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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Munoz Burgos

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:


  • Gender

  • Age

  • Biological and psychological characteristics

  • Brain abnormalities

  • Neurological dysfunction

  • Learning disabilities

  • Early exposure to neurotoxicants

  • Prenatal and perinatal complications

  • Head injuries

  • Antisocial Attitudes

  • Family environment


  • 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

  • Illicit markets

  • Low levels of community integration

  • Access to drugs

  • Narcotics trafficking

  • 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

  • Media violence

  • Lack of access to employment, education, health, and basic physical infrastructure

  • Poor governance

  • 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.

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