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What Predicts Youth Violence? Researchers Report to U.S. Government

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Recent U.S. school shootings outraged the nation and produced calls for action. One response, from the International Society for Research on Aggression, was the formation of a Youth Violence Commission, composed of 16 experts led by Ohio State social psychologist Brad Bushman. Their task: To identify factors that do, and do not, predict youth violence—behavior committed by a 15- to 20-year old that’s intended to cause unwanted harm.

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Hélène Desplechin/Moment/Getty Images

The Commission has just released its final report, which it has shared with President Trump, Vice President Pence, Education Secretary DeVos, and all governors, senators, and congressional representatives.

 

The Commission first notes big differences between highly publicized mass shootings (rare, occurring mostly in smaller towns and suburbs, using varied legal guns) and street shootings (more common, concentrated in inner cities, using illegal handguns).  It then addresses the factors that do and do not predict youth violence.

 

RISK FACTORS THAT PREDICT YOUTH VIOLENCE

 

Personal Factors:

  • Gender—related to male biology and masculinity norms.
  • Early childhood aggressive behavior—past behavior predicts future behavior.
  • Personality—low anger control, often manifested in four “dark” personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism.
  • Obsessions with weapons or death.

 

Environmental Factors:

  • Easy access to guns.
  • Social exclusion and isolation—sometimes including being bullied.
  • Family and neighborhood—family separation, child maltreatment, neighborhood violence.
  • Media violence—a link “found in every country where studies have been conducted.”
  • School characteristics—with large class sizes contributing to social isolation.
  • Substance use—a factor in street shootings but not school shootings.
  • Stressful events—including frustration, provocation, and heat.

 

FACTORS THAT DO NOT PREDICT YOUTH VIOLENCE

 

The commission found that the following do not substantially predict youth violence:

  • Mental health problems—most people with mental illness are not violent, and most violent people are not mentally ill (with substance abuse and psychotic delusions being exceptions).
  • Low self-esteem—people prone to violence actually tend to have inflated or narcissistic self-esteem.
  • Armed teachers—more guns = more risk, and they send a message that schools are unsafe.

 

The concluding good news is that training programs can increase youth self-control, enhance empathy and conflict resolution, and reduce delinquency. Moreover, mass media could help by reducing attention to shootings, thereby minimizing the opportunity for modeling and social scripts that such portrayals provide to at-risk youth.

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).