Viral Violence and the Challenge for Public Safety

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As the screens we carry narrow our proximity to random and targeted acts of violence, many parents and families are rightfully questioning the impact viral violence has on shared perceptions of public safety and child health.

In pediatrics, we have long considered the link between media, violence and health.

We know kids who watch fake violence in movies or play violent characters in video games show signs of increased aggression. But what happens when the violence kids watch is real? Or when the cameraperson is only a teenager?

Today, youth can easily capture and consume real violence, in real-time, as a part of their daily routines – from snapping school violence, live streaming police violence, recording sexual violence, or sharing images of political violence. This is the new normal* and it’s more complex than the simple relationship between simulated exposures and aggression.

A child watching real violence from their cell phone now understands something tangible about the world; and a kid who records or shares violent imagery online can contribute to others understanding of the world. That elevation of the voices and experiences of youth can be extremely valuable. Indeed, in terms of activist’s movements like Black Lives Matter, the perspective of youth, magnified by social media, has become a national catalyst for police reform, criminal justice reform, and racial equity.

Yet, perpetual exposure to viral violence takes its toll – often manifest in feelings of victimization, grief, fear, intimidation, anger and sadness. And kids and teenagers may be most vulnerable to this kind of trauma because they are still developing the emotional and intellectual maturity to process troubling events. What is more, they rely on trusted adult figures to provide safe spaces in their life.

As we face these harrowing challenges, consider two thoughts:

1. While it’s okay to be protective, thoughtful and proactive regarding how youth experience and contribute to violent images online, we, as parents, caregivers, or providers, cannot simply turn a blind eye. While distressing, some images of violence advance our collective understanding, compassion, and empathy for the suffering that exists outside the walls of our private communities or our segregated social groups, and the privileges those spaces confer. In this way, confronting the visual of violence with a particular effort to center the interpretation of the events around the marginalized populations disproportionately affected, is the first step towards collective healing. And that healing begins with rigorous and vigilant public exploration of the ways systemic racism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia and intolerance threaten public safety.

2. As we live-stream our lives, we open windows to the neighborhoods we live in, the spaces where our kids learn and play, and the ways we perceive and are perceived in the world. When we don’t like what we see on the other side of that window, it can be easy to hide discomfort or insecurity with blame or shame or to create narratives that distort the humanity we witness. But each time one of us resists the opportunity to understand the burdens or experiences of another, we all move further from the co-existence necessary to bring peace.

*This is a piece I wrote with my friend and colleague, Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, that was published in the July 2016 Pediatrics. It is available for free online for the first week of publication.