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       Volume 11 |Issue 16 | April 20, 2012 |


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Straight Talk

Crossing the Line

Nadia Kabir Barb

The two photographs were side by side. One of a smiling woman with short blonde hair in her forties and the other of a young boy aged fourteen. He had dark hair and dark eyes. There was nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary about the face staring at me from the pages of the newspaper — just your average boy next door. It was the headline that caught my attention, 'Teenager Daniel Bartlam jailed for killing mother with hammer'. The article was chilling.

Almost exactly a year ago Daniel appeared to be like any other fourteen year-old boy; watching television, playing computer games, and occasionally taking his dog for a walk but on a fateful night last April he took a claw hammer and bludgeoned his mother, Jacqueline Bartlam, to death, fracturing her face and skull. He then padded her body with newspaper, covered her and her bedroom in petrol and set it alight. As if that was not shocking enough, after committing this grotesque crime he took his brother, who was asleep in the house during the attack, and their pet dog to safety and alerted their neighbours and the authorities.

Photo: Courtesy

In his initial testimony Daniel claimed that an intruder had committed the crime but subsequently changed it saying he had killed his mother after a heated argument. It soon became clear that that the death of his mother had been a cold blooded, premeditated murder. The police discovered information on his computer that suggested he had planned this murder in advance and had gone as far as writing a 'soap opera plot' where the protagonist kills his mother with a hammer and burns her body. In the story, however, the central character gets away with murder unlike Daniel in real life. What was also of concern was that Daniel had been a great fan of a popular and long standing UK soap opera and had used and modified a murder plot assigned to one of its characters.

Daniel's parents divorced when he was of a young age and he was also taken out of a private school due to financial constraints. The reports suggest that he resented the upheaval in his home life and also the change of schools and became increasingly withdrawn, spending much of his time in his bedroom. According to his mother's partner, from the early age of eight Daniel was allowed to watch horror films which he felt were inappropriate as they were exceedingly violent and gruesome. He went on to say that instead of being terrified by these shows he seemed to enjoy them.

Not being a child psychologist I can only comment from my experience as a parent and state the obvious and say that children are easily influenced and being exposed to violence and gore from an early age can desensitise them to a certain extent.

This is not a crusade to ban all violent video games or films and nor is it a statement claiming that all children or teenagers who watch horror films or play violent video games are going to become aggressive or commit crimes but there has to be an effective way of regulating the ease of access of these products.

With the rapid development of technology, we have access to every kind of information we want at the end of our fingertips and where the touch of a button gives us the ability to view video clips, films and television programmes without any hindrance and this is leaving children at risk. Nowadays parents find it harder and harder to monitor or control what goes on in the virtual world that their children delve into.

Previously regulating what children watched on television or which films they were allowed to see was relatively simple. Then with the advent of computers and the internet it became harder but still possible to exert some parental control over which sites they were allowed to browse, but these days you do not even need a computer as most phones give you access to the internet, they allow to check social networking sites, play games and even watch films.

Another example that comes to mind is that of eighteen year old Devin Moore of Alabama, USA, who shot and killed three police officers in 2003 (CBS News). He was brought into the police station on suspicion of stealing a car, however, he did not have any previous criminal record. Once at the station, he appeared to lose control and grabbed a gun from one of the police officers and shot him twice, with one shot to the head. When another officer heard the commotion and came running towards the noise, Moore shot him three times also with one shot to the head. On his way out he gunned down yet another police officer firing five rounds with one shot to the head. He had in the meantime managed to pick up a set of keys and was able to drive off in a police car. When he was captured, he is alleged to have said "Life is like a video game. Everybody's got to die sometime."

Later it became known that Moore had spent hundreds of hours playing a particularly violent video game called 'Grand Theft Auto' where the premise of the game is to beat up people or 'stomp' people you don't like, steal cars you do like and shoot cops. In other words it advocates anarchy and depravity within the game.

According to David Walsh, a child psychologist, repeated exposure to violent video games does have more of an impact on a teenager than an adult. A study he co-authored connecting violent video games to physical aggression, states that the 'link can be explained in part by pioneering brain research recently done at the National Institutes of Health – which shows that the teenage brain is not fully developed'.

Walsh says that, “The impulse control centre of the brain, the part of the brain that enables us to think ahead, consider consequences, manage urges -- that's the part of the brain right behind our forehead called the prefrontal cortex. That's under construction during the teenage years. In fact, the wiring of that is not completed until the early 20s." He also goes on to say that this kind of diminished impulse control can become heightened in a person who has additional risk factors for criminal behaviour.

Moore had an extremely troubled upbringing, having been shuttled back and forth between a broken home and a handful of foster families. Which combined with his obsession for a violent game could have tipped the balance. It is possible for children as vulnerable and susceptible as Daniel and Moore to find that the line between fantasy and reality become blurred.

Some studies such as that of Walsh's will show that violent video games and films do have an impact on aggressive behaviour on children or teenagers. Other studies will refute these findings and claim that on a statistical level the vast majority of youngsters do not resort to violence and commit crimes and that some people are inherently prone to certain types of behaviour. In the case of Daniel and Moore it seems incontrovertible that these films and games have contributed to their horrific acts of violence. Moore seems to have been enacting a role from his video game and Daniel a scene from a soap opera. It is easy to pass the buck and find different reasons for tragedies' such as that of Daniel Bartlam and Devin Moore to have taken place but at some point, we as a society need to take responsibility and protect those individuals who are the most vulnerable.

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