knifed his teacher. Only, the violence was directed at herself rather than someone else.

Whether such incidents remain aberrations or become harbingers of what is to come will depend on how we address these contradictions in ourselves. It is very Indian to bring in change without doing away with the past. But sometimes the contradictions between past norms and present expectations can be far too immense to bridge.