Two-year-old James Bulger was brutally and sadistically murdered on Feb. 12, 1993, by two ten-year-old children. This stark fact has prompted a long overdue focus upon what conditions in our society could precipitate such an unthinkable action.
The need to ask "Why?" is central to the human condition; we cannot and should not accept a randomness in events, unless we are content to see the world spin totally out of our control. As is usual at such times, during the
trial the media approached every possible "expert" for comments on causes; and as usual the experts obliged, from their various points of view, sometimes under pressure with little time for the consideration that was due. Then, once again
as usual, other media commentators derided the multiplicity of views, and with it the entire search for causes.
Now that the immediate shock of the trial has a little receded, perhaps this is the time to evaluate more carefully the situation which this murder of a child by children has forced us to examine. Many have asked despairingly how we
can ever come to terms with it. We can only begin to do so by facing it squarely and considering what might be done: not to erase Jamie's loss, not to redeem the two children who survive, but to try to ensure that Jamie is not just the first of many
such victims. And, given that children of ten are by law seen as in need of protection by society, we perhaps should consider future Roberts and Jons, and how far society should accept some responsibility for children who, at least in some sense, are
its victims themselves.
It is of course more comforting to believe that children like Robert Thompson and Jon Venables are a "one-off"; "evil freaks," as some sections of the Press described them. Detective-Sergeant Phil Roberts, present
at Robert's interviews and in desperate need of comfort himself, was quoted as saying: "These two were freaks who just found each other. You should not compare these two boys with other boys they were evil." ( The Independent , 25.11.93). Similarly, one might describe a child who lacked any sense of pity or moral control as the equivalent of an adult psychopath: but does it not defy belief that two such children "just found each other"?
Whoever might or might not have been leader however much this might have been a case of two children egging each other on the fact is that this was not a crime of sudden impulse. Jamie was not the first toddler that these
children attempted to entice away that day; they both persevered in seeking a victim. If they had actually pushed Jamie into traffic or into the canal, both of which they explicitly considered, then we might have seen such an action as an
uncontrolled and perhaps one-sided impulse: they rejected both these ideas, and it is in fact the sustained determination with which they propelled a distressed and frightened little boy over two-and-a-half miles, stopping when necessary
to"explain themselves" to concerned enquirers, that is the second piece of evidence that an act of torture was in the making. We now know that the final scene beside the railway line was long-drawn-out and merciless; that paint was thrown,
and blows were struck not once but enough to cause 42 separate injuries: that there were sexual elements to the torture and Jamie's mouth was damaged on the inside; and that the children got blood on the soles of their shoes.
These details have to be remembered, much as one would like to forget them, because of what they imply: that in this crime there was both the expectation and the attainment of satisfaction of some sort through doing deliberate
and sustained violence to a very small child (described by the children as a "baby") whose distress was unremitting, Afterwards, too, the children were composed enough first to push James on to the railway line in an attempt to
disguise the murder, then to wander down to the video-shop where they were known and where their demeanour did not arouse suspicion of anything worse than truancy even in their mothers.
So here is a crime that we could all wish had been perpetrated by "evil freaks"; but already the most cursory reading of news since then suggests that it is not a "one-off." Shortly after this trial, children of
similar age in Paris were reported to have set upon a tramp, encouraged by another tramp, kicked him and thrown him down a well. In England an adolescent girl was tortured by her "friends" over days, using direct quotations from a horror
video Child's Play 3 as part of her torment, and eventually set on fire and thus killed; while the following note appeared in a local paper on 7.12.93:
Two schoolboys were today expected to appear in court accused of torturing a six-year- old on a railway line. The youngsters, aged ten and eleven, allegedly tried to force the boy to electrocute himself on a track in Newcastle upon
Tyne last week. They are also accused of stabbing him in the arm with a knife. They will appear before Gosforth Youth Court in Newcastle upon Tyne charged with making threats to kill and three offences of indecently assaulting the youngster and his
two brothers aged seven and ten.
We do not have the information to be able to comment on the full background of any of these crimes at present: all that can be said is that they have in common a willingness of two or more children or adolescents together to carry out
brutally violent assaults likely to result in protracted suffering and death.
It would be quite unlikely that any single cause for these children's behaviour could be identified, although possible contributing factors might be offered; for instance, experts consulted by The Independent (25.11.93)
variously suggested the effects of physical abuse, severe emotional neglect resulting in lack of self-worth, deprivation, "play on the mean side which went too far," exposure to sadistic videos and conversations, sexual abuse and disturbed
family relationships, Poverty and despair related to unemployment and a culture of no-hope families have also been cited. However, child abuse, poverty and neglect have been a part of many children's experience over the years; indeed, although
neither Jon nor Robert could be said to have come from happy and nurturant homes, there was little evidence of the extremes of neglect and abuse that could be documented in any Social Services department. What, then, can be seen as the
"different" factor that has entered the lives of countless children and adolescents in recent years? This has to be recognized as the easy availability to children of gross images of violence on video.
Evidence of professional concern
Over the past few years, considerable anxiety has been expressed by those professionally concerned with children about the effects of "horror," "sex and violence," "soft porn" and similar scenes
experienced by children via videos seen in their own or their friends' homes. Mr. Justice Brown identified children's access to sadistic videos as cause for concern following the Rochdal case of suspected ritual abuse, where the children's
familiarity with horror images from videos such as Nightmare on Elm Street misled social workers into assuming that they must have experienced such things in reality. At an early stage the British Paediatric Association had invited comments
from its members on damaging effects of "video pasties": at that time, concern was mainly centred upon children who were presenting with nightmares and traumatization by images that they could not erase from their minds and one might
suggest that this was an "innocent" period, in that having nightmares is a relatively healthy reaction, denoting the child's continuing sensitivity to such images. In 1985, too, opinions of child and adolescent psychiatrists on the viewing
of violent videos by children were reviewed in the Bulletin of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (U.K).
More recently, however, concern has grown greater and has addressed more serious and long-lasting effects. It now seems that professionals in child health and psychology under-estimated the degree of brutality and sustained sadism that
film-makers were capable of inventing and willing to portray, let alone the "special-effects" technologies which would support such images; and we certainly under-estimated how easy would be children's access to them. Where formerly
children were said to see them "by accident" or in defiance of parental edict, it is now clear that many children watch adult-only videos on a regular basis, with or without their parents' knowledge, and that many parents make less than
strenuous efforts to restrict their children's viewing. Thus it is not surprising that Mr. Justice Morland speculated upon the part that such videos might have played in creating the degree of desensitization to compassion that the children in the
Bulger case shoved not only during their. attack, but in comments like Robert's (before he admitted the killing): "If I wanted to kill a baby, I would kill my own, wouldn't I?"
There must be special concern when children (or adults, for that matter) are repeatedly exposed to images of vicious cruelty in the context of entertainment and amusement. Michael Medved makes the point:
Not only do these films suggest that brute force is a prerequisite for manliness, that physical intimidation is irresistibly sexy. and that violence offers an effective solution to all human problems; today's movies also advance the
additional appalling idea that the most appropriate response to the suffering of others is sadistic laughter. ( Hollywood Versus America , 1993)
In the context of entertainment:
1.The viewer receives the implicit message that this is all good fun something with which to while away one's leisure time.
2. The child viewer receives distorted images of emotions that he has not yet experienced so must accept especially dangerous when love, sex and violence are equated.
3. The ingenuity with which brutality is portrayed is likely to escalate over time, since the entertainment industry must try to be more and more "entertaining" and must allow for jaded palates. (How far this might go in
the future in terms of video games and virtual reality is not within the scope of this paper.)
4. So that viewers will not be too disturbed to experience "entertainment," the victims must be portrayed as being somewhat sub-human, so that they need not be pitied.
5. An alternative is that they should be portrayed as deserving violent treatment. Robert and Jon explained that they had had to go on throwing bricks at Jamie (30 blows with bricks and an iron bar were counted) because he kept on
getting up. (This resonates with the attitudes of many abusive parents, who testify that they had to hit the baby because she would keep on crying.) A parallel in a recently released film is where we witness in lit silhouette the multiple rape of a
woman by a queue of men, and hear her agonized screams, all in the context of an intent to punish her.
The connection between viewing violence and change in attitudes or behaviour
The principle that what is experienced vicariously will have some effect on some people is an established one, and is the reason why industry finds it worth while to spend millions of pounds on advertising. Medved has pointed out that
an advertising campaign will be regarded as a major success on the basis of a quite small percentage of its viewers changing their buying habits. The derisive question which film-makers have put to their critics, "Have YOU been tempted to become
a serial killer by watching our films?" is disingenuous: it ignores differing stability, susceptibility to influence and levels of immaturity among the audience as a whole. We know that children can be traumatized, not only by the images they
see, but also by additional images that are suggested by their imagination in response to the originals; but far more dangerous, because more lastingly damaging, would be that eventually they should no longer be troubled at all by seeing violent
images, as a result of desensitization by systematic repetition. The processes of "desensitization" and "flooding" are well-known methods for modification of behaviour, reducing the impact of the original accompanying emotion.
Because of this knowledge, it has been difficult for psychologists to demonstrate experimentally the effect of images of extreme violence on young children's behaviour. Experiments involving live subjects, and especially young
children, would usually be submitted to an ethical committee, who would consider any likely effects. The processes of traumatization and desensitization are well enough known for any ethical committee to refuse to sanction the showing of such videos
to children in order to monitor effects. Moreover, if it were suggested that parents should watch alongside, child psychologists would be more alarmed still at such a proposal, on the basis that any identification by the child with the violent
perpetrator could be additionally enhanced through identification with his parents, were they apparently to accept the film's attitudes.
Thus most research on the results of watching violence either has to follow up long-term effects on individual cases, or has to extrapolate from experimental situations that do not in fact involve witnessing extreme violence. Since
children's exposure to the kind of sadistic images with which we are now concerned is relatively recent, there has not yet been time to carry out the longitudinal studies that this would involve, while ethical experimental studies are necessarily
rather artificial. Nevertheless, Professors Sims and Gray (Professors of Psychiatry and Paediatrics respectively) were able to point to "a vast world literature, more than 1,000 papers, linking heavy exposure to media violence with subsequent
aggressive behaviour" in their document presented to the Broadcasting Group of the House of Lords in September 1993. They made two particularly important points themselves: that in current video material "unlike traditional gruesome
stories, the viewer is made to identify with the Perpetrator of the act, and not with the victim"; and that "watching specific acts of violence on the media has resulted in mimicry by children and adolescents of behaviour that they would
otherwise, literally, have found unimaginable." There is, of course, a connection between identification and mimicry, which decides what is mimicked.
George Comstock, Professor of Communications at Syracuse University, hew York, reviewed 190 research projects over 30 years on the impact of television violence (remembering the caveats given above); he found "a very solid
relationship between viewing anti-social portrayals or violent episodes and behaving anti-socially" in both boys and girls (Comstock, 1991). Huesman and Eron at Illinois published a 20-year follow-up of 400 children, and found that heavy
exposure to television violence at age 8 years (again remembering that the violence was by no means as extreme then as now) was associated with violent crime and spouse or child abuse at age 30 "at all socio-economic levels and all levels
of intelligence... It cannot be denied or explained away." (Huesman and Eron, 1984) A British review of 40 adolescent murderers and 200 young sex offenders showed "repeated viewing of violent and pornographic videos" as "a
significant causal factor"; this was particularly significant in adolescents abusing in baby-sitting contexts, where videos provided "a potent source of immediate arousal for the subsequent act," including mimicry of the violent images
witnessed (Bailey, 1993).
There continues to be a need for systematic research in order to keep pace with both the growth of violence in children and the growth of violent visual material available to them. (Indeed, the Professor of Psychological Criminology at
Cambridge identifies "a pressing need for a new long-term program of high-quality government-funded research on (all) causes of offending" in young people, the cost of which would be "infinitesimal compared with the costs of almost
everything connected with crime" (Farrington, 1994).) So far as research on the effect of violent images is concerned, and given the ethical considerations already elaborated, the careful collection of case history material is likely to be the
most fruitful. This would, of course, need to be both prospective and retrospective; that is, children's viewing habits (or video knowledge) could be monitored, and eventual outcomes assessed, while child and adolescent violent offenders could be
studied retrospectively in terms of background experience.
Meanwhile, it seems impossible to allow the situation to continue, and indeed escalate, as it now is. Michael Medved stops short at advocating censorship, and makes a plea for film-makers to set their own standards and limits. Although
individuals such as Kubrick and Hopkins have begun to have doubts about their own contributions, it seems unlikely that those who feel responsibility for protecting children will be able to wait for such corporate self-denial.
Many of us hold our liberal ideals of freedom of expression dear, but now begin to feel that we were naive in our failure to predict the extent of damaging material and its all too free availability to children. Most of us would prefer
to rely on the discretion and responsibility of parents, both in controlling their children's viewing and in giving children clear models of their own distress in witnessing sadistic brutality however it is unhappily evident that many children cannot
rely on their parents in this respect. By restricting such material from home viewing, society must take on a necessary responsibility in protecting children from this as from other forms of child abuse.
(Note: "In concentrating here on the needs of children and young people, I have limited myself to my own professional specialism. I do not wish to imply, however, that adults are unaffected by or immune from the influence of
images of extreme violence and sadism." Elizabeth Newson)
BAILEY, S.M., 1993. Criminal Justic Matters, 6-7
COMSTOCK, G., 1991. TV and the American Child, Academic Press.
FARRINGTON, David P., 1994. "The influence of the family on delinquent development," Family Policy Studies Centre, Crime and the Family (conference paper).
HUESMANN, LR, and ERON, L., 1984. Quoted by Medved, q.v.- and see
HUESMANN, LR, ERON, L., DUBOW, E et al, 1983. Aggression and its Correlates over 22 years, University of Illinois, Chicago.
MEDVED, Michael, 1992. Hollywood vs. America, HarperCollins, Zondervan.
SIMS, ACP, and MELVILLE-THOMAS, G., 198S. "Survey of the opinion. of child and adolescent psychiatrists on the viewing of violent videos by children," Bulletin, Royal College of Psychiatrists 9. 238-240.
SIMS, ACP, and GRAY, Peter, l993. "The media, violence and vulnerable viewers," document presented to Broadcasting Group, House of Lords.