In the past 14 days, Orange County youths have been arrested in three vicious crimes: the apparent gay bashing of a man beaten beyond recognition in Laguna Beach, the bludgeoning death of an honors student in Buena Park and the mugging of an elderly Garden Grove woman whose arm and shoulder were broken by two teen-agers who stole 50 cents to play video games.
Authorities say these brutal incidents are symptomatic of a steady rise in ever more violent crimes being committed by juveniles.
Violent crime by youths under 18 has increased 44.6% over the past decade in Orange County alone, and shows little sign of abating. Nationally, in 1989 alone, more than 70,000 juveniles were tried for violent crimes, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pennsylvania.
Experts say violence among young people--whether drive-by shootings, drug-related robberies, the Dec. 27 mugging of Justine Byrnes, 72, the New Year's Eve slaying of Stuart A. Tay of Orange, and the Saturday beating of an unidentified man in Laguna Beach--is a measure of the rising tide of violence in society at large.
Yet murders, armed robberies, assaults, rape and kidnaping are increasing faster among youths under 18 than among adults.
According to the California Department of Justice, the homicide arrest rate of juveniles jumped 104.9% per 100,000 population statewide from 1986 through 1991. The arrest rate of adults for murder declined 2.9% in the same period.
"We are finding that violence is happening in younger and younger groups--we are even seeing it down to 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds," said child psychiatrist Jennifer Hagman, director of the child and adolescent unit at UCI Medical Center.
That it is happening is indisputable. Why it is occurring is harder to pin down, experts say.
Most argue that pressures on modern families have resulted in less guidance for youngsters in their formative years.
Some blame fictional and real-life violence that saturates youths and adults alike in television and film. By the time a child is 18, he or she has seen more than 16,000 violent deaths depicted in television and in movies, according to USC criminologist Robert J. Barry.
"When the most powerful instrument of social learning teaches the desirability of being violent and irresponsible, young people who are good learners will learn to do that," said Dr. Park E. Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist from Newport Beach and expert witness who has testified in many high-profile cases, including those of John Hinckley Jr., the man who shot President Ronald Reagan, and Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
While viewing 30 minutes of the music video cable channel MTV on a recent day, Dietz said he watched males trying to sexually arouse a woman who turned out to be a child, people in cages struggling to get free and other graphic images of violence or torture.
"There was another that Jeffrey Dahmer would have liked, because of the severed body parts," Dietz said.
The psychiatrist said it is difficult for parents to match the influence television has on the character development of children.
"Between MTV, Showtime, HBO, Cinemax and The Movie Channel, there is available nonstop bad influences . . . for vulnerable, defective or at-risk young people," Dietz said. "I'd like to have bumper stickers that say: 'Save a child, shoot a TV.' "
Mission Viejo High School senior Kent Jancarik agreed with Dietz.
"I would limit what can be shown on television," said Jancarik, 18. "These days any kid can come home from school and see a dead body or a violent crime two minutes after they turn on the television. It's too much."
Anaheim 15-year-old Cara Wilson said fictional programs are "so far out, no one believes (the violence) is real." She does, however, fault television news reporting of violent crime.
"They're always showing real murders and other violent crimes," the Loara High School sophomore said. "They need to do more positive stories."
Other experts argue that movies and even sensational televised news reports about the grizzly Dahmer mutilations and the Tay slaying merely reflect the violence around us.
"It's in the ethos of our society; violence is valued," said UC Irvine sociologist emeritus Gilbert Geis, co-author of a 1988 college textbook on juvenile delinquency.
Geis urged parents to examine the subtle messages they send their children.
"Parents do not want a kid who is a sissy," Geis said. "They would prefer that he doesn't get hurt, but fathers do not want boys to run away from fights."
Jancarik does believe today's environment has escalated violence among youths.
"If you live in an area where there is a lot of violent crime, there is a perception that it is OK," he said. "You end up learning to act out your feelings through violence."