The news that a 13 year old boy fatally stabbed a 12 year old boy, Elliott Fletcher, in the toilet blocks of St Patrick’s, Shorncliffe, has shocked not just the families and community, but the entire nation. As the news broke and, later, the story was pieced together and assumptions made about the reasons for this tragedy, the immediate effect on the families involved, the school community and short-term consequences, people struggled to make sense of how two young people could have their lives ended through such a senseless act of extreme violence. For it’s not just Elliot’s life that finished that day – the young perpetrator’s has, to all intents and purposes, ended as well. A child himself, he now faces the most serious of criminal charges.
It is just so unbelievably tragic, and our hearts and sympathy go out to everyone involved. At the same time, however, many people, and the media especially, are looking to make sense of the senseless, understand what led to this act, and also to apportion blame. That’s what we tend to do during these crises – look for accountability. It helps us reach understanding and, eventually, closure. What’s clear is that this is not a ‘school’ problem as one parent stated, this is a ‘social problem’ and he’s right. So far, the media, popular culture, parents generally, the rise of violence, and lack of discipline have all been touted as responsible.
But in a case like this, no one person or situation can be blamed. On the contrary, the answer is complex – all of the above have, arguably, contributed to the events in the playground that resulted in one young life lost, another ruined. That’s why it’s important that, as a society, we start talking about what led to this from every angle if, for no other reason, than to try and ensure it doesn’t happen again.
For what it’s worth, I am going to try and do that now. I feel so saddened by this, so shocked and yet, sadly, not surprised.
It’s easy to blame the media for the rise in violence amongst young people. Every day, kids are bombarded with violent imagery from a plethora of sources. One study revealed that by the time a person turns 18, they would have witnessed 200,000 murders and that’s from TV alone. A combination of news broadcasts, even if they’re not actively watched, but passively run in the background, movies and TV shows all portray violence – sometimes in gruesome detail. Does this make our kids violent? Maybe. It certainly exposes them to it and makes the world appear a very scary place.
Just as young girls will look to various female idols and emulate the way they dress and behave, so too will boys. Carrying a weapon, whether it’s through fear, aggression or to assert a particular masculinity, is seen as a way of impressing and subduing peers and would-be foes – or it’s a way of turning someone into a victim and asserting power. Knives and other weapons are being used and reported as being used at an seemingly alarming rate in the media. In February, another Brisbane school boy was knifed. Every weekend, stabbings, glassings and shootings are occurring. Often alcohol fueled, but sometimes it’s just braggadocio getting out of hand. Just last week, a 45 year old Professor opened fire in a staff room, killing three colleagues and wounding three others, allegedly because she didn’t get permanency in her job. If adults can resort to violence to solve their problems, then why can’t young people? There’s the many shootings at schools in the USA and even Europe to contend with and process as well. As shocked as we are about these outcomes, they’re still reported ad nauseam and young minds absorb this.
There’s a strong argument to be made that we’re role-modeling this kind of behaviour in all sorts of overt and invidious ways – through news, music, cyberspace, popular culture and even our own responses to various situations. Think of the rise in ‘rage’ related incidents: there’s ‘road-rage’; ‘trolley rage’; ‘queue rage’ and so forth. If we can’t behave in a civil and respectful manner towards each other, how can we expect our kids to? The thing about ‘rage’ or repressed anger of any kind, is that it’s usually a signifier of fear. Angry people are often afraid. And these days we seem so angry – but perhaps that’s because, deep down, we’re really very afraid. That’s not surprising.
The media has constructed a world, society and local community where terrorists loom large, paedophiles are in the neighbourhood and every stranger is a potential danger. We are afraid of our own shadows – so are our children. Parents are anxious about letting their children leave the house; they worry about leaving them alone. Anxious people turn into scared people, turn into angry people – at any age – only the way these fears and anger are acted out changes and escalates.
But let me return to the media for a moment. What about video/internet games? Many people are holding them accountable for the rise in violence, saying that in these games not only is the violence and death graphic (which it is), but it’s rewarded and at the press of a button, the dead can rise and fight again. ‘Game over’ does not mean ‘life ended’ in these virtual worlds. There are very real concerns that kids can’t distinguish between the real world and the fantasy violence that’s portrayed on the screen.
Experts will tell you that at around the age of seven or eight, kids can distinguish between reality and fantasy. Other experts will tell you that it’s real world violence that a child is exposed to – eg. in the home and from the adults around him or her that will influence their own behaviours far more than anything they interact with on a screen. But there is a problem with this argument… what if a child only interacts with violence every time they turn to a ‘screen’ to entertain themselves? What if the time they spend with these screens is disproportionate to the time they spend interacting with other pursuits? What if the only popular culture and media they’re consuming is violent in nature? Surely, that must skew a child’s perception of the world and understanding of how people resolve problems, whether it’s real or imagined ones.
Then there’s the issue of kids accessing age-inappropriate material. So many young kids are playing games designed for the 15 plus market. Rated MA, their parents either buy them for their children or allow their kids to play them, after all, they’re harmless. For a 15 year old, maybe, but an eight year old? They are not harmless. They are yet another piece of a puzzle that paints a specific and scary picture of a world where violence not only reigns but is fun, is the only solution to problems and is rewarded. Parents need to wrest control of what their kids are accessing back from their children, their kids friends and even other parents. They need to set boundaries and stick to them, making sure that their age-appropriate and able to change as the children grow older and demonstrate responsibility.
There are very valid reasons that age recommendations are set around these kinds of violent games, but there’s evidence they’re being ignored. We have to ask, at what cost? Having said that, other experts argue that these types of games, when accessed at an age-appropriate level and when balanced with other activities, can be beneficial – not just for the fantasy violence, but cognitively as well.
And what about the issue of discipline? Well, I am sure when we discuss ‘discipline’, no-one is endorsing beatings and other corporal measures. Rather, it’s about ensuring that if a child does something wrong, there are appropriate consequences. Yet, talk to frustrated school teachers, parents and adults generally and what you find is that kids are not only being protected from consequences when they do something wrong (often by parents who swoop in and refuse to allow their child to be disciplined and/or are in denial that he or she has even done anything wrong) , they don’t even understand that there should be any. We’re raising a generation that don’t know how to take responsibility for their actions. This is what experts also mean when they talk about ‘cotton-wooling’ or kids.
But we’re a confusing old world. On the one hand, we have stringent policies about bullying, we’ve stripped sport of much of its healthy combativeness, we don’t even let little kids play super heroes at day care centres any more and we try to pretend that we all live together peacefully in a great big vat of vanilla yoghurt. But, on the other, we exhort violence as a solution, celebrate it in films, TV and video games. Fights between parents break out at sporting venues; some kids witness their parents engaged in physically and/or verbally very toxic battles. They’re not silly – they also sense emotional and psychological tension – not ‘fighting’ around the children does not work! Much better that children see the adults in their world argue and resolve it in amicable if not loving ways. But it’s no wonder kids are confused. Not allowed to use ‘harsh words’ for fear of upsetting someone or being accused of bullying, they resort to psychological warfare on the internet or mobile phone or extreme violence to express themselves and their frustrations and angst. Healthy expressions of anger, emotional and physical are natural and beneficial in certain contexts – please note, I said ‘healthy.’ I am not talking about abuse. But the ability to vent, to ‘let it out’ is important. I believe we are stifling this in society and it’s NOT healthy.
So, did any of the above cause this shocking tragedy? I don’t know. But it’s hard not to believe that they all didn’t contribute in some way.
We need to be talking to our kids about all this and to each other and seeking solutions to the growing violence in our community. We need to come together, work as one, not let ourselves be torn apart by fear, rage and suspicion. We have to do this now, for the sake of the future, for the sake of our children.
And for the sake of the families at the heart of this tragedy.