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.
Culture and environment clearly make a difference. Changing the image of the cigarette from glamorous to gross, for example, produced remarkable results. A controlled study of 4,500 children under 14 who frequently watch movies rated R for violence found them three times more likely to smoke or drink than peers who weren't exposed to such films.
Smoking was an essential ingredient of Hollywood's movies of the '30s, '40s and '50s and the cigarette was an essential accessory of beautiful women and their handsome hunks. Movie makers were persuaded to reduce the allure of smoking. Almost no one now imagines smoking is glamorous.
Two decades ago, George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, in an analysis of criminal behavior, identified neighborhoods likely to become criminal hotbeds by counting graffiti and broken windows. Broken windows were not only a sign of decay, but sent a powerful message that nobody cared - not the police and not the neighbors. Breaking windows can be perverse fun, and it's a first step toward lawlessness.
Children get messages in many ways and the popular culture often reinforces the lowest common denomination of right and wrong. Those most at risk take the greatest risks. The psychological perception - that violent stories create healthy sublimations for young people to work out their fears through narratives - no longer applies when violent narratives lack a moral message and the most violent characters triumph. The Wicked Witch of the West, after all, didn't sing rap and she wasn't a heroine.
One reason why "The Sopranos," the HBO drama about the mob, is so successful, it seems to me, is that the gangsters have no heroic qualities. When one of them shows momentary charm or humor, such qualities are quickly undercut by viciousness. Violence is unvarnished. Gangsters whack their victims, chop them into pieces and dump them in the sea. Victims don't reappear and crime doesn't pay, not for long.
It's a shame that the kids in the Johns Hopkins study, so twisted in their idealization of violence, had to see up close what actually goes on in a trauma unit to recognize grim reality. The entertainment media often sends out the wrong message, but reality will always teach its lessons.