Children watch movies and television dramas decorated with blood and gore and can't always understand what's really happening before their eyes. Cartoons bring animals and humans back to life as if by magic. Children can't be sure what "dead" really means.
We expect them to reach their teens with an undamaged instinct for survival, and many of them do. But the distorted imagery of rap music and video games can confuse older kids, too. Violence is not only perceived as glamorous, but when high-decibel junk music pumps up the adrenaline it's fun as well. A bloody murder becomes either an abstraction deprived of horror or encourages imitation of aggression.
Faced with the grisly details of real-life gunshot wounds, however, teenagers can learn to kick the fantasy of romanticized violence and see it for what it is. This fact - or at least this hope - is what led several trauma surgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to test their theory on 96 "at risk" boys and girls, ages 7 to 17.
They first screen a popular rap music video; the rap star is shot and looks permanently dead. But he quickly rises unfazed and unscathed.
Then they're exposed to video footage of the real thing. The camera takes them up close to see what real wounds, real blood, real gore and a real emergency room actually look like. The moving picture isn't pretty; the pain is palpable. One victim is a pregnant woman whose 8-month fetus was killed by a bullet. There's video footage of a man lying on the operating table, writhing in agony as doctors attempt to patch up a stomach ripped apart by gunfire.
When 48 of the children were interviewed later, 16 seemed genuinely chastened, and declared they intend to look away from violence for other ways to settle arguments. The numbers aren't dramatic but maybe they point to a new approach to dealing with violence.
"Our study suggests that the kind of romanticized version of violence shown on television can be countered by more frank and open discussions and displays of what violence really does to the body," says David Change, a social worker who is co-author of the study.
This analysis should be elementary, but it's not. Study after study shows that girls and boys who grow up in violent neighborhoods quickly become desensitized to violence and call on it as an "appropriate" reaction to the slightest offense. Brutal language quickly begets brutal acts. When violence pervades the popular culture it reinforces aggression in those who can't make realistic distinctions.