From comic books to video games, new forms of entertainment always get blamed for child crime
Who will think of the delinquents?
As soon as a new entertainment medium crops up, the hysterical concerns over how it affects children begin. From paper to the airwaves to fiberoptic cable, the means of delivering corruption to our youth never cease. In the extreme, these technologies are often scapegoated for horrific crimes by defense lawyers. And when the press catches wind, sensationalist articles and moral panic are close behind.
These cheap, short novels featured illustrations and descriptions of action-packed violence and crime, and they were blamed for various murders and other crimes by children in the late 1800s to mid 1900s. In fact, that time period is littered with accusations leveled against youths supposedly influenced by pulp literature.
In an 1883 New York Times article, the author claimed that the genre “fills the jails, gives magistrates endless trouble” and provides “the Home Secretary with half, or more than half of his juvenile offenders.”
Another Times piece from that same year, headlined “Ruined By Dime Novels,” blamed the “addiction” of two boys who shot a man in the face during a robbery. The British referred to such books as “Penny Dreadfuls,” and in 1888 murder, arson, and burglary by two young boys was blamed on these “noxious scribblings.”
When a 16-year-old was accused of murder in Newark in 1892, the judge in the case said of the dime novel, “It is apparent that it is the most pernicious literature that can possibly get into the hands of children. Men would avoid it.”
In 1920, Japanese police blamed movies for the killing of two schoolgirls by another child in Osaka. Authorities determined the murder “was due to an idea obtained at a movie show.” Afterward, movies got “special censorship” as a result.
The next year, The Scientific Monthly published an article exploring the effects of motion pictures on youth crime rates. Ten years later, in 1931, a newspaper in England was still blaming movies for helping gangsters recruit young people, a claim well-known criminologist Dr. Carlton E. Simon dismissed.
The New York Times ran an article in 1934 that reported on a Motion Picture Research Council meeting where that organization’s president said, “Men had the right to make money, but not rob moral fiber.”
The president of the New York Academy of Medicine, Dr. Bernard Sachs, also said, “Pictures teach young people how to commit wrongs.” He dismissed the suggestion that kids had committed crimes in the past just as frequently as a “most illogical argument.”
This quaint medium was blamed for a double murder in 1927, when the teenager who committed the crime testified that listening to the radio made him “feel queer inside.”
Radio’s corrupting influence was also explored in a 1946 report from a Parent Teacher Association, which said radio could be used as a “means of emotional overstimulation or as a retreat into a shadow world of reality.”
And in a 1957 murder trial, the mother of a young defendant said violent radio serials had influenced her child. “They were the sort of serials where there was a lot of violence, screaming and often murder,” she explained.
But comics also came in for their share of blame…
Comics replaced dime novels as the “corrupting” paper medium of the day and were blamed for many crimes across multiple decades. One particularly nasty crime was the torture and killing of a boy in 1948. Addiction to comic books was cited as the cause.
Comics were also linked to two killings in Canada, a fact highlighted in a senate inquiry. In fact, a few years earlier Canada had banned certain types of comics, citing an increase in juvenile crime. (The law is still on the books.)
In 1948, comic book burning events in Virginia and New York triggered copy cat events around the country.
In 1955, a new law banned “horror comics” in the U.K.
When “television intoxication” was blamed for a murder in 1977, that new term sparked moral panic and lead to a deluge of hysterical headlines.
“Ronny Zamora was reacting to the words he heard on TV when he fired a gun and killed an elderly neighbor,” began a 1977 article citing a defense psychologist who claimed the 15-year-old had been “conditioned” by violence on television.
By 1981, judges were mentioning television violence as they found children guilty of murder, placing the blame squarely on the entertainment medium. Television continued to be scapegoated for murders and other crimes well into the 1980s.
Video games became a mainstream form of entertainment through the 1980s. As the games became increasingly realistic in 1990s, their interactive nature made them a perfect scapegoat.
Video games were cited in connection with various mass shootings, from Columbine (DOOM) to Sandy Hook (Call of Duty).
One future president even chimed in on the debate.
The web was implicated by Ellis Rubin, the same lawyer who used “television intoxication” defense in the 1977, when he rejiggered the notion as “internet intoxication.” He used it to defend a juvenile for making threats against Columbine High School eight months after the massacre there.
It was a strange new medium that served as the perfect scapegoat for inexplicable criminal acts. Instant, abundant access to information was new, and, as is often the case, people gravitated towards the worst possible uses. After the Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, there was panic over bomb-building instructions proliferating on the internet.
Given this history, surely it won’t be long before we see virtual reality cast as the new childhood boogeyman.