`How does a young man who has grown up with action movies and video games suddenly change his viewing habits when he has a 2-year-old boy?'
--Sr. Mary Ann Walsh
As shocking episodes of youth violence unfold in one all-American community after another -- Pearl, Miss.; Paducah, Ky.; Littleton, Colo.; and now Conyers, Ga. -- grief and incomprehension fuel a demand for answers, an explanation of how young people from seemingly good homes and average backgrounds could commit such astonishingly brutal deeds.
Video games, TV shows and movies, music and Web sites that celebrate violence figure high on the list of the usual suspects.
By any measure, these forms of popular culture have an enormous impact on shaping the imaginations of young people. Yet for some who study the situation in times of calm as well as crisis, the predictable thrust and parry of media critics and defenders that follow the latest tragedy often raises all the wrong questions.
Suspicions of direct cause-and-effect are important. Did Scenes of a student shooting his classmates in the movie "The Basketball Diaries," for example, push a given child to walk into school and start shooting? However, experts say such thinking may obscure the more pervasive social effects of violent programming.
The `mean world' syndrome
"The impact may not be on potential perpetrators, but on the rest of the population, who begin to believe that violence is inevitable, that crime is everywhere and that they must be afraid," said Sr. Elizabeth Thoman, a member of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary and executive director of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, Calif.
Thoman's center produces media literacy programs for schools across the country.
She said the public fear generated by media violence -- the "mean world" syndrome B shows up in all sorts of socially toxic ways, from a diminished sense of community to "tough on crime" legislation, from barred doors to the death penalty.
Perspectives such as Thoman's, however, have been largely shunted to the sidelines in the aftermath of Littleton and now Conyers, Ga., where six students were injured May 20 when a sophomore opened fire.
In the wake of the Littleton shootings, most commentators directly implicated movies, music, video games and the Internet in the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The killings became the focal point of a Senate committee hearing on violent media.
President Clinton convened a summit and promised an ongoing national campaign against youth violence, while Vice President Al Gore announced a new agreement with on-line providers to restrict violent material, changes that would "honor the lives of those who were killed."
While politicians declared there was a clear consensus on the detrimental effects of media violence on youth, executives of entertainment industries cautiously deflected criticism: It takes an already disturbed young person to move from watching a violent movie or playing a "first-person shooter" video game to killing real people, they said.
Independent media critics such as Thoman say that what is needed is something deeper and more systematic, including grassroots education for both children and adults, leading them to question their own media choices and making them aware of the ways they can be manipulated in a pervasive media culture. Parishes and schools are ideal places to begin this education, they say.
The U.S. bishops have addressed the issue in the form of a 1998 document, "Renewing the Mind of the "which is Media, now being developed into a 12-minute video.
Henry Herx, head of the bishops' Office of Film and Broadcasting, said that parents may have a "certain lack of imagination" about how much media has changed since their childhood.
"When they were kids, they were watching rather stylized …