Turning the Florida Teen Beating Into a Teachable Moment

by | Apr 19, 2008 | Uncategorized

There is one cardinal rule about children that law enforcement and mental health professionals are well aware: Do not ever give notoriety to a teen-initiated crime, suicide, school shooting or homicide. Ever.

Front-page coverage to such a tragedy actually increases the odds that an emotionally fragile teen (or teens) will duplicate the act. It’s called the “The Copycat Effect.” The threat is so high that most press (or those with a conscience,anyway) prints such tragedies only on back pages to reduce “glorifying” the catastrophe. Notoriety is exactly what those kids crave. But imagine if the event was posted on YouTube or shown on national TV. It’s immediate immortality and the child wins.

And that’s why I was aghast to read this week that Dr. Phil had apparently planned to do a story on the eight Lakeland, Florida teens arrested for their brutal beating of a classmate (I posted about the story here). Keep in mind these are the same teens that videotaped their 30-minute premeditated beating to post on the Internet. Dr. Phil pulled the segment only after learning that members of his staff helped one of the eight suspects post bond. A spokesman stated: “We have decided not to go forward with the story as our guidelines have been compromised.”

So that means they would have otherwise proceeded with a nationally syndicated show about teens facing kidnapping and misdemeanor battery charges as well as a felony charge of witness tampering? Come on!

Can we please, oh please, get beyond the ratings game and focus instead on the possible consequences to our children?

Featuring these Florida kids-on whatever the story angle-is in my opinion absolutely reprehensible. First, there is the real danger of the “Copycat Effect.” But doing so also sends a very troubling message: “Go do a cruel, violent, premeditated act that glorifies hate, glamorizes abuse and legitimizes violence and you too can be a celebrity on a national television show.” Somewhere out there may well be a fragile kid desperately seeking attention and wow, would that ever fuel the fire. Why take that chance?

So, parents, here are a few “take aways” from all this:

Please keep that “Copycat Effect” etched in your memory. Knowing it just might help you prevent a tragedy in your own community.

Hold a media talk. Reinforce your rules about using the Internet. Never put anything in writing that you would not want said about you. Do not click that mouse and send anything in anger or to seek revenge.
Use news stories as teachable moments.

Talk to your kids about the Florida teens or other such tragedies. (There have been several just this week). Express your horror. Talk about your values. Emphasize the victims. And stress the consequences of such horrific acts. Turn those tragic stories into conscience-stretching lessons for your children.

Hold the media accountable. If any media outlet (be it newspaper, Internet, radio, or television) gives front-page coverage about a teen suicide, homicide or brutal beating write a letter or voice your objections.

Stay alert to news stories and use them as teachable moments with your kids. Don’t assume your kids aren’t talking about such incidents. They do. Make sure they are getting those facts straight.

Michele Borba