Leading Article: We must protect young minds

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THE uncanny resemblance between the film Child's Play 3 and the killing of James Bulger must be of concern. Scenes in which a doll is splashed with paint and battered to death are worryingly similar to the violence inflicted on the two-year-old. If the film proves to have been a blueprint for murder, then a shadow will be cast over all manner of images that children encounter in their daily lives.

A link between the film and the crime would not prove that the former caused the latter. The creation of child murderers is surely a far more complex matter related to upbringing and still-unknown factors in human character. Otherwise, this case would not be so exceptional. The police themselves have discounted the theory that there was a connection between video violence and this murder.

Yet it seems quite possible that exposure to images of brutality could turn an already disturbed child towards violence. At the very least, such images may give a child a picture of how it might vent its rage. Thus, the inconceivable can become conceivable.

It is known that child molesters expose their victims to paedophiliac pornography to make sexual abuse seem normal. Likewise, certain films may have the effect of making violence acceptable to some children. Research has so far failed to assess the impact of such material. Until more is known, it would be wise to err on the side of caution and do more to protect immature and vulnerable minds from possible risks.

The problem is not knowing what children should be protected from. Images of violence abound even in apparently anodyne cartoons. Is it dangerous to show the Roadrunner dropping lumps of concrete on his hapless victim? What about Sylvester's efforts to eat Tweety Pie and Tom's bloody adventures with Jerry? Is violence all right provided the good guy kills the bad guy?

Some critics want greater control of 'video nasties'. They are right that a culture of gratuitous violence is being disseminated by means of videos. Although they are, surprisingly, more tightly regulated than films shown in cinemas, inadequate parental supervision means that children gain easy access to grossly unsuitable material. But videos are only part of the problem: Child's Play 3 has already been broadcast twice on satellite television and would have been screened again tonight but for the attention drawn to it by the murder of James Bulger.

There is also a danger of concentrating solely on visual images, the dominant medium of the day. Every parent is aware of how inexplicably powerful a few words can be to a child. A story book can captivate a young mind, producing pleasure but also nightmares.

The truth is that children are impressionable in ways adults do not understand. Given this ignorance, parents and broadcasters should take extra care to protect easily influenced minds. This is one of the few morals that can safely be drawn from the tragedy of the Bulger case.