What prompts a teenager's unprovoked violence, like the case of a Providence, R.I., teen who allegedly assaulted a bystander while his friend caught the attack on video?
Experts pondering the attack — in which two teens have been charged with misdemeanor assault after allegedly punching a Rhode Island School of Design graduate in the face as he stood on a street corner — suggest it may have been fueled by peer pressure coupled with the influence of violent media.
Impulsive, violent behavior may simply be an effort to impress friends by a teen who randomly staged the event "so that the aggressor could claim peer acceptance or prove that he is a stereotypical 'man,' " believes Dr. Virginia Bishop, assistant professor in pediatrics and preventive medicine at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago.
"It sounds like these teens were concentrating on entertainment and impressing each other and the camera," adds Judy Myers-Walls, associate professor in child development and family studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "They knew that it was good to have fun and impress your friends and that it is fun to look at videos later."
Adolescents are generally more likely to resolve a conflict nonviolently in the absence of an audience, adds Bishop. But when peers are in the picture, adolescents are more likely to resort to violence to resolve the conflict if they think their peers would do the same.
Jay Reeve, a psychologist at Bradley Hospital at Brown University in Providence, notes: "Group pressure can override common sense fairly easily for these folks. … Teens tend not to have developed a clear sense of right and wrong, apart from their peers." The immediate result, he concludes, is that teens are more prone to impulsive, violent behavior.
Violence is often linked to peer acceptance, agrees Dr. Alice Sterling Honig, professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University in New York, as "murderous feelings and triumph of physical power are glorified and held up as splendors" by society.
What Role Does TV Violence Play?
Experts contend the glorification of violent acts on television has a great influence on the behavior of teens. "Many teenagers spend more time with these forms of entertainment than they do with anything else, including studying and working," asserts S. Mark Kopta, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Evansville in Indiana.
"One hypothesis is that these are kids who have been thoroughly saturated with 'reality TV' and violent TV and movies, to the point that they combined in a crude way some elements of Candid Camera with a teenage action flick, with horrible results," says Thomas Van Hoose, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.
Myers-Walls observes the new reality television trend instills in youth a sense of "unreality" that is void of any consequence for actions.
The combination of intense peer pressure and violence-saturated media may have a strong effect on teens, bringing about terrible consequences, these experts agree. According to Kopta, teens who act out in this manner have an "entitled, self-centered attitude, poor parenting, envy and anger, and violent examples."