Science Sheds Light on Risk Factors for Youth Violence

Here are the important findings from "Report of the Youth Violence Commission."

Posted Mar 19, 2018

By Brad J. Bushman and Sarah M. Coyne (Co-Chairs of Report of the Youth Violence Commission, International Society of Aggression Research)

The mass shooting on February 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has started many conversations about mass shootings in America. When mass shootings occur, they are devastating, because the victims are often innocent bystanders. In the wake of a mass shooting, people seek for “the cause" of the senseless violence. But there is no single cause. And as the violent act becomes rarer (e.g., from assault to murder to mass shooting), the potential causes grow in number and become more complex.

It is somewhat ironic that in the wake of a mass shooting, everyone suddenly becomes an expert on gun violence. News people and policy makers claim to have identified “the cause” of the shooting, and they make recommendations based on little or no scientific evidence or research. Unfortunately, many of these public discussions are ill advised and ill informed, with some suggestions being more likely to increase violence as opposed to reducing it.

Why are we having the wrong conversations at the top levels in the political system and news media? This is likely because top policy makers and reporters are not looking at the actual science behind youth violence. But what does the science say? What might actually have an impact on youth violence?

The International Society for Research on Aggression recently commissioned a group of top aggression scholars to write a report on preventative and risk factors of youth violence. We encourage the reader to examine the full report. Scientific studies are footnoted for each point made.

Below, we summarize two risk factors for violence that are supported by science and are worth talking about more in the public arena — and two misperceptions that have little scientific support.

Two Violence Risk Factors Worth Talking About

1. Easy access to guns — Easy access to guns is one of the strongest risk factors for youth violence. Much of the public dialogue concerns this factor, with many urging lawmakers to consider “common sense” gun control measures (e.g., universal background checks). Research has also shown that stricter gun laws reduce gun-related deaths around the world. Firearms with magazines that hold a large number of bullets allow a perpetrator to kill a greater number of victims in a shorter amount of time. Guns also provide psychological distance between the perpetrator and victim, which can make killing easier. Unfortunately, little progress has been made with passing gun control legislation in the weeks after the Parkland, Florida, shooting.

2. Media violence — President Trump recently held a meeting with top violent video game producers to discuss the impact of violent video games on aggressive behavior. Although no video game violence experts were included in the meeting, multiple scientific studies have found an association between exposure to violent video games and aggressive behavior. Studies have also found an association between exposure to violent media and violent criminal behavior.

Two Misperceptions Worth Talking About

1. Mental Illness — Immediately after the shootings at the Parkland high school, President Trump blamed mental illness for the attack, saying on Twitter that there were “So many signs that that Florida shooter was mentally disturbed,” and in remarks from the White House saying that he was “committed to working with state and local leaders…. to tackle the difficult issue of mental health.” As psychologists, we support mental illness treatment. However, people experiencing mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence. Indeed, treating mental illness more effectively is not likely to noticeably impact the occurrence of mass shootings, and instead may mislabel those with a mental illness as being violent individuals, which further stigmatizes an already vulnerable population. 

2. Arming teachers — President Trump also suggested that we arm teachers with weapons as a way to decrease school shootings across the nation. Although this recommendation is scientifically devoid of any fact or evidence, many lawmakers are seriously considering this suggestion. In fact, Florida recently passed a bill to arm teachers. Indeed, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is even considering arming teachers as an option. The presence of guns in classrooms makes it more likely that students will be able to access guns and use them (intentionally or by accident) to harm other students or themselves. When the state of Kansas passed a law that allowed school staff to carry arms, the EMC insurance company for Kansas schools send them the following letter: “EMC has concluded that concealed handguns on school premises pose a heightened liability risk. Because of this increased risk, we have chosen not to insure schools that allow employees to carry concealed handguns.” Firearm-licensed citizens (and even police officers) are not trained to shoot in crowded environments, such as a school setting with an active shooter. Most bullets fired in close range exchanges miss the target, and can even accidentally hit innocent targets. It also sends a strong message that schools are unsafe, which can interfere with learning. Instead, we recommend that school counselors and teachers be trained in violence risk assessments and de-escalation.

Distribution of the Report to Policy Makers
To inform politicians about the science behind youth violence, we sent the full report to President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, each state Governor, each Senator, and each member of the House of Representatives.

Summary
Youth violence is extremely complex, and so are its possible risk factors. However, we hope that interested citizens, policy makers, and governmental officials will seek out the science behind youth violence when considering change. Too many jump to conclusions based on the emotion behind a tragic event, instead of focusing on scientific research studies that examine the actions that really will decrease violence in our country.