Little Pitchers Have Big Ears

The horrible events of yesterday bring out the mental health professional in me.

The coming days are going to bring saturation coverage of these murders on television, radio and the Internet. If you have little children around, and you have a habit of leaving all your broadcast devices running as background noise, turn them off. If you let your little ones watch TV without supervision, I suggest you take a break from that as well.

Yes, children need to learn that life holds dangers as well as joys, and they eventually will no matter what you do. But they do not need to see hours of photos of dead kindergartners, grieving parents and a gun wielding murderer.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

21 thoughts on “Little Pitchers Have Big Ears”

  1. A recent advertisement:

    Sex! Intrigue! Murder! Larceny! Betrayal!
    Enjoy the new season of the Metropolitan Opera.

    It’s getting harder and harder to know what we need to protect our kids from. 🙁

    1. My understanding is that kids are actually pretty good at understanding the difference between real and faux violence.

      On the other hand, not using your TV as a substitute for a babysitter is probably a good idea regardless of what’s on it.

    2. Sex, intrigue, murder, larceny and betrayal have always been the primary components of opera (and even musical theater). Carousel is a wonderful musical (it doesn’t quite rise to the level of grand opera, but it is close). The only one of the five missing from the plot of Carousel is intrigue.

      If we go to all-out grand opera, there are at least three of the five present. Carmen has all five. Ditto Madame Butterfly. Even Mozart’s Magic Flute has intrigue, (attempted) murder, larceny and betrayal along with the hidden sex.

      It’s opera, it is sung in a (generally) florid style in a foreign language. Of course the plots are simplified to the broadest strokes.

      Alongside all of which, no one I know takes their adolescent kids to grand opera. When they take late adolescent kids, they start with something fairly innocuous like The Magic Flute. And yes, I do go to see opera, and when my sons were older and interested, I took them.

  2. Agree 100% !! Turn off the TV.

    And, more please. What does the mental health professional in you say about the mother with 5 guns? Or, anyone with 5 guns? Of course there is still a lot more to be known, and, blaming the mother has gone out of fashion. But still———

    1. a typical household in texas has around 3 guns per member of the household. otoh, it’s possible a typical household in texas is more likely to have a hunter of one or more different kinds of wild game than one in connecticut. speaking as a gun owner who would prefer more and better regulation of firearms; i own a rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun all of which i’ve inherited either from my father or my grandfather when they died. there’s an incredible need for changes in the way we regulate firearms in this country but assertions based simply on the number of guns in a household isn’t exactly a promising start for the conversation necessary to eventually make those changes.

        1. i know, and yet as a liberal democrat who is a 7th generation native of texas i refuse to let that kind of texan drive me away.

        2. Good writing and bad art beats good art and bad writing every day of the week. That’s why Cathy is a good strip and Mallard Fillmore isn’t. But nothing illustrates this principle quite so perfectly as watching Garry Trudeau sharpen his drawing skills (I assume he doesn’t use a studio) while his writing gets more and more banal and mainstream. I am about to quit reading him after nearly forty years.

          1. I wouldn’t characterize Cathy Guisewite’s drawings as “bad art.” She used a simple, uncluttered drawing style that very effectively does what it’s supposed to do. She knows how to use pictures to tell a story. You can look at Cathy and instantly know what emotion she’s feeling, even when it’s one of those shrunken pictures in a daily newspaper.

            She was not formally trained as an artist, and her drawing ability improved rapidly during the first few years.

    2. I’m all for gun control, but give me a break. The kid as far as I can tell had no history of anything violent. Her keeping 5 guns in the house might trouble your liberal sensibilities (and my own) but that she should have had an inkling that this could happen with by all reports quite well behaved kids with no history of violence is ridiculous.

      The liberal position is that keeping guns around makes the .00001% of people who eventually go off much more dangerous; I agree. But unless you want to demonize EVERYONE who keeps guns in their home you can’t demonize her without some evidence she should have known the risk of an explosion in her son was substantially higher than average. So far no news suggesting that.

      Unless more news comes out leave her alone or consider yourself just like Limbaugh jumping on whatever leftie he decides to trump up and ridicule.

      1. I agree that trying to catch ahead of time anyone who might go off the deep end is not possible. But a ban on ownership or possession of semi-automatic weapons should be possible. (I don’t say it is; if I were Mr Romney, I would be prepared to bet $10,000 that nothing whatever comes of this round of agony, or the next, or the next …)

        1. or even just requiring a special license with a deep background check and a tax stamp similar to what is required to own a fully-automatic weapon, a silencer, or a sawed-off shotgun.

  3. Thanks, Keith, and to those who would say that “children need to be aware of reality,” I say that children will encounter plenty of reality right here IN reality, and do not need the most extreme outlying cases shoved on their consciousness by mass media. Most people will never encounter in real life ANY dose of the events of shock and horror that are collected and broadcast on the news daily.

  4. The same coverage that traumatizes children addles adults. Turning off the TV is sound practice for everyone. Maybe TV programming is useful for people who can form office pools to guess the number of teddy bears which will be placed at the makeshift memorials after mass shootings. Better to turn it off and go for a walk.

    Coverage of the madman in Beijing who attacked 22 schoolchildren with a knife yesterday, resulting in some serious injuries but no fatalities: this may help the population to think a little bit more carefully when the gun lobby says that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

    Coverage of the homicide rates per 100,000 in the US and in other democracies, 4.8 in the US and 1.6 in France: this could force the “people kill people” parrots into saying whether this means that the French are three times as good as Americans, which would follow from their belief that the people are the problem.

    Coverage of the power of the NRA in Washington, with details about what they have done when members of Congress have even dared to ask questions about their power: this may provide some perspective on the situation, especially if we are allowed to learn which legislators have “scheduling conflicts” when asked to appear on Meet The Press and the other Sunday talking head shows.

    Not all coverage has to be worthless. Most of it is, but this could change if we demanded it.

  5. Re “Maybe TV programming is useful ”

    Best t-shirt ever is the one showing an old console set with a vortex pattern, which also appears in the eyes of some viewers, over the caption

    “Why do you think they call it programming?”

  6. Yes, yes, yes. A thousand times yes!

    Two separate newscasters, at two different local stations, posted on their Facebook pages just this same advice, for everyone to limit the amount of coverage they consume. Perhaps there’s hope for broadcast journalism after all.

  7. We could use a law that says that any official with executive or legislative power over firearms who comes on TV and says “I am shocked and deeply saddened” shall summarily forfeit said office.

  8. You’re right, Keith, about kids seeing new depiction of the aftermath. It can’t be good for them. But there is another reason to endorse changes to media coverage after mass murders.

    Parents know that at certain ages, kids want attention and do not distinguish between positive and negative. Any attention will do. Similarly, even as the text of news coverage features condemnation of the malefactor, millions of disturbed people are soaking up the subtext: “Boy, everyone knows what he did! He sure made his point. They can’t ignore him now. He’s famous.” It’s not a stretch to conclude that screaming headlines and breathless TV news reports suggest a course of action to a damaged psyche with access to weapons.

    In his excellent book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker proposes that when murderers are caught, news coverage should feature the dismal aspects of the killer’s life and the routine arrest and processing details, avoiding shots of the perp walk with high security and other scenes that suggest this is a very dangerous person. Anything we can do to cut back on the attention would help.

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