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A Typical Media Influence


From the LA Times, 3/3/01:

Web Site Where Students Slung Vicious Gossip Is Shut Down


A Web site that spread explicit and malicious rumors across Southern California campuses was shut down Friday after sparking an unwelcome explosion of electronic gossip and adolescent angst.

On http://www.SchoolRumors.com, middle school, high school and college students—the majority in the San Fernando Valley—posted graphic messages full of sexual innuendo aimed at individual students and focusing on topics such as the "weirdest people at your school."

The online bulletin boards had been accessed more than 67,000 times since mid-February, prompting a sense of despair among scores of teenagers disparaged on the site and frustration among parents and school administrators.

At schools across the Valley, administrators reported having to comfort students throughout the week as the site gained popularity. At Cleveland School in Reseda, "a student was very suicidal, and her friends actually stopped her from harming herself" after her name appeared on the Web site, said Principal Allan Weiner.

The creator of the 2-month-old site could not be reached Friday.

SchoolRumors.com's Denver-based service provider blocked access Friday afternoon, but executives could not be reached to explain their decision. Invite Internet warns on its Web site that its servers will not allow "content that could be reasonably considered as slanderous or libelous."

Even so, word was already spreading among Valley students about a similar site hosted with another company—underscoring the difficulty of controlling offensive speech on the Internet.

The number of such sites is impossible to quantify, but the Student Press Law Center estimated in September that there were more than 10,000 underground student sites online—with more showing up every day. SchoolRumors.com parallels a story line from the Fox Television show "Boston Public," which featured a Web site that bashed students and teachers.

Gossip has always been a part of the high school experience, from rumors whispered in the halls or exchanged in late-night telephone calls to insults scrawled on bathroom walls. But the power of the written word in a medium as far-reaching as the Internet is much more profound, said Woodland Hills therapist Veronica Thomas, who treats children, teenagers and families.

"It's not just a few of the kids at school; it's the whole world," Thomas said. "That makes it more real, because it's written and accessible. Anybody could log on and see what they said about you. What's written remains, haunting, torturing these kids."

One crying student, whose address and phone number were published on the site, was barraged with calls from people calling her a slut and a prostitute, Weiner said.

Another student spent more than half the week at home after she was disparaged on the site, said her friend Danny Caudillo, a senior at Birmingham High School. He posted his schedule on the site and invited the rumormonger to confront him in person. No one showed up.

Legal experts said the kinds of accusations posted on SchoolRumors.com could qualify as libel.

Common insults on the site included calling girls "tramps," "sluts" and "whores," often describing explicit sexual acts. The more specific the insult, the more likely a court would be to find the statement defamatory, said James Chadwick, a partner at the law firm of Gray, Cary, Ware & Freidenrich in Palo Alto.

For boys, the standard insult was to call somebody "gay." A false allegation of homosexuality could be considered defamatory by a California court, Chadwick said. Even if true, such statements could be considered an invasion of privacy.

Whether the statements are legally libelous "depends on both the context and the content," Chadwick said. The site warned visitors that "the rumors can be true or false," but the person who created the site could be liable for damages, Chadwick said.

Just who that is was unclear Friday.

SchoolRumors.com was created last December and gained momentum in the last two weeks.

"You'd be walking through the halls and somebody would say, 'Did you hear what they said about so-and-so on SchoolRumors?' " said one junior from a Valley public school.

"So we start going on there. At first it was funny, but then it got really crude . . . shocking, disgusting. You could see people you knew being hurt by it."

Even the most sincere efforts of principals sometimes backfired. Stephanie Connelly, principal of Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, discussed the site with students Wednesday, but her talk gave the site some unintended publicity.

"Isn't it funny how nobody knew about this site until our stupid principal warned us not to go on it," one Notre Dame student wrote on the site. "If she didn't want us to go on it, why . . . did she tell us about it?"

At Robert Frost Middle School in Granada Hills, outraged students wrote an editorial for their biweekly school newsletter, the Wolfpack, calling for control of "gutless" rumor Web sites.

"How do you feel when someone puts you down in a place where all your peers can see?" the editorial said. "Well, that is exactly what rumor Web sites do. . . . Spreading rumors on the Internet is very wrong. It hurts others and can cause many problems. These hurtful sites must be controlled at once!"

Frost Principal Robert Frydman said many of his students expressed shock and indignation about the site, which he described as despicable.

Marleen Wong, the district's director of mental health services, said the site spotlights the lack of parental supervision in many homes.

"Here is where adults need to know what's going on," Wong said. "It really calls into question the amount of adult supervision children are getting. If the computers are in the kids' rooms, perhaps they should be moved to a family room."

She also blamed the popular culture that children are tuned in to, from rap singer Eminem to graphic TV and movies.

The Columbine, Colo., school shootings two years ago came up on the site, reminding educators of the two teenagers who killed 13 people before shooting themselves. They had been planning the massacre in their bedrooms, unbeknown to their parents—and posted their plans on the Web.

Students said that adults should not be shocked by their language and behavior—that it's a reflection of the conduct grown-ups have displayed and the culture that children have been exposed to.

"Listen to the lyrics to the music we listen to . . . the movies, shows like 'Temptation Island.' That has a big influence on kids," said one student. "I know kids that laugh at disgusting movies, that eat up stuff like 'Temptation Island' . . . that desensitizes us. It's like, what do you expect?"

* * *

Times staff writer David Colker contributed to this story.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

Media isn't just movies
If it isn't obvious, websites like SchoolRumors.com are a media influence just as violent movies, music, and video games are. When we talk about "violent media," we aren't simply talking about fictional dramas with gunplay. Broadly defined, the category includes every input that encourages aggression and hostility: from pro wrestling and boxing matches to right-wing diatribes by Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, and Cal Thomas. Indeed, your typical rap song is a lot closer to SchoolRumors.com than it is to a glossy horror movie like Scream.

So "disgusting movies," Temptation Island, and other morality-free products desensitize kids to the consequences of their actions? Hard to believe, I'm sure, but hundreds of media studies have shown the same or similar effects. Imagine that.

And from the LA Times, 3/13/01:

"I was one of those kids bullied in school," writes a 42-year-old woman, who can still taste the tears she cried every day, "from kindergarten until graduation from high school. I was beat up on on the playground at recess and beat up walking home from school. I was laughed at, and groups of people would get up from the lunch table when I sat down . . . all because I was shy."

Dozens of readers, a generation or more removed from school, recounted being taunted for being too fat, too quiet, too tall. Dozens more wrote to share their pain over the bullying their children are now going through.

Experts say bullying seems to be on the increase and growing more vicious, though the dimensions of the problem are hard to quantify. The subject was not studied much in this country until a few years ago.

But the National Assn. of School Psychologists now estimates that 160,000 kids skip school on any given day because they are bullied, and studies show that 10% of eighth-graders say they stay home at least once a month because they are afraid of being bullied.

And, the study found, more than half of all teens who are not bullied believe that victims "bring it on themselves." Only four in 10 say they would step up to help someone who is being bullied.

It seems clear that there is less social pressure on kids to conform to traditional standards of courtesy and civility and that anyone can become a victim these days.

"You don't have to be small, slight, a racial minority to be the recipient of intolerance and hatred," wrote the father of a boy who is "tall, broad and Irish" but was picked on when his family moved to San Clemente because he was the new kid in class.

So kids blame the victim just as adults do. They're just as prone to stereotype or shun people, just as lacking in compassion and understanding. And so the problems continue.

We tolerate aggression, hostility, and violence in media products and we tolerate them in real life. People imitate what they see in the media and the media imitates what it sees in people. The two feed off each other, creating a feedback loop with no real beginning or end.

We can sever the loop, but only if we tackle the media and the underlying culture it reflects. They're both problems and they both deserve our attention.

Nature or nurture?
Madison Shockley, a member of the Board of Directors of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference/l.a., explains the critical role of bullying and other forms of psychological assault. From the LA Times, 3/28/01:

...[W]hat else can we say about the children who commit these acts? Can we identify them in advance? According to psychologist Bryan Nichols, who works with the L.A. Bridges gang diversion program, in almost every case the perpetrator is a child who has suffered a significant narcissistic injury. That is, "their sense of self, already fragile due to weaknesses born of physical frailty, biological limitations and/or parental inattention, becomes annihilated by assault from an outside agency" such as the bully, a girlfriend, parent or other enemy. They then feel compelled to end their lives with the satisfaction of an inordinate and overwhelming display of power.

Why don't kids simply "grow up" and get over their problems? Kim Taylor-Thompson, Academic Director at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, explains why. From the LA Times, 4/9/01:

Adolescents don't think like adults. Just ask any parent. We don't let adolescents drive largely because kids perceive and calculate risk differently than do mature adults. We don't let adolescents enter into binding contracts because kids have difficulty contemplating the meaning of a consequence, particularly with respect to long-term implications. We don't let adolescents make major decisions without guidance because kids have less capacity to anticipate harm as an unintended result of their actions.

Adolescents tend to be less aware of—and less alert to—information, ordinarily using the little they do know less effectively. They fixate on some initial possibility and fail to adjust their decision-making as new information becomes available. Yet both the rhetoric and rules of modern politics assume that an adolescent's violent conduct somehow transforms him into an adult.

Strong as that assumption's grip may be, it is misleading. Cognitive and developmental psychologists confirm that adolescents display immature thought processes even late into their teenage years that may help to explain involvement in criminal activity. A recent report from the New York Academy of Science suggests an organic explanation: The prefrontal cortex of the brain—which enables us to anticipate the future rationally, to appreciate cause and effect and to control impulses—may not fully develop until we reach our 20s.

Debra Niehoff, author of The Biology of Violence: How Understanding the Brain, Behavior and Environment Can Break the Vicious Circle of Aggression, explains how our society literally warps our brains, making people—especially children—incapable of making rational decisions. From the LA Times, 3/14/01:

Experience and physiology are inseparable because the human brain is born with questions that need answers. Is my world safe? Can other people be trusted? The solutions emerge from the emotional reactions triggered in the body by events in the outside world. Every social interaction, every experience, is recorded in the emotional circuitry of the brain, and this information is used to craft our responses to that world and the people in it. Behavior isn't predetermined, and it doesn't just happen. It is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the brain and the environment.

A flexible brain is adaptable but vulnerable. If the dialogue between the brain and the environment is friendly, we grow up believing that the world is safe, a mind-set that encourages peaceful behavior. But a life lived in a continuous state of crisis produces a defensive nervous system poised to react to a dangerous world, a nervous system taxed to its limits by a hostile environment.

Brain researchers have shown that chronic social stress, particularly the misery visited on the lowly by the high-ranking, is just the sort of insult that hammers at the brain until it's a nervous wreck. Biochemically, the relentless challenges lead to hair-trigger stress responses and persistently elevated levels of stress hormones. Behaviorally, they gradually erode the ability to cope. Petty aggravations start looking like real threats. The more threatened the socially stressed individual feels, the more likely he or she is to get overanxious, depressed or mad enough to want to get even.

As Shockley concludes:

Until we admit that these events, wherever they happen, are a product of our overall culture and our social condition and not unpredictable acts of sociopathic kids, they will continue to happen. These kids will walk by our sides, sit in our classrooms and live in our shadows. Then, in one final act of desperation, they will take the temple down, leaving us only with our now familiar and still pathetic refrain: "I never thought it could happen here."

So much for the lone "weirdo" theory. As these articles state, environmental influences have a definite, even measurable, impact on our brains. When chemical pathways change, aggression and violence are the predictable outcome. This effect happens to everyone to a certain degree. It isn't limited to nutcases with defective brains.

Environmental influences include the media, of course. Naturally, the media's effect is less pronounced than the effects of firsthand experiences such as abuse by parents or bullying by peers. But the idea is the same. Exposure to aggression triggers chemical changes that make the victim more aggressive.

Boys will be boys?
From ABCNews.com, 3/13/01:

A third of high school students can think of a classmate who may be troubled enough to stage a violent attack in their school — yet fewer than half have ever had a special class or discussion group that told them how to report a threat of school violence.

More than a third also say they've heard a classmate threaten to kill someone — but most of them didn't take it seriously or report it to an adult, according to a new ABCNEWS/Good Morning America poll.

One in eight say they personally know a student who's brought a gun to school, and one in 10 say they've heard of a plan by one or more students at their school to shoot or kill classmates.

If anyone wants to dismiss the recent shootings because "kids have always been bullies," "America has always been violent," or "Violence is endemic to humans," reread the above. Ten percent of our students know of planned shootings or killings. I can pretty much guarantee these numbers are unprecendented in US and world history.

Related links
Violence in America
America's cultural mindset

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