Violence in Youth     5/97

by Del Meyer, MD

Violence among adults in this country has decrease slightly, but among our youth has continued to increase. Some feel that this is the most important community public health issue we face. Americans of all ages are preoccupied with violence. We can’t seem to get enough of it in the movies we see, on TV, in video games, or in sporting events.

We fear random violence, drive-by shootings, muggings, and grow progressively more apprehensive about becoming victims ourselves.

The Menninger Letter correlates crime to childhood factors as well as the widening embrace of fictionalized violence, which is exemplified by violent television programming that may encourage the growth and expression of violence as a social norm.

Adrian Raine is quoted in the Archives of General Psychology as relating violent crime to two specific circumstances in a child’s life--birth complications and early maternal rejection. He was able to show that birth complications combined with early maternal rejection at age 1 predisposes a child to violent crime by age 18. In this study, birth complications included forceps extraction, breech delivery, compression of the umbilical cord during delivery, preeclampsia, and an excessive long delivery. Early maternal rejection was determined by noting the mother’s attitude toward her pregnancy and whether she had attempted to have an abortion or had institutionalized the child during its first year of life.

Raine, in studying a cohort of 4200 boys born in Copenhagen during a two year period in 1959-61, found that about 5% of these children had experienced both serious birth complications and maternal rejection. However, by studying the Danish National Criminal Register, he found that they committed 18% of the violent crimes reported for this group. Also of note was the finding that poor socio-economic status did not predict later violent criminal behavior.

Raine and his colleagues cautioned, however, that this did not establish a causal direct link. They also pointed out that previous research had identified numerous other risk factors for adult violence which included parental criminality, parental absence, child abuse, and learning deficits.

They suggested two possible ways of reducing violent crime: To offer better prenatal care to prevent birth complications and to educate parents in care-giving skills.

Roy Menninger, in his study, states that by virtue of its excessive and ever-present nature, violence is no longer exclusively associated with fictional stories, but has begun to merge with ordinary life. In countless TV shows, at least one participant in virtually every contest or dispute, no matter how trivial, resorts to violence, which thereby becomes the norm--the standard way to resolve conflict. Menninger believes that it is unreasonable and incorrect to single out TV & movies as the primary source of escalating social violence. He feels it is much more complex. However, the universal nature of TV and widespread viewing patterns of contemporary Americans, especially children, justify the need to acknowledge that TV affects behavior. Isn’t that the very basis of commercial advertising?

The extent of television viewing is staggering. The typical child between the ages of 2 and 11 spends an average of 28 hours every week watching TV. By the end of grade school, that child has seen 8,000 made-for-TV murders and 100,000 acts of violence. By 18, that child has seen 40,000 murders and 400,000 acts of violence. One study identified a total of 1,980 episodes of violence during a single day on all broadcast and cable channels in Washington, DC. Experimental studies have convincingly demonstrated the negative effects of televised violence, particularly in children, which produces direct effects of desensitization and a cynical outlook that’s been called the "mean world" syndrome.

The long-term effects of steady television violence are more striking. One study examined children at age 8, 18, and 30. There was a consistent relationship between aggressive behavior over time and television viewing patterns. Those who watched more violent TV at age 8 show more aggressive behavior at age 18. By age 30, there were more likely to have been arrested and convicted for violent interpersonal crimes including spouse abuse, child abuse, murder, and aggravated assault.

Menninger points out the methodological problems in studies such as this but his conclusions cannot be ignored. He suggests a broad-based approach on several levels--at home more parental involvement and supervision is needed; at school media literacy must be taught; in business and industry permissive support of violent programming promotes violence must be acknowledged; and government must support more educational programming.

Our society is increasingly polarized. There are those who feel we should spend more to accomplish greater goals while others feel we have already spent too much of our children’s and grandchildren’s future income. We can surely agree with mutual efforts to improve society by more active personal involvement of each of us in our individual communities educative and moral support.

As the profession that is involved in all phases of this problem from prenatal care, the birthing environment, neonatal care, psychiatric care, to mending the results of violent behavior, and pronouncing dead those don’t survive, we should take a leadership position in the dialogue and discussion of these issues.

Television may be the opiate of the people and as addicting as tobacco, drugs, and alcohol. Its psychologic and physiologic effects warrant continued investigation. We will never nor do we wish to be free from it. However, we applaud our Alliance’s efforts this past week in supporting the National TV-turnoff week--"Dare to be free/don’t watch TV!" It was fun to listen to the CD’s we’ve accumulated for a solid week and to have intense discussions with our spouse and family.