The statistics are staggering: violence is the 3rd leading cause of death among U.S. teens and young adults ages 15 to 24. In addition, nearly 1 million young people are treated in hospital emergency rooms each year as a result of physical violence, sexual assault, bullying, or self-harm. In a recent national survey, 1 in 10 teens reported being hit or physically hurt by someone they were dating. Whether it's relationship violence or bullying, online or in-person, youth violence is far too prevalent and warrants our attention.
In recognition of National Youth Violence Prevention Week, April 4-8, I join others in raising awareness about this important issue facing our nation's young people and the parents, educators, and health care providers who care for them.
Searching for Answers
Researchers understand the need for evidence to help track, reduce, and prevent youth violence. To this end, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development supports studies to explore the complex issues that surround youth violence. Several branches in our Division of Extramural Research support a wide range of projects, including the following:
- Developing better screening tools for educators to accurately identify youth at-risk of exposure to violence or of becoming violent
- Designing effective bystander intervention programs for high school students, encouraging and enabling them to speak up and help deter potential acts of aggression
- Understanding the effects of sexual abuse across generations, particularly on premature aging of the brain
- Determining when and how early childhood maltreatment becomes biologically embedded in a person's genes and body responses
- Analyzing risky online behavior of teens
Research on youth violence has provided some answers and potential strategies for prevention. It has also highlighted gaps in care. For example, a study published last December in the journal Pediatrics found that teenage victims of sexual assault treated at 38 emergency rooms across the country weren't receiving adequate care, as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More often than not, hospital emergency departments did not test for sexually transmitted diseases nor did they administer medication to treat these diseases.
Another study on gun violence tracked the whereabouts of young male gunshot victims ages 10 to 24 during the 24-hour period before the attack. Researchers mapped the paths and activities of more than 600 kids in the Philadelphia area: 143 had been shot with a gun; 206 were injured with another weapon; and 283 were unharmed. The findings showed that the kids' neighborhood locations and activities either helped shield them or significantly increased their risk of assault.
The brain still is developing during the teenage years and this may affect their decision making, including not being able to fully comprehend the consequences of their actions until it is too late. We know that the adolescent years can be associated with impulsive and, at times,"thoughtless" actions. Young people need the appropriate supports and services to foster their positive development and reduce problematic risk-taking. New research we are supporting analyzes magnetic resonance images of the brain to explore these concepts and to understand why some juvenile offenders respond to rehabilitation treatment while others relapse into violent behavior.
Partnering to Make Progress
Youth violence is a major public health problem. Our responsibility as researchers, parents, and practitioners is to help track, reduce, and prevent these occurrences. Our goal is to empower and partner with our kids in addressing this problem, including encouraging them to become more alert and vigilant about their risks. The good news is that there are effective evidence-based youth violence intervention and prevention programs. The CDC offers a tool to help design a youth violence prevention program tailored for specific community needs. "Striving to Reduce Youth Violence Everywhere" or STRYVE provides a range of resources. Research confirms youth violence can be both predictable and preventable. The health community can and must play a vital role in helping to ensure the safety and well-being of the next generation.