A draft of a letter to the editor in response to Jenni Zimmer

The Ann Arbor News ran an “other voices” column the other day titled “Concerned about school violence? Then turn off the screens” by Jenni Zimmer, who is identified in the piece as a school psychologist for the Ann Arbor Schools. I’ve got some major problems with it, so I thought I’d try to spend at least a little time drafting a response. Feel free to take a look at the article and offer any constructive criticism you might have; what’s here is probably too long to actually send to the paper, but it gives you an idea.

To the editors:

I am writing to respond to Jenni Zimmer’s “Other Voices” column, “Concerned about school violence? Then turn off the screens.” I believe that Zimmer is making several inaccurate and misleading claims based more on popular and generational fear than anything that resembles “the facts.”

Zimmer suggests that school shootings, bullying, disrespect for adults, and other bad behavior of today’s youth can be traced to computer and video screens. She writes “First, the increasingly violent and antisocial content in all forms of media; and second, our young people’s increasing amount of time interacting with screens, with phantom characters, rather than interacting with real people, face to face. They are simply not getting enough experience and enough practice learning prosocial skills such as compassion and empathy.”

Of course, violence, bullying, disrespect for adults, and other bad behavior of the youth existed long before the internet or video games, and the pattern for blaming new arts or technologies for these problems has a long history. As the author and historian Tom Standage wrote in the April 2006 issue of WIRED magazine, video games and the internet join such previously ill-reputed trends as novels, the waltz, movies, the telephone, comic books, and rock and roll. All at their time were thought to be the source of perversions, violence, disrespect, bad manners, and bad thinking. Given what has come of these other previous deviant behaviors, I believe video games are in good company.

But beyond this distant history, I would like to point Zimmer and your readers to a December 2007 study by the Pew/Internet and American Life Project titled “Teens and Social Media.” This can be easily found on the Internet with a simple key word search. Among other things, the study found 64% of online teens between the ages of 12 and 17 have created content on the Internet in the form of writings, photos, videos, music etc.– that is, they are not merely passive consumers online; teens are much more savvy than adults when it comes to sharing and interacting with the content they produce; face to face contact still matters to online teens; and the teens who are active online are also highly active offline.

Zimmer asserts “while our young people are spending hour after hour playing video or computer games, they are spending less time relating to others, less time learning how to express their feelings, how to care for others, how to feel for others,” and that young people’s engagement in violent video games, false “friends,” and other online activity promote sociopathic behavior. Yet, according to the researchers involved with the “Teens and Social Media” study, there is no “compelling evidence that these highly wired teens are abandoning offline engagement with extracurricular activities in favor of having more screen time. In fact, in many cases, those who are the most active online with social media applications like blogging and social networking also tend to be the most involved with offline activities like sports, music, or part-time employment.” While I do respect Zimmer’s personal experiences as a school psychologist, I believe the Pew study, which was based on a survey sample meant to represent all teens ages 12 and 17 in the U.S., is more valid.

Besides these unsubstantiated claims about the dangers of screens, I am troubled by the connection that Zimmer is trying to make to the recent shootings at Northern Illinois University and video games. Zimmer writes “One student in the lecture hall at Northern Illinois University said the scene of the shooter jumping out from behind the stage curtain reminded him of one he had seen in a video game.” There is a fundamental problem of perspective here: this interpretation of the scene being like a video game is not coming from the shooter; rather, it is coming from one of the students who was in the lecture hall at the time of the shooting. While I have seen news reports that have described the shooter Stephen Kazmierczak as a “fairly normal” person with no criminal record, as a graduate student, and as someone who, when in high school, was in the band, studied Japanese, and was in the chess club, I have not heard reports that he played video games.

However, the media reports have indicated that Kazmierczak had been been prescribed (and had stopped taking) some kind of psychotropic drug or drugs– Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, etc. These are the same sort of drugs that now require a so-called “Black Box Warning” indicating that they have been known to cause violent and suicidal tendencies, especially in young users.

To the best of my knowledge, no specific cause for these shootings has been identified, and we may never know. However, given what has been reported, I think it is fair to say that the cause probably has more to do with these medications than a first person shooter game.

I join Zimmer in urging parents and caregivers to spend time with your kids, to read with them, to talk with them. I also agree with Zimmer that we need stricter gun control laws and fewer guns in households in this country. I simply would suggest that it’s also a good idea to play video games with your kids, understand what they’re doing on the Internet, and it’s okay to watch TV with them, too.

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