On social media, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas expressed his sorrow over the death of a middle schooler who was fatally stabbed by a schoolmate last week. I made the mistake of reading the subsequent comments, thinking I might find some insight into why such violence keeps happening, especially among younger and younger children.
The comments ranged from attacks on the mayor to ignorant posts about violence being only an “inner city” problem. Of course, there were the snarky remarks about a need for knife control legislation.
The comments yielded an insight, all right: Why are so many of our children mean, bullying, intolerant, insensitive and prone to violence to resolve conflict? Maybe it’s because that’s what they’re learning.
Take a digital stroll through social media and you’ll undoubtedly be bombarded with bullying, verbal abuse and a lack of empathy and sensitivity. For every earnest attempt at a discussion, there are five to 10 abusive, off-color or downright gross responses that make you groan and wince.
A constant cocktail of grievance and division passes for political discussion. Polarizing disinformation overwhelms facts. Anger is the drug that drives clicks.
Over the decades, we have blamed rap music and video games for creating a culture of violence among children and teenagers. And of course access to guns, no doubt, has a role to play. After all, Missouri has the fifth highest gun homicide rate in the nation.
After the last two years, though, much blame is also being put on COVID-19. Yes, the isolation and pervasive fear that came along with the pandemic definitely disrupted the social and emotional well-being of our children and everyone. And it exacerbated mental health issues, too.
But violence among children was already increasing long before the pandemic. The Department of Justice created the Safe Start Initiative in 1999 to prevent and reduce the impact of children’s exposure to violence.
The theory was, and remains, that exposure to violence leads to violent behavior among children. If that’s true, imagine the impact when children at any time can view videos on their phones of real-life violence: the murder of Ahmaud Arbery gunned down while jogging along a Georgia street, white nationalists and Donald Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol.
“Social media serves as an accelerant, whipping up anger and frenzy,” said James A. Densley, who studies gun violence as a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. No surprise, he said, that such visual violence and verbal lessons in incivility would spill over to our children.
With social media, adults and children alike “live in a fantasy world” far easier to navigate than the real world, Densley said. If you’re embarrassed online, you can fight back verbally or move on. In the real world, he said, lashing out is more likely to escalate into a physically violent response with great consequences.
Olathe East shooting makes students feel unsafe
Last Wednesday, Kansas City police charged a middle schooler with murder for stabbing to death a 14-year-old, reportedly during a fight in their school bathroom — one life senselessly ended and another destroyed.
Last month, an Olathe East High School student was confronted by a school official asking about a gun he thought the student was carrying in his backpack. The student then shot his assistant principal and a resource officer. The student, who was also shot during the incident, has been charged with attempted murder.
We don’t know all the details of what led to either the Kansas City stabbing or the shooting in that suburban Johnson County district. But such incidents have children feeling unsafe in school and parents demanding solutions for stopping the violence.
Lucas has proposed using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to help decrease violence. One initiative could address mental health issues in young people, the mayor said.
I’m not sure how this money would be best spent, or how much money it might take to effectively curb violence.
What causes violence is complicated, Densley said, because it’s not just one thing. Studies have linked poverty and education levels to violence. But there’s no question that exposure to violence on social media is having a seismic impact on how we live. “Our online lives and our offline lives are intertwined,” Densley said.
Our youth need to know how one impacts the other, he said, and how it affects their behavior. Adults could use lessons too. It’s on them to model civility to the younger generation — online and, as the kids say, IRL.