Violence is a learned behavior, say researchers at Wake Forest University

November 06, 2000

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - The strong association between exposure to violence and the use of violence by young adolescents illustrates that violence is a learned behavior, according to a new study, published by researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and included in the November issue of the Journal of Pediatrics.

"This study has tremendous implications," Robert H. DuRant, vice chair of pediatrics at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and an author of the study. "Even if children and adolescents are exposed to other risk factors that have traditionally been linked to youth violence and weapon carrying, adolescents are not likely to engage in violence if social learning from exposure to violence does not occur."

For many children and adolescents, both witnessing and being the victim of violence is a daily occurrence. In this study, researchers asked 722 Georgia middle school 11-and 12-year-olds, living in or around public housing, how many times they had been exposed to or had been a victim of violence in their communities. Violence was defined as participating in five different types including: participating in a physical fight which resulted in seeking medical attention, attacking someone with a weapon, using a weapon to force or get money or things from someone, carrying a concealed firearm, and carrying another weapon such as a razor or knife.

Only 1.4 percent of the students had not witnessed or been the victim of any violence and 54.1 percent of all students reported witnessing or being the victim of between one and 15 acts of violence, according to the study.

While the majority (58.5 percent) of these sixth grade students reported not engaging in any violent behaviors during the previous three months, 24.5 percent reported engaging in one or two violent acts and an additional 12 percent reported engaging in between three and six violent acts, according to the research.

"Five percent of these students reported engaging in seven or more violent acts during the previous three months and 30 percent of the students reported carrying a weapon other than a firearm one or more times recently," DuRant said. "This shows that our sixth graders have a high exposure to violence."

"Children learn violent behaviors in primary social groups, such as the family and peer groups, as well as observe it in their neighborhoods and in the community at large," DuRant added. "These behaviors are reinforced by what children and adolescents see on television, on the internet and in video games and movies, observe in music videos and hear in their music.

"When children are disciplined with severe corporal punishment or verbal abuse or when they are physically or sexually abused, it is not surprising that they behave aggressively or violently toward others."

In this study, DuRant found that several variables may increase the likelihood that a student would participate in a violent act. In addition to exposure to violence (which had the highest correlation with the use of violence scale), they include: multiple substance usage, interest in a gang, cigarette smoking, male gender and symptoms of depression.

"When combined, these six factors were strongly associated with whether these youths scored low, medium or high on the use of violence scale," DuRant said. "While you can't change your gender, you can start addressing these other risk factors at a young age and get them involved in pro-social groups," he said.

"For example, adolescents who attend religious services more often were less likely to use violence, regardless of their exposure to it. Previous studies show you can teach children skills to help them deal with conflict in non-violent ways and interact with others in an appropriate fashion. These findings point to the need to begin addressing the prevention of youth violence and aggressive behaviors before children enter middle school."

Over 700 predominately African-American students living in or around public housing and attending four middle schools in Augusta, Georgia were asked a series of question about their exposure to 15 forms of violence and their participation in 5 types of violent acts. Over 88 percent of the students were 11 or 12 years of age.
The Brenner Center for Child and Adolescent Health funded the study.

Media Contact: Rae Beasley, (336) 716-6878.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center

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