May 7, 2008 (Washington) -- Abrupt restrictions on excessive computer use may have contributed to the 1999 Columbine High School shooting rampage, according to a researcher who combed through more than 30,000 pages of records relating to the tragedy.
Before the attack, shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold spent "more and more time with their computers, to the point that they may have been unable to distinguish the boundaries between their virtual lives and their real lives," says Oregon Health & Science University psychiatrist Jerald Block, MD.
"Then, as they got into trouble with school authorities, limits were put on their use of the computer. This made them react with homicidal rage and suicidal depression," he tells WebMD.
If that sounds like an extreme reaction to the cord being cut, it is. Every kid who can't tear himself away from the latest video game is not about to commit a heinous act, stresses David Baron, DO, professor and head of the department of psychiatry at Temple University in Philadelphia.
But if a child is also showing signs of withdrawing from family, friends, and school, it could be a sign that something is wrong, he says.
Baron was chairman of the committee that chose which studies to highlight at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, where Block spoke on school violence.
Advice for Parents
Block came to his conclusions after examining "everything he could find on the Columbine shootings," including police records, online postings, and diaries. He also looked at the role of computers in four other school shootings: Red Lake in 2005, Virginia Tech in 2007, Jokela High School in 2007, and North Illinois in 2008.
There have been at least a dozen school shootings in American schools and universities within the past three years, resulting in the deaths of more than 50 students.
Block tells WebMD that the findings contain several take-home messages for all parents. First, excessive computer use can be a sign that a youngster is struggling with some issues in real life, he says. "The child may be using technology to vent in a virtual world."
Also, don't just cut off access, Block advises. Parents who have concerns about how much time their children are spending on the computer should set up mutually agreed upon goals for cutting back on its use, Block says. "If they're unable to hold to those goals, you might want to seek professional help."
Signs of a Problem
So how do you know if your child's computer use could be a sign of a bigger problem? Block says to watch for these signs:
Sleep changes, such as staying up at night or waking up late or tired.
Irritability, especially when separated from the computer.
Guilt, which manifests as downplaying or hiding the extent of computer use.
Terri Royster, a special agent for the FBI specializing in school violence who also spoke at the symposium, says one common denominator among children involved in school shootings "is that they don't feel they have an adult they can talk to."
The importance of spending time with and really listening to your youngster cannot be overstated, she says.