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Trends in Teen Violence: 1991-2015

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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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?

Teen Violence

What is Teen Violence? 

Teen violence refers to aggressive and harmful behaviors exhibited by adolescents, encompassing physical, verbal, or emotional abuse. This includes bullying, dating violence, and other forms of aggression that can have detrimental effects on both victims and perpetrators. Recognizing the signs and understanding the root causes are crucial steps in addressing this pervasive issue.

How Can We Prevent Teen Violence? 

Preventing teen violence requires a multifaceted approach. Education plays a key role, fostering awareness about healthy relationships, conflict resolution, and communication skills. Schools, communities, and families can collaborate to create supportive environments that discourage violence. Implementing mentorship programs, promoting empathy, and providing accessible counseling services are also vital steps toward breaking the cycle of teen violence and fostering a culture of respect and understanding among adolescents.

Risk Factors of Youth Violence

Understanding the risk factors of youth violence is important if we want to prevent it. It allows for targeted interventions to address underlying issues. Key risk factors include:

  1. Community Environment: High-crime neighborhoods and lack of community resources contribute to increased violence.
  2. Family Dynamics: Dysfunctional family structures, abuse, and neglect can lead to violent behaviors.
  3. Peer Influence: Association with delinquent peers or involvement in gangs escalates the risk of violence.
  4. Individual Factors: Mental health issues, substance abuse, and a history of violent victimization heighten the likelihood of aggressive behavior.
  5. School Environment: Poor academic performance, bullying, and disciplinary problems contribute to a higher risk of violence.
  6. Socioeconomic Status: Poverty and limited access to opportunities amplify the risk of engaging in violent activities.

What is the Leading Cause of Youth Violence? 

The leading cause of youth violence is a complex interplay of factors, including socio-economic disparities, family dysfunction, and exposure to violence. These elements contribute to an environment where individuals, particularly young people, may resort to aggressive behavior as a coping mechanism or as a learned response within their surroundings.

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.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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