The causes of youth violence
The focus in recent decades has been on identifying personal characteristics and environmental conditions that place youth at risk of violent behavior or that protect them from these risks. The former are referred to as risk factors, while the latter as known as protective factors. Although risk factors are not causes of violence independently, identifying them and assessing when they might become prevalent in the life of a youth is paramount in the design of effective interventions. Protective factors, which decrease the likelihood of a youth engaging in violence, are also important to understand violence prevention from a “youth as assets” perspective. In environments where risk factors are prevalent and the likelihood of violence is high, youth who do not engage in violent behavior are considered to be resilient. Resilience is a major subject (which I am interested in and will cover separately in future posts) that has many different definitions. However, in the context of this post, resilience is the capacity to bounce back from adversity and thrive in a high-risk environment.
Given the complex, multifaceted nature of youth violence, it is challenging to understand this phenomenon. However, models such as Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Framework of Human Development (the ecological model) have been used to analyze violence. The ecological model presents human development as a self-contained ecological system with progressive tiers that continuously interact with each other over time. Personal, social, and political aspects of a person’s development are inseparable and essential to one another in this system. Furthermore, the ecological model can assist in showing how people develop in constant interaction with local, national, and global actors, structures, beliefs, institutions, and cultures, all of which mutually influence and depend on each other. As such, the ecological model can help us understand the factors (risk or protective) that influence youth behavior, and how they interact with and reinforce one another.
A simplified version of the ecological model includes four levels of the human ecology. The first level focuses on an individual’s behavioral, cognitive, and biological traits and how these factors may constitute a risk for violence. The second level focuses on relationships with family, friends, partners, and peers, and analyzes how these relationships increase or decrease the risk of violence. The third level includes community settings (schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, etc.) in which social relationships occur, and relationships between the individual and these settings, and among these settings and how each reduce or increase the risk for violence. The fourth level focuses on societal factors that can contribute to or mitigate the existence of violence. A level that is not included in this simplified version is the chronosystem, which analyzes how the other four levels evolve and change over time.
The following are risk factors at the different levels of the ecological model described above:
Biological and psychological characteristics
Early exposure to neurotoxicants
Prenatal and perinatal complications
Poor monitoring and supervision of children by parents
Poor attachment between parents and children
Use of harsh, physical punishment to discipline children
Household size and density
Large number of children in the family
Mother who had first child at an early age
History of family violence
Beliefs supporting the use of violence in relationships
Low levels of family cohesion
Weak social ties to conventional peers
Antisocial or delinquent friends
Membership in a gang
Urban area (vs. rural)
Presence of gangs
Presence of guns
Low levels of community integration
Access to drugs
Access to firearms
Low social capital
Economic and social policies that create or sustain gaps and tensions between and among groups of people
Weak laws and policies related to violence
War and militarism
All forms of exploitation
High income inequality
Lack of access to employment, education, health, and basic physical infrastructure
Lack of trust in the police
Cultural norms and gender socialization
The interaction between the different risk factors, actors at different levels, and belief and structure systems in the ecological model will influence a youth’s likelihood to engage in violence. An important point to mention is that that there are different types of violence, one of which is group violence. Violent extremist groups, organized crime, and gangs are different types of violent groups motivated by different factors. Upcoming posts will analyze the combination of factors that contribute to youth joining different types of violent groups.
It is clear that the key to decreasing crime and violence does not only lie on interventions that will change individuals’ behaviors. A holistic approach that addresses risk factors at all levels of the ecological model is needed to prevent violence around the world. As a result, this task is not only for crime and violence specialists, but for people in other disciplines as well. Violence is a multifaceted issue that requires a multidisciplinary approach.