I’m a psychologist – this is why children kill

Kids copy so much from online media: fashion, make-up tutorials, TikTok dances, accents, phrases and beliefs. And, argues Dr Jessica Taylor in the wake of Brianna Ghey’s horrific stabbing – murder and violence, too...

Friday 22 December 2023 08:24 GMT
Brianna Ghey was stabbed with a hunting knife 28 times in her head, neck, chest and back
Brianna Ghey was stabbed with a hunting knife 28 times in her head, neck, chest and back (PA Media)

One thing that is blatantly clear in the murder of 15-year-old Brianna Ghey is that her teenage murderers, whose names will be released in February, were obsessed with murder, violence, gore, and torture. The court heard that these materials, websites and forums were all accessed online and from globally available media outlets.

It reminds me very much of the evidence surrounding the murder of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 by two 10-year-olds, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. The court heard then too, how the boys had watched and then acted out murderous scenes from Child’s Play 3, a film about a violent doll who became possessed by a serial killer and tortured victims.

Much less known is the 1992 death of 16-year-old Suzanne Capper, who was kidnapped and tortured by a group of criminals who repeatedly said, “I’m Chucky, wanna play?” while planning her murder.

Doorbell footage captures Brianna Ghey leaving home hours before her murder

These violent killings turned into a wider discussion in UK government: could the consumption of extremely violent materials be encouraging children to kill each other?

A pretty simple question, I would say. One with a pretty simple answer. In my view, as a psychologist, the answer is a resounding yes.

Unfortunately, those conversations in parliament fizzled out. Most people preferred to believe there was something individually wrong with those violent children, and didn’t particularly want to examine the role of violent media. Especially as so many people love violent media.

Many professionals argue that violent media is not causal in the proliferation or mimicking of violence. Instead, explanations have become more and more psychiatric in their nature. Mental illnesses. Personality disorders. Undiagnosed psychoses.

I, on the other hand, do not think these violent children are mentally ill; instead, I look at our society.

As a psychologist, I am in the minority. I often wonder why other people can’t see the connection – or, more pertinently, why the connection was being actively denied.

Brianna Ghey’s murderers loved sensationalist documentaries about serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Dr Harold Shipman and Richard Ramirez. They loved films like Sweeney Todd. They accessed dark web materials for people who loved rape, murder and torture. The schoolgirl who initiated and planned the murder of Brianna said in messages that she loved watching real torture videos she had found on the dark web.

Of course, people will jump to comfortable conclusions. This girl must have come from a broken home. She must have been abused. She must have been mentally ill. She must have had some sort of history. People will do this because it’s the only thing they can do when faced with the reality of a child violently murdering another child. They would much prefer to create a backstory that explains their violence than to look at society and media.

However, broken homes and tired stereotypes are not the case with the murderers of Brianna Ghey, who had loving families and safe upbringings by hardworking parents who hadn’t so much as divorced. The finger, then, seems to be pointing squarely at their social media and digital media access – everything from Netflix documentaries to apps they downloaded on their phones.

Now, let’s not pretend that this preoccupation with murderers and serial rapists is isolated to loners or murderous teenagers – crime docuseries are one of the most popular genres on all streaming platforms. Millions of people are fascinated and titillated by these sensationalised, glorified, celebrated murderers. We won’t admit it, but it’s there.

The open-secret underbelly of our society is out there for all to see. Way too many people snuggle up with snacks at the end of the day to watch as horrific murders and rapes are recounted and dramatised for their entertainment.

Children are no different in their viewing preferences but there is one key difference. Their media consumption is higher than adults. On average, they spend four hours per day watching TikToks, using Snapchat and Instagram (Statista, 2022). They access around 60 hours of media per week (Statista, 2018). Their life is ruled and heavily influenced by their media access.

The reality is that we are bringing our next generation up in a pro-violence, pro-murder, pro-rape, pro-abuse society. Our media is filled with it – so we can hardly sit around with our jaws gaping open when the kids begin to act this stuff out.

Kids copy so much from online media: fashion, make-up tutorials, TikTok dances, accents, phrases, slurs and beliefs. And, in the wake of Brianna’s horrific stabbing – I would argue murder and violence, too.

Primary school teachers are battling with little boys spouting misogynistic rhetoric from Andrew Tate videos – and the call is for those videos to be blocked and for him to be stopped. Kids are filming other children fighting at school, beating and bullying each other because they’ve seen it online. Teenagers coerce and encourage each other to send nudes and sexual videos because they’ve seen it online.

The connections are staring us in the face. But violence? Murder? Torture? Are they off limits? Beyond scrutiny, somehow? Why?

Do we love violence so much that we can’t bear to believe that our kids are abusing, battering and killing each other because we don’t want to limit (or look at) their toxic media consumption – or our own?

It seems so, to me. And sadly, here we are.

Thirty years on from the murder of James Bulger and another child has been brutally murdered by two children who were inspired by violent media. When will we step up and stop the next one from happening?

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