- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2004

A major hurdle for programs to prevent violence among young people is getting the attention of the target

audience. Violence prevention just isn’t “sexy,” explains Dr. Tina Cheng, professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

Teenagers would rather watch Keanu Reeves shoot up security guards in a lobby or see Arnold Schwarzenegger slaughter a roomful of office workers with his machine gun.

Meanwhile, Dr. Cheng said, about 15 young people are killed each day in the United States.

More than 877,700 young people were victims of violence in 2002, and today homicide remains the second leading cause of death for all young people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet blood still sells tickets.

Dr. Cheng and two other scholars at a Washington forum last month shared findings from a national report that explored what encourages and prevents teenagers from imitating the violent fantasy worlds depicted in movies such as “Terminator” and “The Matrix.”

The Add Health project surveyed more than 90,000 students from 134 schools in 1994 and 1995.

From this large pool of children, researchers also completed in-home, computer-assisted interviews with almost 15,000 students a second time in 1996, asking them questions such as, “How often did you take part in a group fight?” “Pull a knife?” “Stab someone?”

About 40 percent of the boys and more than 20 percent of the girls said they participated in some form of violent behavior. Minnesota professor Michael Resnick said the study found no single cause that predicts youth violence.

“When you get under the surface, you find rage, abuse, depression,” Mr. Resnick said. “If there’s anything we’ve learned about violence, it’s that there are multiple factors.”

Hecompared youth violence to smoking.

“Someone who smokes for 40 years and dies of lung cancer — of course they’re responsible,” Mr. Resnick said. “But did they also grow up where there was advertising and promotion? Did they live in a society where smoking is glamorous and sexy?”

In the study, students who had emotional distress, repeated a grade, carried weapons to school, or had been victims themselves were more likely to engage in violent behavior.

About 70 percent of the boys and 61 percent of the girls were predicted to harm others at the time of the second interview — if nothing helped stop them. The key causes included a history of violence and being the victim of attacks.

But students who had none of these risk factors but instead were religious or had high grade-point averages, parental school expectations andfeelings of connectedness to their families and adults other than their parents were less likely to engage in violent behavior.

In fact, only 18 percent of the boys and 7 percent of the girls were predicted to fight a year later.

“There’s good news,” Mr. Resnick said. “We must vigorously reject the dismissive pronouncement that ‘nothing can be done’ to promote and protect the well-being of young people. … We can’t wait for the politicians. We have to be fearless in our promotion of the evidence.”

Mr. Resnick placed a strong burden on parents, telling them to turn off the television and talk to their children.

“We have to slow down and take time to tell stories,” he said. “One of the greatest gifts [parents] can give to their children is a repertoire of ways to enjoy the passage of time that does not include overreliance on television. … These are the things that spark imagination and give young people a sense of who they are in time and history.”

Many parents feel they lack the skills to cope with their children, said Dr. Angela Diaz, a pediatrics professor at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She stressed the role of other adults, including teachers, in preventing violence.

The Add Health study showed that students were less likely to engage in violent behavior when they reported feeling safe in their neighborhoods and felt bonded to their schools and adults outside their families.

“Connectedness is key,” Dr. Diaz said. “The most important resource … is open, trusting communication with adults, parents … teachers.”

Individual responsibility also made a difference, especially when students chose to become religious.

“It’s part of our human capacity,” Mr. Resnick said. “Having that sense of awe and wonder about the world, a connectedness to a creative force in the universe. … No one religious denomination has a monopoly.”

The scholars encouraged patience in the long campaign against violence.

“We have come a long way,” Dr. Cheng said. “But it’s a long battle. It’s a marathon.”

Mr. Resnick likened the slow work to that of Jacob Riis, the Danish reformer who photographed child laborers chained to machines and working in the sweatshops of New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s.

Riis wrote in his autobiography that when he became discouraged about the slow pace of social change, he would go down to the stonemasons yard in the harbor and watch men hammering away on large blocks of granite. Sometimes, Riis said, the workers would strike 100 blows without the slightest crack. Then came the 101st blow, and the entire slab would fly apart.

“Have the patience,” Mr. Resnick said. “Knowing that [you] will get to the 101st blow, and it will make all the difference in the world.”

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