Research Brief

In the 1990s, youth violence has increasingly come to be seen as a public-health problem. We talk of the "epidemic" of violence in our cities, its epidemiology in the physical and social environment, and the evidence of "contagion" from one neighborhood to the next. Considering the attention given to youth violence, surprisingly little is known about the prevalence of violence in the general population of young people and the characteristics of violent youths—their family backgrounds, their attachments to friends and school, their participation in other problem behaviors. We do have information about violence in special populations—gangs and inner-city youths, for example—and something is known of the prevalence of delinquency in the general population. However, the characteristics of delinquents (including vandals and thieves) may not be those of violent youths. Finally, there is disagreement on the degree to which boys and girls differ in patterns of violence.

To help settle some of these uncertainties, Phyllis Ellickson, Hilary Saner, and Kimberly McGuigan have examined the prevalence and correlates of violence among a population of 4,500 17- and 18-year-olds (high-school seniors and dropouts) in California and Oregon. These young people were chosen from 30 schools to represent a broad spectrum of community types, socioeconomic status, and racial and ethnic composition. They were given a questionnaire including items on violence, drug use, and a variety of potentially related characteristics. Statistical analysis revealed that

  • violence is common among youths
  • violent youths exhibited other problem behaviors—often several such behaviors—that are themselves public-health concerns
  • factors associated with violence were different in some respects for boys and girls.

Violence is Common Among Youths

Twenty-three percent of the high-school seniors and dropouts in the study reported taking at least one of the following actions in the preceding year: attacking someone with intention to hurt or kill, carrying a hidden weapon, using strong-arm methods for extortion or robbery, or participating in gang fights. If hitting or threatening to hit someone is added to the list, the percentage engaging in some kind of violent action goes up to 54. And 20 percent reported multiple and persistent violence—that is, at least three instances of violence of more than one type.[1] Males were over half again as likely as females to report some kind of violent action and more than twice as likely to report multiple and persistent violence.

Violent Youths Have Other Problems

Percentages of Violent and Nonviolent High-School Seniors and Dropouts with Other Problems

NOTE: All differences shown are statistically significant. "M" indicates a greater probability of a problem occurring among violent males than among females; "F" indicates a greater probability of occurrence among violent females. Early pregnancy is given as a percentage of females only. "Problem drug use" refers to any polydrug use, weekly marijuana use, any binge drinking, or daily cigarette use over the previous year.

As the figure shows, youths exhibiting multiple, persistent violence were more likely than were their nonviolent peers to have such other problems as substance use, nonviolent delinquency, academic problems, and poor mental health. For example, 28 percent of persistently violent youths had sold drugs during the preceding year, compared with 3 percent of youths uninvolved in violence. They were also eight times as likely as nonviolent youths to have committed nonviolent felonies, two to three times as likely to be substance users, and twice as likely to have dropped out of school.

Youths who reported any instance of any type of violence were also more likely than nonviolent youths to have each of the problems listed in the figure (although at lower rates than those shown for their persistently violent counterparts). Violent youths were also more likely than nonviolent youths to have a parent who had lost a job recently, who used drugs frequently, or who, in the child's view, offered little emotional support.

As might be surmised from the figure, violent youths not only have problems, they have multiple problems. Of youths reporting any type of violence, 80 percent had more than one of the following four problems: using illicit drugs, dropping out of school, having poor mental health, or participating in nonviolent delinquency. Of those youths reporting the more serious forms of violence, half experienced more than one of these difficulties: polydrug use, dropping out of school, poor mental health, nonviolent felony delinquency.

Correlates Are Not the Same for Boys and Girls

While violent males and females experienced most problems at similar rates, they differed in some respects. Boys were two to three times more likely than girls to have committed a nonviolent felony, whereas girls were two to three times more likely to suffer from poor mental health and to report having children. Persistently violent males were also more likely than were their female counterparts to sell drugs and drink regularly. And the association between parental characteristics and youth violence mentioned above is particularly salient for girls.

Concluding Observations

This entire analysis is based on questionnaires filled out by young people themselves. Can we be sure that youths, particularly those experiencing the problems mentioned here, answer questions truthfully? The RAND researchers were inclined to believe what youths said about violence, because they were confident that the youths were telling the truth in questions about drug use they had answered over the 6-year study. That confidence was based on saliva tests suggesting that few lied about smoking and from analyses demonstrating that few admitted to drug use and then denied it when asked about it later.

Social theorists have stressed the ill effects of inadequate attachments to institutions with positive influences such as school and family, along with children's vulnerability to negative social models promulgated by peers and, in some instances, parents. Some theorists also point out the importance of prior deviance as a contributor to adolescent problems. The RAND findings are consistent with these theories. They suggest that, to reduce youth violence, other problems of adolescence will have to be addressed, and some attention must be paid to strengthening schools and families as sources of positive behavior models.


  • [1] Hitting or threatening to hit someone was broken into two types of violence according to the target of that violence—one type pertaining to the family and one outside the family.

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