Children and adolescents who are regularly confronted with violence in their communities have a greater tendency to show antisocial behaviour according to the authors of a new study published in the journal Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience.
The research, from psychiatrists and psychologists at the University Psychiatric Hospital Basel (Switzerland) and the Universities of Bath, Southampton and Birmingham (UK), examined the link between exposure to community violence and antisocial behavior in over 1000 children and adolescents from seven European countries.
The study investigated the strength of the association between community violence exposure and antisocial behaviour. Examples of exposure to violence included direct victimisation or witnessing physical fights or people being chased or verbally threatened in their neighbourhoods.
Conduct Disorder is one of the most common reasons for referral to mental health services for children and adolescents in Europe. The disorder is defined by oppositional, aggressive and antisocial behaviour and is often associated with negative adult outcomes. Affected individuals are more likely to drop out of school, to be unemployed, and to develop further psychiatric disorders or become involved with the criminal behaviour.
Community violence influences antisocial behaviour
The researchers examined 1178 children and adolescents aged between 9 and 18 years. It was the first study to investigate both healthy children and adolescents, as well as children with a diagnosed Conduct Disorder.
The findings showed that children and adolescents who frequently experience community violence show higher levels of antisocial behavior when compared with children and adolescents not exposed to community violence. This was true in both the healthy children and the children with pre-existing behaviour problems (those with Conduct Disorder).
The study’s lead author, Dr Linda Kersten from the University of Basel, said: “We found that as rates of community violence exposure increase, antisocial behavior increases. Strikingly, this relationship was found in both healthy children and adolescents as well as in those who already had behaviour problems.
“We can therefore rule out the possibility that associations between community violence exposure and conduct problems are merely due to the fact that those with Conduct Disorder simply tend to live in more violent neighborhoods.”
Breaking the dangerous cycle through prevention
Study co-authorfrom our Department of Psychology, Dr Graeme Fairchild, explained: "This is an important study which documents high rates of exposure to community violence - both as witnesses and direct victims - amongst children and young people living in eight different European countries, including the UK.
“It also demonstrates the damaging impact of community violence exposure in that it seems to lead to increases in antisocial behaviour and aggression in these young people. This indicates that prevention and intervention programmes are needed to help prevent young people, exposed to violence in their neighbourhoods, from going on to perpetrate violence against others.”
According to the authors, the results demonstrate the need for prevention programmes and support initiatives for those children and adolescents who have already been exposed to violence.
Professor Christina Stadler, also from the University Psychiatric Hospital Basel, added: “The study suggests that more efforts are needed to establish prevention programmes in neighbourhoods with high rates of violence. The aim is to prevent the potential isolation of young people with a high violence exposure and thereby break the dangerous cycle of young people being exposed to community violence and going on to harm others as a result.”
This study is part of the FemNAT-CD project, a large Europe-wide research project that is aiming to increase knowledge about the causes of Conduct Disorder and sex differences in its prevalence.
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