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Despite tragedies, some encouraging trends in youth violence

Despite tragedies, some encouraging trends in youth violence

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Over the past couple years, the media cycle seems perpetually blitzed with reports of violence perpetrated against or by young people. This week it was a high school near Portland, Oregon. Before that it was Santa Barbara, Seattle, Aurora, Newtown – the list grows.

The cumulative impression we’re left with from the national headlines is that the violence is getting worse, that more young lives are being destroyed or maimed than ever before.

Lost amid the coverage of the high-profile attacks, however, are some encouraging trends in the broader data on violence and abuse against young people.

A study published in the June issue of JAMA Pediatrics combed through three large national surveys conducted from 2003 to 2011 and found evidence of widespread declines in violence and victimization rates for ages 2 to 17.

“We thought it was time to see what the trends were,” said the lead researcher, Dr. David Finkelhor, of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, in a JAMA interview accompanying the study. “We found that a lot of different kinds of violence, abuse and crime against kids has been declining.”

How many different kinds? The study reports:

Of 50 trends in exposure examined, there were 27 significant declines and no significant increases between 2003 and 2011. Declines were particularly large for assault victimization, bullying and sexual victimization. There were also significant declines in the perpetration of violence and property crime.

In a separate editorial in the same journal issue, a trio of researchers from Georgia State University’s School of Public Health argue that the media’s intense coverage of mass shootings raise fears and feeds misperceptions that violence is on the rise.

The authors point to a concept known as the “availability heuristic,” which they explain as follows: “the ease with which one can recall a violent incident leads to an overestimation of prevalence.”

In short, if you’re constantly absorbing news reports on horrific mass shootings or other atrocities, you’re more likely to overestimate just how often these types of events take place.

That prompts a necessary caveat: None of this is to downplay the devastation inflicted by such events, nor suggest that trauma, child abuse, bullying or sexual assault are problems that have been shown the door. Violence, abuse and childhood adversity continue to derail young lives at alarming rates. But current trends do suggest that something is working to reduce these rates.

But what exactly is working? Finkelhor gives the short answer:

We don’t really know exactly what’s going on. It’s one of the big behavioral science who-done-its.

This doesn’t stop researchers from speculating, however. Finkelhor tells JAMA:

There could be lots of reasons. Hopefully it has to do with some of the programs and some of the public awareness, and new attention this problem has been getting. That’s a plausible explanation. But we don’t know that for sure.

Another bold idea floated in the study: Teens may be spending more time on social media and less time hanging out in the flesh. (This is admittedly just one hypothesis among many, and anecdotal evidence of internet-hatched horror stories is easy to come by lately.)

It’s much harder to disentangle which of the many evidence-based youth programs or grassroots anti-violence or anti-bullying campaigns might be responsible for lowering youth violence and abuse. As the Georgia State team writes, “Essentially, through the variety of concerted efforts, we are ‘throwing the book’ at these problems, and something seems to be working.”

One surprising finding from the new research, however, is that the Great Recession that began in 2008 didn’t lead to an uptick in violence and abuse rates, as some theories linking unemployment, recession and crime would have predicted. The downward trends continued through the lean years, part of a broader reduction in violent crime not limited to children and teens.

It will take more targeted research to tease out which programs and policies, if any, might be driving the changes. In the future, researchers might compare otherwise similar communities that have intensive youth programs with those that don’t to get a better handle on what effect such interventions are having.

For now, children’s advocates can take a modicum of solace in the fact that the trend lines are moving in the right direction.

Photo by Nelson de Witt via Flickr.

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