School Shootings and the Psychological and Sociological Roots

        

        School shootings are arguably the evilest act of cruelty a human being can inflict on the world. They rob us of our children in a place where they should have been safe.  Adolescents do not understand the pain and suffering as well as irreparable damage they deal when they engage in shooting classmates in school. The teenage brain can be partially to blame, as it is so underdeveloped that it cannot even rationalize though properly. Another blame could be medications and the effects they have on the brain. This is a commonly held belief that might shed light on this situation. Some also believe that the glorification of violence in movies and video games has a large affect as well. These shootings need to stop, however, and we must first understand teenagers before we attempt to solve their violent, sometimes fatal ways.

The teenage mind is a complex and often misunderstood thing. It is filled with hormones and most of the time is only focused on getting through adolescence. Neurons are enlarged in the teenage brain to the extent that they are more easily capable of learning new things than adults are. Because of this, the teen brain is also more susceptible to stressors than the adult brain. (Ruder, 2008) When you pair this fact with immaturity and not understanding fully how to deal with those stressors, you can see how teens can be more impulsive, reactionary, and at times, violent than adults. Not all adults know how to manage stress either, but teenagers are notoriously worse at handling stressors.

            Another factor to take into consideration when discussing the teenage brain is the development of the cortex. It’s shown in teenagers to be one of the last parts of the brain to develop, and this is very important as the cortex is sort of the decision maker of the brain. (Chamberlain, 2014) Without a fully developed cortex an individual may be more inclined to act irrationally or make hasty decisions. This could also explain why teenagers do not take their future into as much consideration as their adult counterparts and could be more willing to throw it away on something such as exacting revenge on a bully or having unprotected sex. The instant gratification for teenagers is often more powerful then the careful, deliberate planning and organization one partakes in when thinking about long term goals.

Inside of the cortex lies the right supramarginal gyrus, which would also still be developing in the teenage brain. The right supramarginal gyrus is responsible for empathy in human beings, and an underdeveloped one could be the reason that some teenagers can take a life or multiple lives when the idea sounds so heinous to an adult. (Bergland, 2013) There are ways to improve your empathy, but most of the ways aren’t going to be favorable for teenagers. Psychology Today describes some of the ways that you can improve your empathy by: meditation, daily exercise, and volunteerism. (Bergland, 2013) Some teenagers may exercise daily, but that’s a small part of helping the development of empathy. Since the brain is malleable through neuroplasticity, working on meditation and volunteerism could help teenagers exponentially and should possibly be introduced in schools as part of the curriculum.

            Another part of the brain developing during adolescents is the cerebellum. The cerebellum does help with understanding the social ques around you as well as other cognitive processes. (Chamberlain, 2014) This means that some teenagers that are inepter than others in social settings may misinterpret something in the conversation and this could lead to embarrassment. This embarrassment coupled with an underdeveloped cortex and right supramarginal gyrus could cause the teenager to explode and do something that is unfavorable to his future. Since the cerebellum is the last part of the brain to mature, care should be taken when dealing with teenagers who are in undesirable social environments. They’re basically a ticking time bomb.

            Male and female brains are also developing at different rates and may explain why there is an absurd amount of male school shooters compared to females. Since the year 1970, out of 1,300 school shootings, only fifty-seven of them were female. (Campus Safety Staff, 2018) This is an insane statistic and pegs females at only four percent. Some explanations for this can be seen in the separate development stages of both the female and male brains. The cortex is made up of grey and white matter, and while grey matter carries more cell bodies, white matter is more densely packed with myelinated axons. Females in development have a higher concentration of grey matter, and this might explain why they develop emotional control and rational thought more quickly then males do. (Chamberlain, 2014) Also, the hippocampus is sensitive to estrogen and because females produce estrogen at a much greater rate than males, they have an easier time understanding social queues and settings. (Chamberlain, 2014) This could mean that if you have an adolescent male and an adolescent female both in the same social setting, the female may find it easier to read the conversation and understand what’s happening in that setting. When something transpires, like an insult or some sort of negative social event, the female can rationalize how to deal with it better than the male. Couple this with testosterone, an underdeveloped cortex and cerebellum, and it’s no wonder why male teenagers are more likely to burst out in anger or other emotions not consistent with a normal reaction.

            The last major difference that teenagers struggle more to achieve than their adult counter-part is sleep. Teenagers often do not get the sleep they require because once puberty strikes, melatonin production in the teen brain changes until it’s being produced later in the night. (Chamberlain, 2014) Consequently, teenagers do not get tired until later at night and do not want to wake up as early as they had prior to starting puberty. It’s estimated that teenagers receive up to forty percent less slow-wave (deep) sleep while their brain is in development. According to a study conducted in the 1990’s, “…after a change in start time from 7:30 AM to 8:30 AM a decrease was found in car accident rates for 16 - 18-year old’s in the Fayette County school district, while rates actually increased in the rest of the state for 17 - 18-year old’s.” (Cline, February) This is very important as it’s concrete evidence that teenager need more time before school starts to sleep. From the same article, a study in Rhode Island concluded that shifting their start times from 8:00 AM to 8:30 AM showed an increase in the number of students getting eight hours of sleep every night by almost forty percent! (Cline, February) This can also lead to improved moods, better handling of social situations, and better all-around brain development. Let’s stop sleep depriving our youth and adding more stressors to their lives.

It’s no secret that psychotropic medications are being used throughout the country to treat a variety of issues, mostly dealing with the brain and behavioral issues. Everything from depression to post traumatic stress disorder is being medicated and our adolescents are being affected by this medicinal wave as well.

In the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and the National Center for Health Statistics, adolescents between the ages of twelve and seventeen were asked if they had taken any prescribed medication by a doctor or dentist and if an answer of “yes” was obtained, the exact product name was given. The data shows that from 1988 – 2010 there was an across-the-board seven times increase in all psychotropic use. Furthermore, when looking at just ADHD medication increases from 1988 – 2010, use multiplied by sixteen for males and twenty-eight for females. When looking at anti-depressant medication use, during the same timespan use increased four times for males and nine times for females. (Jonas, Albertorio-Diaz, & Gu, 2012) This means that teenagers throughout the country are being prescribed medications at extremely alarming rates compared to just thirty years ago. Does the teenage brain really need all this medication, or does it just need more sleep and healthy stress outlets?

According to a study published in Duke Today,

“…the Duke researchers reported on their study of 156 older patients diagnosed with major depression which, to their surprise, found that after 16 weeks, patients who exercised showed statistically significant and comparable improvement relative to those who took anti-depression medication, or those who took the medication and exercised.” (Duke Today Staff, 2000)

This study was conducted using older patients, but if the teenage brain needs exercise and a healthy energy outlet, then why wouldn’t exercise ease the symptoms of depression as well? In a follow-up study to the above mentioned, they also found that exercise greatly decreased the risk of depression coming back as well.

This approach could absolutely work for ADHD as well, which is the most medicated disorder in adolescents. Most ADHD medications push dopamine into the brain as it enables better concentration on tasks. Exercise does the exact same thing as well as expend energy reserves that are pretty much constantly overflowing. As a dog trainer, the first thing I will do before beginning any session is to expend the animal’s energy. Once the energy is expended to a more tolerable amount, the training can actually begin. This makes the dogs more attentive and more likely to grasp concepts being taught to them. Also, almost all of the behavioral problems that I am approached to help correct are actually just an overflow of energy. Once the client starts taking the dog for daily exercise, most, if not all, of the problems seem to clear up and I’m regarded as a miracle worker when in reality, I just worked the animal out. I take my children to the park every single day and make sure they are constantly active when we are there. I notice certain issues that come up when they don’t get their daily exercise.

There is science behind my claims, as board certified psychiatrist, Michael Lara, MD., explains in his article, The Exercise Prescription, “For a very small handful of people with ADHD, exercise may serve as a viable replacement for prescription medications. For most, however, it is complementary to their treatment—something you or your child should absolutely do, along with taking meds, to help increase attention and improve mood.” (Lara, 2018) This means that not only do teenagers need exercise in general, but teenagers with ADHD or ADD need exercise ten-fold. With healthy exercise programs and more sleep for adolescents, the teenage brain might be able to thrive instead of crack under stressors.

This is all very interesting, but are medications really the cause of mass shootings? While medications have been on the rise, for every demographic, violence has actually been on the decline. From 1991 through 2010, there was a 40% decrease in homicide rates for males between the ages of ten and twenty-four, and a 51% decrease in homicide rates for females in the same age group. (Langman, Psychiatric Medications and School Shootings, 2015) So not only was there an increase in psychotropic drug uses for this age group and more importantly, youths, but the violent crime rates have decreased. Not only that, but out of a sample of forty-eight school shooters profiled in the book School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrator, only six were on medication at the time. (Langman, Psychiatric Medications and School Shootings, 2015) From this data, it’s safe to say that medications are not the root of the school shootings.

            In a conversation with the Florida Attorney General, Pam Bondi, Donald Trump stated that:

“I’m hearing more and more people seeing the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts. And then you go the further step, and that’s the movies. You see these movies, and they’re so violent a kid is able to see the movie if sex isn’t involved, but killing is involved, and maybe we need to put a rating system for that. The fact is that you are having movies come out, that are so violent, with the killing and everything else, that maybe that's another thing we need to discuss." (Kain, 2018)

But isn’t this just something that politicians (and real estate moguls, apparently), have

been saying for decades? Since Columbine, I remember seeing reports about video games escalating the idea that they are somehow the reason that children are increasingly more violent than past generations. After the Columbine massacre, the parents of the slain victims even sued a multitude of video game companies citing that without the video games Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold “…these murders and this massacre never would have occurred.” (Ward, 2001) This is an interesting conclusion for the parents to reach as a lawsuit in 1997 following the Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi failed to produce any merit. The lawsuit eventually was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge, Lewis Babcock, but what do the studies suggest?

            In a study conducted by researchers at the University of York in January of 2018 they found that video games did not “prime” the player therefore not increasing aggressive tendencies. Priming is the term used for the increasing realism in video games “priming” the player to carry out specific actions in real life. The study goes on to highlight that the different methods used to conduct the research added realistic models in video games and tested the players inclination toward violence at the end. (University of York, 2018) The online criticism of the study was found to be the audience being composed entirely of adults, and the teenage brain was not tested in this theory. This should hold true for the teenage brain, because as a teenager, in most scenarios, has not been exposed to the same amounts of real-world violence that an adult has been.

            In another study conducted by a psychologist, Christopher Ferguson, at Stetson University in Florida found that although movie violence in the 1950’s correlated a rise in real-world violence, real-world violence dropped in the decades to come even as movies became increasingly more realistic and violent. With the advent of video games, measurements of youth exposure to violent video games were taken and compared to youth homicide rates from 1994 – 2004. The study actually showed a decrease in youth homicide directly coinciding with an increase in video game use in the twelve to seventeen age range. The study goes on to refute most previous studies on the links between violent video game use and violent behavior by questioning the methods of the researchers. (Stuart, 2014) Researchers would only give participants bits and pieces of the video game without the participant actually engaging in the narrative or performing violent actions with a story behind it to add depth. This makes a lot of sense as most video games are not mindless-murder-fests that have zero narrative. In fact, video games spend insane amounts of their budget on voice actors and writers alike in order to offer the player a deep, compelling experience. This is important as the study conducted by Christopher Ferguson was not conducted in the same way and left room for players who had the chance to be violent within the narrative, making it more personal and thought provoking to the player.

            On the other spectrum, the American Psychological Association took a look at over 100 studies posted from 2005 – 2013 and found definitive proof that video games “…can increase aggressive behavior and thoughts, while lessening empathy and sensitivity toward aggression,” but also that “…although some studies suggested links to criminal violence and neurological changes, there wasn’t enough evidence to determine a connection.” (Sifferlin, 2015) This essentially means that the evidence and studies done are inconclusive. The justification for video games increasing aggressive behavior and thoughts, while making the individual less empathetic and sensitive to aggression, is unfounded as the link to neurological changes could not be established. There are other things in the world that have been around for far longer than video games that have killed millions, if not billions of people.

            “Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.” (Hosea 13:16, New Revised Standard Version) This is a quote from the Cristian bible detailing the orders to slaughter the young in the ancient city of Samaria, as well as rip the babies from the wombs of the mothers.

“Then he said to them, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.' "The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, "You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day."(Exodus 32:27-29, New International Version)

This quote is instructing the mass killing of his own people in order to be blessed by god. “Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.' " … He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword.” (1 Samuel 15:3-8) But in the fairness of being impartial to the violence of both major religions, here is a quote from Islam: “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore, strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them,” (Quran 8:12) as well as, “And when we wish to destroy a town, we send our commandment to the people of it who lead easy lives, but they transgress therein; thus the word proves true against it, so we destroy it with utter destruction." (Quran 17:16) These acts of violence are not only read by our youth, but they are worshiped, they are taught, and they are believed. If video games called for the direct killing of innocents, they would have been banned after Pearl High School or Columbine High School but (most) religions have always been, and will always be the most forced and violent institutions our youth our exposed and encouraged to participate in. So, if school shootings are not based on an increase in sensitized violence, as violence can be found anywhere and in pretty much any form of entertainment since the dawn of humanity, where are these adolescent mass murderers being born from?

The internet is a complex and underappreciated technological marvel. In just the last thirty years alone the internet has revolutionized sociological interaction, but is it healthy? According to studies done by the Cyberbullying Research Center, 27.9% of teens had been the victims of cyberbullying at some time in the past. (Hinduja & Patchin, 2016) This means that one out of every four teenagers have been bullied using a medium that is still relatively new to our society. Essentially, this is placing weaponized angst in every adolescent’s hands without the responsibility that comes with such a dangerous device. Using the internet, people can be racist, sexist, anti-sematic, or just extremely hurtful to someone that they don’t even know and wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Middle and high school is already hard enough with the teenage brain and learning how to interact with others but coupled with the internet is a recipe for chaos.

School shooters are not always the bullied, as the data suggests, which is contrary to the belief held directly after Columbine. According to Dr. Peter Langman, who was cited previously for another article, school shooters rarely target bullies at all. In fact, “…approximately 54% of the perpetrators harassed, intimidated, threatened, or assaulted people prior to their attacks.” (Langman, Statistics on Bullying and School Shootings, 2014) This means that bullying is not to blame for school shootings, but possibly on teenage aggression.

The capability for teenagers to be violent is not a new trend. When I was eighteen-years-old I was behind a machine-gun in a desert far away from home causing violence. My great-grandfather joined the U.S. Army at the age of fourteen only sixty years ago and fought Nazi’s France. My belief, after getting out of the Army, is that the entire “war system” preys on teenagers in order to keep their ranks filled. I had the option to go back to Afghanistan as a K9 Handler under a contracting agency. The pay was more then I’d have made throughout my entire time at Arizona State University using the GI Bill and it sounded almost to good to be true. I never went, as, after thinking on it, I have a life to lead now and I’m not eighteen anymore. This is why the war system preys on teenagers and needs them to function. This isn’t new and thankfully we have laws to protect against fourteen-year-olds joining the military as my great-grandfather had to.  The days of teenagers being able to study all day and relax at home afterwards was only reserved for the wealthy. The very notion of “public school” is still a completely new concept when considering civilization has been established for thousands of years. Teenagers do not have to pick up a sword and stab a man to death on a battlefield anymore. Perhaps the enhanced aggression that the adolescent brain struggles with was an evolutionary by-product that allowed the survival of the species.

The in-flux of testosterone into the teenage brain is well known, and the reasoning is for the brain to “re-wire” itself into an adult brain. If the brain isn’t fully developed until twenty-five, people under this age must have higher testosterone levels than people over twenty-five. This is dependent on the individual, of-course, but it could offer insight as to why there is so many school shootings taking place. Teenagers are already having a difficult time controlling their emotions without adding everything else. The cyber-bullying, the medications and SSRI’s, the glorification of violence since the dawn of time, and now the internet as a medium to broadcast themselves are all to blame. Everything that is, is here to stay, however, and it’s up to each individual parent to console and talk to their adolescents and understand that their brain is not functioning the way the adult brain does and that teenagers have been causing violence for thousands of years. The public-school system is only around two-hundred years old and before it, teenagers were hunting and warring. Some of the blame has to lie on the parent’s for failing to see that their teenager was on the brink of committing something evil. If we can catch teenagers in time, before they act, we can stop these shootings from ever happening in the first place.

 


 Works Cited

Bergland, C. (2013, October 10). The Nueroscience of Empathy. Retrieved from Physcology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/the-neuroscience-empathy

Campus Safety Staff. (2018, October 15). The K-12 School Shooting Statistics Everyone Should Know . Retrieved from Campus Safety Magazine: https://www.campussafetymagazine.com/safety/k-12-school-shooting-statistics-everyone-should-know/

Chamberlain, L. B. (2014). The Amazing Adolescent Brain. I have a copy if someone wants it that I got directly from the writer. 

Cline, J. (February, 27 2011). Do Later School Start Times Really Help High School Students? Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sleepless-in-america/201102/do-later-school-start-times-really-help-high-school-students

Duke Today Staff. (2000, September 22). Study: Exercise Has Long-Lasting Effect on Depression. Retrieved from Duke Today: https://today.duke.edu/2000/09/exercise922.html

Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2016, November 26). Summary of Our Cyberbullying Research (2004-2016). Retrieved from Cyberbullying Research Center: https://cyberbullying.org/2016-cyberbullying-data

Jonas, B. S., Albertorio-Diaz, J. R., & Gu, Q. (2012). Trends in Psychotropic Medication Use in the Noninstitutionalized Adolescent Population: An NHANES Analysis. 2012 National Conference on Health Statistics: National Center for Health Statistics .

Kain, E. (2018, February 22). Trump Blames Violent Video Games For School Shootings -- Here's Why He's Wrong. Retrieved from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2018/02/22/trump-blames-violent-video-games-for-school-shootings-heres-why-hes-wrong/#5767156467f3

Langman, P. (2014, November 25). Statistics on Bullying and School Shootings. Retrieved from Schoolshooters.org: https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/bullying_school_shootings_1.1.pdf

Langman, P. (2015). Psychiatric Medications and School Shootings. WWW.SCHOOLSHOOTERS.INFO.

Lara, M. (2018, June 12). The Exercise Prescription. Retrieved from Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: https://chadd.org/wpcontent/uploads/2018/06/ATTN_06_12_Exercise.pdf

Ruder, D. B. (2008, September). The Teen Brain. Retrieved from Harvard Magazine: https://harvardmagazine.com/2008/09/the-teen-brain.html

Sifferlin, A. (2015, August 17). Violent Video Games Are Linked to Aggression, Study Says. Retrieved from Time: http://time.com/4000220/violent-video-games/

Stuart, K. (2014, November 10). Video games are not making us more violent, study shows . Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/nov/10/video-games-violent-study-finds

University of York. (2018, January 16). Researchers at the University of York have found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent. Retrieved from ScienceDaily: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180116131317.htm

Ward, M. (2001, May 1). Columbine Families Sue Computer Game Makers. Retrieved from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1295920.stm

 

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