Public concern about youth violence has never been greater. And what is most troubling is how senseless and dispassionate the recent acts have been. We have seen young people behave as if they are totally void of a conscience. They violated social norms without exhibiting the slightest guilt or regret and left many people shocked and asking, “Why?”
While most kids do stay out of trouble, many of those who don’t cause problems in their communities and schools. And in some cases, the violence is deadly. In 1996, 6,548 young people (15-24 years old) were victims of homicide. This amounts to an average of 18 youth homicide victims per day in the United States. A number of forces are at play creating destructive behavior in some children. Problematic children often can be pinpointed by 5 specific warning signs. These warning signs, however, should not cause one to overreact since adolescent misbehavior does not always lead to criminal activity.
1. Family Breakdown
Children from broken families may be missing the important social-building skills that good two-person parenting can provide. Not only do parents provide stability, but they are the key source for the transfer of values and virtues to their children. When these components are missing, the child’s development is likely to suffer. Children are left without a blueprint for positive social interaction. Over time, criminal activity can easily emerge.
Many adults and children experience deep-rooted behavior problems as a result of divorce, absent fathers, and family neglect. When a child commits a crime, professionals usually turn first to their family structure to determine the cause of their actions. In most cases, they find that the child came from a dysfunctional home. Consider this: An estimated 24.7 million children (36.3 percent) live absent to their biological father. Children who live absent to their biological fathers, on average, are more likely to be poor, experience educational, health, emotional, and psychological problems, be victims of child abuse, and engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married biological mother and father. Intact biological families are no guarantee of well-developed kids. Connection between parents and child is the most important factor is immunizing your child from most anti-social behaviors.
2. Peer Pressure
Adolescents are influenced by their peers. As children grow, they are shaped not only by their parents but by those they associate with. Whether when buying clothes or experimenting with tobacco, teens often influence each other about the choices they make. Though this is not always a bad thing, how children choose to react to peer pressure is what is at the heart of the matter.
Teens who lack a strong parental influence do not fear parental discipline and are, therefore, more apt to be negatively persuaded by their peers. And in some cases, peer pressure can be deadly. Dylan Klebold of Columbine came from an allegedly good family. He was a former Boy Scout who excelled in school. However, things changed when he became friends with Eric Harris.
The son of a serviceman, Eric made few friends throughout his life as a result of numerous family relocations. Although Eric was considered a normal kid, he began to unravel. And after several rocky friendships, he began to cling to fringe groups such as the Trenchcoat Mafia and became obsessed with Hitler. Eric’s hatred started to fester as a result of constant teasing from his peers. He became unhappy and distant at school often commenting to friends verbally and through the Internet of his “missions” to get revenge. His anger led him to construct pipe bombs and finally shoot 12 students and a teacher.
Some students from Columbine claim that Dylan was influenced by Eric. Dylan made the decision to follow Eric into his dark campaign of destruction.
3. Media Violence
The mass media is a powerful force in contemporary culture. Movies and music draw in children and young adults to a fantasy world. In short, the media motivates, mobilizes, and influences the choices of many in our culture, especially the young.
Many American children are glued to the television and, therefore, have less time for activities such as reading, writing, and family communication. Remember, children are strongly influenced and shaped by whatever they spend their time with. The average American child (ages 2 to 11) watches approximately 28 hours per week of television.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has documented that movies, music, and violent video games often contribute to the distortion between perception and reality. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that the visual images on television can influence lives positively and/or negatively. Unfortunately, violent images have become prevalent. By the time the average person reaches age 70, he or she will have spent approximately 7 to 10 years watching television.
And by the time an average child leaves elementary school, he or she will have witnessed 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other acts of violence. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 1995 arguing that “The American media are the most violent in the world, and American society is now paying a high price in terms of real-life violence.”
4. Violent Video Games
Some software developers have tapped into the dark side of the computer gaming industry. Video games depicting death, destruction, and rape have found their way onto computer shelves across America. And the sole group companies are marketing to are kids. PlayStation magazine, with 40 percent of its readers under age 18, carries an ad for a game called Evil Zone which guarantees that players will “get a lesson in Pain 101.”
This industry is doing a brisk business. In 1998 the video game industry was worth more than $6 billion. One game called Quake, depicting a lone gunman on a bloody shooting spree, sold more than 1.7 million copies its first year. The prices make them fairly easy to acquire, starting from around $50 and dropping to about $10 for older releases.
Though no comprehensive studies have been conducted on the effects of the new wave of video games, researchers have documented the cause and effect relationship of violent television images and aggressive behavior. The problem is compounded when children play violent video games because they are interactive in nature and most often require deep concentration.
Lt. Col. David Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor and author of On Killing, commented, “These are not games of fun. These are mass murder simulators. Nine-year-olds are practicing killing people in their homes and at a local arcade for hours and hours every day. So when a few kids go out and execute what they’ve been practicing, we should not be surprised.”
5. Substance Abuse
The horrors of drug abuse are most tragic when they involve young people. And studies have shown that children who come from broken families are more prone to abuse drugs. A study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that “inadequate family structure and a lack of positive familiar relationships” often lead to “substance abuse as a coping mechanism to relieve depression and anxiety.”
Many crimes are committed by those under the influence of drugs or may be motivated by a need to get money for drugs. About 4 in 10 criminal offenders report that they were using alcohol at the time of their offense. In cases of spousal abuse, 3 out of 4 incidents were reported to have involved alcohol.
Through the course of early childhood to adolescence, many youngsters today are being exposed to life-changing events, some of which previous generations never experienced. Family breakdown, media violence, peer pressure, and substance abuse can affect a child’s development and steer him or her toward rebellious and aggressive tendencies. Interestingly, strong and involved parenting at the early stages of childhood will often deter children from making harmful choices.
For example, attentive parents monitor their kids’ listening and watching habits. Furthermore, active parents will most often notice changes in their children due to drug or alcohol abuse and take appropriate measures. Through strong families, we can reverse this serious trend of violence permeating our youth culture.