Study Finds Psychological Trauma In Kids Exposed To Violence

July 22, 1997

Children are exposed to alarmingly high levels of violence, and those with the greatest exposures are at high risk for suffering severe psychological trauma, according to a Case Western Reserve University study of 2,244 youngsters ages 8 to 14.

The youngsters were third through eighth grade students at 11 Northeast Ohio schools -- three in a small city, three in a rural district, and four in Cleveland. They were about evenly divided between boys and girls, with 57 percent white, 33 percent African-American, 5 percent Hispanic and 9 percent other.

The study documented the children's own violent behaviors and their exposure to violence as either witnesses or victims at home, school, and in the neighborhood. The study also investigated the relationship between the youngsters' violence exposure levels and their symptoms of psychological trauma, their television viewing levels and preferences, and the amount of parental monitoring they receive.

Mark I. Singer, a professor of social work at CWRU's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, and co-principal investigator David B. Miller, an assistant professor, reported their findings in Columbus Tuesday, May 20. A morning briefing was for Governor George Voinovich and his cabinet and a session later was with other policymakers and community leaders.

The researchers used the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children to measure levels of anxiety, depression, anger, posttraumatic stress and dissociation. They found that both boys and girls with the highest exposure to violence (the top 25 percent) suffered seriously elevated levels of all five symptoms at a significantly higher rate than those exposed to the least violence. "The difference is stunning," Singer says.

Among the high-violence group, more than 38 percent of both boys and girls -- compared to 5 percent of low-violence girls and 7 percent of the boys -- scored in what is called the clinical range for one or more trauma symptoms. "The clinical range is a cut-off point," Singer explains. "If you score at or above it, you are at high risk for having a serious problem, and you need an assessment by a mental health professional and possible treatment."

Nearly half of the girls with high violence exposures reported having thoughts of committing suicide, compared to 11 percent of the low-violence girls. One-half of the boys exposed to high violence said they feared someone would kill them, compared to 15.8 percent of the boys exposed to the least violence.

The researchers found that the potentially most lethal weapons of violence -- guns -- were disturbingly evident in all communities, but especially in the rural area.

"More than 17 percent of the boys in the rural area said they had had a gun pointed at them within the last year, compared to 12 percent in both the small town and the inner city," Singer reports. "And 15 percent of the rural boys report having been shot at or shot, compared to 9 percent in the small city and 7 percent in the central city."

Since hunting is a popular rural pastime, Singer explains, these youngsters often get guns as pre-adolescents, and school is cancelled the first day of hunting season. Nationwide, one-half of all first-gun owners are under age 12.5, he says.

Surveying the youngsters' television viewing habits, the researchers found that nearly one-fourth of the boys and one-fifth of the girls watch more than six hours of television daily, which was associated with significantly elevated levels of psychological trauma. Among these heaviest TV viewers, one-third of the girls and one-fourth of the boys scored in the clinical range for one or more symptoms of psychological trauma, compared to 13 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys who watched six hours or less.

The findings do not indicate a causal connection between heavy television viewing and psychological trauma, but rather a correlation that may be partly due to "self selection," Singer says.

"Television is a great way to numb out, to escape," he explains. "Kids who have pre-existing depression or anxiety can literally numb themselves and make problems go away temporarily by watching large amounts of television." But research shows that long hours of passive TV viewing ultimately increase levels of psychological trauma, he adds. "When you watch hours and hours of television, it doesn't lift your depression," he says. "It makes it even worse."

"Both boys and girls who preferred shows with lots of action and fighting -- the high-violence programs -- had significantly higher anger scores, compared to other students," Singer says. "They also reported more aggression towards others."

The researchers assessed levels of parental monitoring based on seven criteria, such as whether the parents set and enforce curfews and if they know who their child's friends are. They found significant correlations between parental monitoring and both violence exposure rates and television viewing habits.

More than twice as many in the bottom quartile on parental monitoring have been shot at (10 percent), compared to those in the top quartile (5 percent), for example. Low-monitored children watch significantly more television and more often prefer shows with lots of action and fighting (39 percent versus 19 percent of low monitored).

Singer and Miller presented their findings at a symposium sponsored by the Ohio Department of Mental Health (ODMH), which funded the research along with the Treu-Mart Fund, the Sedgwick Fund, and the Nord Family Foundation.

Following their presentation, Jacqui Romer-Sensky, the governor's deputy chief of staff, was slated to moderate a panel discussion about what can be done to lower levels of violence and better protect Ohio's children. Panelists scheduled were Michael F. Hogan, director of the ODMH; Arnold Tompkins, director of the Ohio Department of Human Services; Robert L. Moore, assistant superintendent of the Ohio Department of Education; Michael Walker, executive director of Partnership for a Safer Cleveland; and State Senator Karen Gillmor.

Case Western Reserve University

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