Witnessing Violence Makes Teens More Violent

Teens Who See Gun Violence Twice as Likely to Become Violent

From the WebMD Archives

May 26, 2005 -- Witnessing gun violence may more than double the chances that a teen will participate in violence.

A large, five-year study of Chicago teens showed that those who personally saw someone being shot or shot at were more than twice as likely to participate in gang violence or other violent behavior in the next two years.

"Based on this study's results, showing the importance of personal contact with violence, the best model for violence may be that of a socially infectious disease," says researcher Felton Earls, MD, HMS, of the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, in a news release. "Preventing one violent crime may prevent a downstream cascade of 'infections.'"

Although a link between exposure to gun violence and future violent behavior has been shown by several previous studies, researchers say it's difficult to tease out a cause-and-effect relationship because of the many social, environmental, and economic factors involved.

But by grouping together and comparing teens with similar backgrounds together (some of whom did and did not witness gun violence) researchers say they were able to isolate the independent contribution made by seeing gun violence.

Violence Begets Violence

In the five-year study, which appears in the current issue of Science, researchers interviewed more than 1,500 teens from 78 Chicago neighborhoods at three points in their adolescence.

First, they conducted in-depth interviews with the teens and their caregivers to get information on their family environment, neighborhood, school performance, and other factors that may affect their propensity for violence.

The teens were then interviewed two years later and asked if they had actually seen someone being shot or shot at. Finally, three years after the second interview, they were interviewed again to determine who had participated in gang violence or other violent actions.

After controlling for more than 150 other variables that might cloud the results, researchers found that witnessing gun violence doubled the risk of engaging in violent behavior.

The influence of direct exposure to gun violence far exceeded other risk factors examined in the study, including poverty, drug use, or being raised by a single parent.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Bingenheimer, J. Science, May 27, 2005; vol 308: pp 1323-1326. News release, Harvard Medical School.
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