Replacing Violence in Youth Entertainment
By Elizabeth Stutz, retired educationist and founder of Play for Life

    Youth violence and crime in the industrialized world have become more acute over the past years. We know from experience and from research that there are many different causes for the unprecedented amount of violence in the lives of children and young people today. These include violence in the home, war and unrest in the country, football violence and other conditions. These have been discussed at length by the public and in the media.

    Leaving these aside, we will here consider a specific aspect of violence that is affecting the lives of a large proportion of the world's children and young people, namely the images and scenes they see on the screen. This includes TV, movies and the many video games at amusement arcades and other public places that have violence, cruelty, cynicism and horror as their main component. Related to this is the fascination that boys have with guns. These are all highly contentious issues because they coincide with other issues that are now fashionable and are pursued hotly and sometimes passionately. They concern questions such as censorship and civil liberties, technology in children's lives and the right of the children to choose for themselves what to do. Perhaps most vehemently discussed is the question of whether there is any evidence of a direct connection between these violent elements of culture and any acts of violence which they commit.

    These discussions usually leave the questions unresolved because they are fundamental to a number of different ideologies, each of which may have a tail of other issues attached, or are associated with commercial interests. The fact that violence and crime among young people are now at an unprecedented levels is beyond doubt.

Youth Violence

    In countries or societies where the phenomenon of violent culture has not yet fully penetrated into the lives of young people, their attitudes and behavior are different from what has become typical of societies where it has taken root. When visiting countries in the course of the last 15 years (until 1997), such as Poland, (what was then) the Soviet Union, Finland and Botswana, I found that concerned adults spoke with dread of the arrival in their country, or the imminent coming, of the phenomenon of video violence and toy guns. They were eagerly looking for ways to counteract its effects. 

    One of the disturbing effects it has on many youth is the lessening of their ability to play or to create. This contains the risk of children not only becoming drawn into the culture of violence, but also of losing their own personality and their rootedness in culture and in real life. The advent of this phenomenon was seen with dread, like a dark cloud, while it was becoming evident to many that youth violence and crime go hand in hand with modernization, technology, commercialization and the consumer society. 

Corporate Action

    While the entertainment offered by electronic and commercial entertainment plays a significant role as distraction for young and old from the effects of worry and distress, and can therefore be seen as beneficial, the accompanying pressures on the young are the main source of the problems. The sophistication and expertise in manipulating minds which the violence industry employs is beyond the ability of most individuals to withstand. Nothing short of some form of corporate action will be effective in minimizing the harm associated with it. 

Violence in Literature

    An element of violence and tragedy, has always played an important part in literature because they reflect a reality in people's lives. This helps them to come to terms with these kinds of situations and to gain a deeper understanding and sympathy with their own and other people's lives. New questions are posed and old ones better understood; truths about life and death are dealt with. The dramatic and emotional impact of these elements can help people to cope with their own situation and further their emotional development. When expressed in good language, with a well developed plot, illustrating qualities such as compassion, trust, and human relationships, violence can become a valuable, enlightening, enriching literary device, leaving readers or audiences with a sense of elation and new hope, even when the subject is tragic. These stories and plays form part of the culture, tradition and artistic expression of a people and their country. 

    None of these positive factors holds true for the violent entertainment under discussion here. There is no promise of hope in these stories. They are designed simply for commercial gain. They pile up killing and acts of cruelty in rapid succession, blunting the normal sense of revulsion against such behavior. They present violence as heroism and a way of dealing with evil. This approach exploits human sensibilities, provokes arousal and situations inviting aggressive reactions, using the human fascination with the grotesque and macabre; heightening children's fears, and sense of insecurity. Such stories are basically a shoddy imitation of ancient myths and fantasy stories, leaving children with a warped and false sense of right and wrong, life and death; inhibiting emotional development.

A Key to Possible Action

    A clue to solving this dilemma is in the children and young people themselves. It lies in their creativity. This is an inborn gift in everybody and starts with play. If children are left undisturbed with some scraps of material they will find some way of making it into something, or taking it to pieces to see how it works. When talking to a person in Botswana about children who work in the fields, she told me about the small boys who fashion the most beautiful and intricately made replicas of oxen, whom they are minding, from the clay they are standing on. This example can be replicated in many situations in life, except that the examples, and the talents usually go unrecognized.

Pre-School Learning

    In all nursery and preschool classes, the accent should be on play and creative activities in preference to pressing children to learn the literacy and numeric skills at an early age. Children progress better with their formal work if they have time to develop their creativity in the early stages because they will have become more perceptive and observant, their manual skills and their ability to concentrate and work alongside other children will have developed, they will be more alert, confident and attentive, and less easily distracted by other children. All these aspects of behavior are of vital importance in the development of self-discipline and mental ability.

    When children are lacking in these attributes, or suffer disadvantages from home, free play and creative work will act as a natural therapy and prepare them for formal work when this is given gradually.

In School

    There are many ways in which children should be given more opportunities to realize their creative potential in school. Throughout their education, from their earliest years, there should be time scheduled and more suitable rooms set aside, for a variety of creative activities; modeling, woodwork, sculpture and painting, singing and instrumental music, both classical and popular; writing and acting, film making and collage, gardening and farming. If authorities claim there is no time for this because of the needs of academic subjects, it has been shown in a number of schools that creativity in practice actually enhances academic performance. It is evident that the sense of satisfaction experienced from the act of creating spills over into other spheres of the person's being and doing. Some children would be happy to make use of out-of-school clubs for doing art or practical crafts. This could in some cases take the place of games for those who prefer it.

In the Community

    Some cities, towns and country areas offer out-of-school clubs for young children which, in varying degrees, offer opportunities for art and creative activities. However, there are few that offer imaginative opportunities for children over ten, or particularly from twelve upwards. In the UK, sporting and games fields are disappearing even now, while open or wild areas for exploration, adventure or gathering in groups, are almost nonexistent. Nor are there many youth clubs or places where young people can meet socially. 

    This means that young people have nowhere to meet, play games or create music, paint or occupy themselves creatively or socially. If they meet in the streets they are said to be loitering. The only alternative seems to be that they go back to the television screen, computer games or radio, or look for adventure in the street which is likely to be seen as a nuisance or where any games they try to devise are seen as vandalism, or crime. Is it not time that both the local and national governments undertook some enterprising schemes to offer space and opportunities to this large and important group of people? They could provide walk-in centres where opportunities for imaginative activities could be set up by the young themselves; where they could paint murals, produce sculptures, make music, make clothes, repair bikes, design hair styles, etc., and gain experience and self respect.

Breathing Space Outdoors

    There are parking places for cars, traffic-free areas for shoppers, but nowhere that is safe, attractive, unpolluted, close to wild open spaces or opportunities for adventure for the young. The result is that they get ever more drawn towards various forms of violence and crime through the only kind of entertainment available. This is offered because it is a multi-billion industry, not because it is good for young people. Is it surprising that many become disillusioned, antisocial or cynical?
In the redesign of inner-city areas, suburbs and villages, it must be a priority in future to provide special areas for children's play, social life, enjoyment, health and safety, in consultation with experts in these fields. In existing areas, where no redevelopment is planned, it is perhaps even more necessary to create proper imaginative facilities, such as traffic-free play areas near dwellings and to plant trees. It is high time that matters concerning children and young people are given a higher priority and that children are treated with thought, love and respect. The rewards will be enormous, quite out of proportion to the expense. 


    Suggestions to government bodies to provide decent facilities or opportunities are met with the response that there is no money for such things. Apart from the cost to human lives and dignity and the future of this generation, far more is spent on policing and imprisoning the young and repairing health and physical damage than it would cost to provide decent leisure facilities and some human dignity.

    Surely it is up to all who care about the future of humankind to bring these urgent matters to those able to take effective action.

Source: Peace Through Play UK. Web site:

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