Kids Imitate Saddam's Televised Hanging Death

Sergio Pelico, a 10-year-old boy from Webster, Texas, hanged himself from a bunk bed last Sunday.

On that same day, a 9-year-old Pakistani boy, Mubashar Ali, hanged himself, with help from his 10-year-old sister.

And three days later, in the suburbs of Kolkata, India, 15-year-old Moon Moon Karmarkar hanged herself from a ceiling fan.

Other than their tragic nature, the suicides of these children shared another link -- each of the young victims had viewed the execution video of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on television.

The incidents shed light on the potential impact of violent scenes on young minds. Child and adolescent psychologists say watching events like this can have a significant and direct influence on children's behavior.

"When children see frightening, scary and aggressive scenes, such as hangings and school shootings, some will turn away," says Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and a professor at Emory University's School of Medicine. "Others will become obsessed or try and imitate what they are seeing."

The idea that children tend to imitate what they watch on television is not new. In 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics formed a Committee on Public Education to study the effects of media violence.

What the committee found through an extensive review of research was that violent acts and images in the media could contribute to imitation of aggressive behavior.

But recent events suggest that this link between seeing violence and imitating it may be stronger than many parents imagine.

"Social learning theory may be a good place to start when trying to understand behaviors which imitate something that has already happened," says Jeffrey Brown, instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital.

"The theory suggests that individuals, particularly kids, learn new behaviors quite easily by observing them."

Different Ages, Different Reasons

It is likely that in two of the three cases, the children did not intend to kill themselves. Apparently, the 9- and 10-year-old boys were simply acting out what they'd seen on television.

"Unfortunately, some individuals who commit suicide may have only been trying to see what it would be like to come close," Brown says. "They were curious, but accidentally died."

The situation may have been different in the case of 15-year-old Karmarkar, who, according to reports by a foreign news agency, hanged herself to "feel the pain Saddam did during the execution."

The discrepancy suggests that children of different ages may have different motivations -- and different intentions -- when it comes to imitating the events they see on TV.

"Children in elementary school are more concrete in their thinking than are adolescents," Kaslow says. "As a result, they are less likely than teens to contemplate the future implications of their actions.

"Adolescents are more abstract in their thought processes, and therefore are more likely to consider ideas such as feeling someone else's pain," she says.

Need for Guidance in Interpreting TV Violence

Brown says another example of the trauma children may experience through watching televised violence could be seen in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy.

"Children exposed to some of those images had heightened anxiety and fear for weeks," he says. "The bottom line in any case where a fictional image -- in a movie or a television show -- or a nonfictional image -- in a news story such as Saddam Hussein's execution -- is shown is to filter what your child watches.

"Yes, that may mean that the adult doesn't watch either."

And even though televised violence cannot be completely avoided, Kaslow says it is important for parents to help their children put such scenes into the proper context.

"Parents need to talk with their children about the violence they see on TV," Kaslow says. "They need to know what their children are watching. They need to pay attention to signs or hints of their children's distress, including their fascination with aggressive or death images. And they need to be available to talk with their children about their distress and concerns.

"From a young age, it is important … for parents to convey that there is a big difference between what occurs on TV and what should happen in real life."