Do 'Fight Clubs' Reflect America's Violent Culture?

Teen "fight clubs" may be part of an emerging nationwide trend — why is American culture so violent, and how can we keep children from emulating our worst behavior? Deborah Prothrow-Stith, an advocate for youth violence prevention and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, talks with Ed Gordon on how best to address the problem.

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ED GORDON, host:

While teen fight clubs may be new, youth violence certainly isn't. Just ask Deborah Prothrow-Stith, professor of public health practice at the Harvard University School of Public Health. For more than twenty years, she's been a tireless advocate for the prevention of youth violence. She says the fact these fights are taped is almost as important as the fights themselves.

Prof. DEBORAH PROTHROW-STITH (Professor of Public Health Practice, Harvard University): Regardless of what it is you are on television for, being on television is considered such a big deal. And for kids, who are - especially adolescents, who are in the more narcissistic phase of their development, that kind of wide viewer ship is particularly magnetic.

GORDON: How much do you believe this is fighting for fighting's sake? Teenagers throughout the ages have fought just because it was something to do. Your hormones are raging. You didn't know how to deal with conflict and resolution...

Prof. PROTHROW-SMITH: Sure.

GORDON: ...any other way. Now it seems you see far more fighting across the board.

Prof. PROTHROW-SMITH: Well, I think we are seeing more fighting for what I would call the entertainment value of it. In the absence of pro social developmentally healthy things, kids will make up things to do. And in many ways - again, you've got these heighten appetites for violence. We probably should throw in video games as one of those entertainment media that really furthers that appetite.

And we act as if this is somehow a natural appetite, but it really isn't. Kids begin to learn it as they watch cartoons. And with the laugh track they learn that it's funny when somebody falls down. They learn that it's funny when the Road Runner gets hit on the head. The super hero solves problems with violence. The good and beautiful people are rarely hurt. If they are, it's never deadly.

So in many ways we have all these fantasies that are reinforced in the entertainment media about violence - and that's a part of the larger culture -and then our children are more vulnerable.

GORDON: How much of this do you believe on I guess a guttural level is just the throw back to the days of Rome, when this kind of violence was sport? And there is a belief by some that there is that need to fulfill that in human beings.

Ms. PROTHROW-SMITH: Whether it's a natural attraction to violence or not, I think it's highly debatable. And I would certainly argue that it was learned in the Roman days, and it's learned now.

Often our first response to witnessing something horrific is a kind of sadness and a kind of pain. And I think when our kids watch, you know, somebody's eye gouged out with an ice pick or a body used as a shield, you begin to develop that kind of numbness. I think it's a part of our culture.

GORDON: There was a belief sometime ago that this was an inner city phenomenon, social economic status only, those who are on the lower rung of that ladder, but we are seeing this growing by leaps and bounds in the suburbs with white youth. This really has crossed all lines.

Prof. PROTHROW-STITH: Well, and in many ways the advent of violent episodes in small-town, middle class America as well as what is happening with in these movies and it's really adults who are saying to their kids, you go back outside and fight. You beat them up or I'm going to beat you. Parents who don't want a wimp for a child wind up inadvertently encouraging their child to participate in these behaviors. Our kids definitely learn this from us. It matters what we say to them, it matters what we admire, and our behavior matters. And I think in many ways when you start thinking about it as an adult problem, I think you really begin to come up with solutions.

GORDON: What would your recommendation be?

Prof. PROTHROW-STITH: Well, taking a sort of public health perspective on this problem, we talk about three levels of work. One is what we call upfront work. It's about giving kids something healthy to do, really engaging them in activities that are as attractive and compelling but also are pro-social activities.

Then you have the secondary prevention or renamed in-the-thick. And these are kids who need more because they are witnessing violence, they are victimized at home; they are carrying extra trauma, extra pain, extra guilt - maybe they had a sibling murdered. These kids need some very direct mentoring and healing. They need music, art, dance - a lot of the psychomotor task are really very healing, but those are the things we've cut out of much of the public education.

And then we have the tertiary or after-the-fact. And those are kids who not only need intensive secondary prevention, but they probably need what many would call re-parenting and rehabilitation, and some of them need incarceration just for that structure and that time to engage in that.

So we've got to work at all levels, but right now, as a society, we put almost all of our money into that last - that tertiary level. Meaning we're really not doing prevention, we're just sitting around waiting on the horrible things to happen and then we respond aggressively.

GORDON: All right. Professor, as always, great to talk to you and thank you so much.

Prof. PROTHROW-STITH: Thank you very much, Ed.

GORDON: Deborah Prothrow-Stith is professor of public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health. She joined us from Harvard studios.

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Coming up, the president says he wishes we were making more progress in Iraq, and did America rush to judgment to in one of the biggest murder cases in American history? We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable.

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