The latest trend in school violence hits boys where it hurts – between the legs.
In what urologists say is a growing phenomenon, adolescent boys are playing a game called sack tapping, in which the sole purpose is to strike someone in the testicles. The practice became national news after one victim, 14-year-old David Gibbons of Crosby, Minn., had to have his right testicle amputated from being sack tapped in the hallway between classes.
"They're not particularly hardy organs," said Dr. Steve Hodges, assistant professor of pediatric urology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. "It doesn't take much force to compress them and cause rupture."
Why they do it
Whether the teen boys are mutually participating in the testicle taps or it’s a form of bullying, the results are generally not good. And adolescents are particularly prone to such risky behaviors, as their brains aren’t fully matured, and they are vulnerable to peer pressure and the desire to fit in. In fact, a study reported this month showed teen brains are wired for risk.
In addition, what teen boy wants to fess up to being a victim of a prank involving their genitals?
Although Hodges hasn't seen victims of sack tapping in his own practice, he said some of his colleagues have.
Once a few aggressive or deviant individuals start engaging in a practice like sack tapping, it can quickly come to seem normal, drawing in other boys who want to feel like part of the majority, said Catherine Bradshaw, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Bradshaw said she has seen a similar type of aggression in schools in Maryland. Called "kickbacks," students standing in line would kick each other between the legs from behind. The problem was bad enough that kids mentioned it to researchers who had come to investigate ways of reducing violence in schools.
Bradshaw said it's hard to know whether sack tapping is a form of bullying, which has three defining characteristics, she said: a power difference between the bully and the victim; the intention to hurt; and repetition over time.
"Kids hear about things, whether it's on the Web or through other friends, and they try them out," Bradshaw said. "By no means does that minimize the impact — it's clearly a form of physical abuse."
"Even if the kids are voluntarily participating in it, there's probably a lot of peer pressure," she said.
Media doesn't help
The media's influence doesn't necessarily help. In 1998, the animated TV show South Park popularized the term "Roshambo," for a game in which two players take turns kicking each other in the groin until someone gives up. Groin shots were staples of the ABC show “America's Funniest Home Videos,” and they thrive on YouTube, where a search for "sack tapping" turns up more than 700 results.
In one of these videos, called "sack tap circle," half a dozen boys simultaneously try to hit one another in the testicles.
When it's a game, boys are challenging themselves to engage in more and more risky behaviors, said Susan Lipkins, a psychologist in Port Washington, N.Y "They want it to be risky. They're looking for that thrill."
Brain researchers say that teenagers are prone to risky behavior because the parts of their brain responsible for regulating behavior haven't matured yet. They may therefore be especially sensitive to peer pressure.
Lipkins said boys know the risks. "In general, kids are very aware of policies, laws and the possibility that someone could be hurt, but they do no believe that they will be caught."
One reason, she said, is the silence of their victims. Teenage boys may be hesitant to speak up about something that affects their testicles.
Once a problem is acknowledged, the next question is how to prevent it.
Anti-bullying programs don’t work unless they address the whole culture of a school, from administrators on down, Lipkins said. Otherwise bullying continues, and students and educators are simply more aware of it.
Bradshaw said the way to address physical abuse in schools isn't to simply tell kids not to do it. It's to define clear expectations for safe, respectful behavior.
"While groin punching isn't on the specific list of things not to do," she said, "it can fit into that framework of how you want kids to interact with each other in a more respectful way."