Trends in Teen Violence: 1991-2015

Anyone who pays close attention to the news media would think the world is getting more dangerous by the minute.

Local news seems to lead every broadcast with crime. A robbery here. A murder there. A kidnapping nearby. National news highlights tragically violent stories over positive stories every day. We know about the college student abducted and killed while out for a run and we know about the man who killed his wife and two children. We know about the mom who abandoned her infant in a dumpster. They tell us about school shootings and gang violence in urban areas. We know how easy it is to get guns. We know how hard it is to control people with guns once they get them. With all this news about violence, we’d be forgiven if we thought we’re likely to get shot just walking down our driveway to check the mail.

But is it all true? Is the world a more violent place than it was twenty or thirty years ago? For parents, the relevant questions are more focused: are teenagers more violent now than they are in the past? Is my teenager more likely to be injured or killed due to violence now than when I was a teenager?

Let’s look at the statistics and find out.

CDC Report: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance: 2015

The answer to our questions about youth violence are answerable – but they not might be what you think. First, we’ll share a quick set of facts published by the CDC last year. These may be the source of confusion and anxiety. The publication, Preventing Youth Violence Fact Sheet, highlights three prominent statistics:

  1. 20% of high school students say they got threatened physically or bullied at school in the last year.
  2. An average of 12 young people per day are victims of homicide, while close to 1,400 visit emergency rooms every day seeking treatment for non-fatal injuries related to assault.
  3. Experts estimate the annual cost of youth homicide and non-fatal assault injuries at 18.2 billion dollars.

If those statistics concern you, they should: any form of violence against young people is a bad thing. One incident is one too many. 12 homicides and 1,400 assault injuries a day seem outrageous. It’s enough to make a parent want to sequester children at home and never let them set foot outside the door.

The Bigger Picture

Time for some perspective: although those statistics are alarming, they don’t tell the whole story. The whole story is that since 1991, violence among teens has decreased dramatically across all areas. The source of the statistics, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2015, paints a more comprehensive picture. The full report shows that long-term linear decreases occurred in the prevalence of seven of eleven violence-related behaviors between 1991-1993 and 2015:

  • Carrying a weapon decreased from 26.1% to 16.2%.
  • Carrying a gun decreased from 7.9% to 5.3%.
  • Having a weapon on school property decreased from 11.8% to 4.1%.
  • Getting threatened or injured with a weapon on school property decreased from 7.3% to 6.0%.
  • Being in a physical fight decreased from 42.5% to 22.6%.
  • Getting injured in a physical fight decreased from 4.4% to 2.9%.
  • Being in a physical fight on school property decreased from 16.2% to 7.8%.

An interesting wrinkle in the data we should not ignore: over the same period that showed statistically significant decreases in youth violence in general, the prevalence of not having gone to school because of safety concerns increased from 4.4% to 5.6%.

Read Between the Lines

The news media would have us believe the world is getting more violent and dangerous every day. There are facts to support this notion. There are more guns on the streets than ever before and mass shootings/school shootings are increasing in both frequency and size. However, these facts ignore the general trend as it relates to teens: by almost all measures, violent incidents involving teenagers decreased steadily from 1991-1993 to 2015. The most dramatic decreases occurred between 1991 and 2002, and since then the drop has been slow, but relatively steady. For statistical confirmation from a non-CDC source, check this graphic from Statista. For an in-depth discussion of the period between 1980 and 2000, check this report: The Rise and Fall of American Youth Violence.

As a parent, the headlines about violence in the U.S. can be terrifying. And it’s true: any amount of violence by or against youth or teenagers is too much. Yet headlines out of context are misleading. Teen violence is in decline. Statistically speaking, our country is not more violent than it was twenty and thirty years ago. Despite what the constant stream of reporting from local, national, and web-based news media appear to indicate. As a country, we have real reason for hope, because the facts – not the news – tell us that incidents of violence are decreasing, rather than increasing. Let’s hang our hats on that, rather than ride the rollercoaster of sensationalist headlines designed to increase viewership, garner clicks, and keep us checking back for the latest shocker.