Community violence can affect kids' aggressive behavior - September 25, 2003

Elementary school students exposed to high levels of neighborhood violence are more likely to behave and think aggressively, according to a study in the September 2003 issue of Child Development.

Children who reported seeing violent acts like beatings or shootings or who had to stay inside their homes to avoid gangs and drugs were more likely to be considered aggressive by their teachers and classmates in first through sixth grades.

The effects of community violence on the children's thoughts show up later, in the fourth through sixth grades, according to Nancy C. Guerra, PhD, of the University of California, Riverside and colleagues.

The researchers say that aggressive fantasies, particularly among girls, and beliefs that aggression is acceptable and normal are more common among these children. However, they caution that children vary "substantially" in these measures of aggression, which suggests that they are influenced by other factors besides community violence.

"It goes without saying that the first line of prevention is to reduce the levels of violence in the community and elsewhere to minimize children's exposure to violence. However, to the extent that children continue to observe violence, it is also critical to recognize that it does have a significant and harmful impact on their development," Guerra says.

The study included information from 4,458 students enrolled in 21 Chicago, Illinois-area elementary schools from 1991 to 1997. All of the children lived in urban neighborhoods with high rates of violent crime.

For the most part, the aggressive children were not more likely to be exposed to further violence in their neighborhoods. The one exception, say the researchers, were boys who had high rates of aggressive fantasies and who may have sought chances to watch real violence.

Guerra and colleagues also found that girls increased their aggressive fantasies more than boys as they got older, possibly in response to social pressures that make public acts of aggression less acceptable among females.

The study was supported by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This article was prepared by Health & Medicine Week editors from staff and other reports.

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Last updated: 09/29/2003 - 07:41 PM