ITHACA, N.Y. -- Researchers have known for some time that violent adolescents tend to become more depressed over time than other adolescents. And young people living in violent neighborhoods also are more subject to depression. But violent adolescent boys who also live in unsafe neighborhoods where they witness violent acts do not appear to get as depressed.
According to a new Cornell University study, being aggressive in the context of community violence could be an adaptive strategy that preserves adolescents' sense of control in a volatile and unpredictable environment. "This may seem counter intuitive, that violence in a violent context could be somewhat protective for psychological well-being among adolescent boys," said Raymond Swisher, assistant professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell.
To examine the interactive relationships among adolescent violence, street violence and depression, Swisher and Robert D. Latzman '03, now a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Iowa, analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative sample of 8,939 adolescents in grades 7 to 12; data on the adolescents was collected twice, once in 1995 and again in 1996.
The research, which was the basis of Latzman's senior honors thesis when he was an undergraduate student in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell, is published in a recent issue of the Journal of Community Psychology (33: 355-371, May 2005). It also was presented at the American Psychological Society's annual meeting in May 2004.
"The consequences of community violence are widespread," said Swisher. "Exposure to community violence destroys the notion that homes, schools and communities are safe places, and youths exposed to community violence have higher rates of emotional, behavioral and cognitive problems. Witnessing community violence has emerged as a risk factor for all kinds of problems, from depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms to suicidal behaviors, aggression and violence."
It was somewhat surprising, therefore, to find that acting violently could be protective against the effects of community violence, Swisher said. Violence was defined as getting into a physical fight, pulling a knife or gun, shooting or stabbing someone, seriously injuring someone or taking part in a group fight.
However, the protective factor was found only among males, and the older the males, the stronger the effect. On the other hand, adolescent girls who act violently tend to become more depressed, and the more violent their environments are, the deeper their depression, said Swisher, who noted that American adolescents are increasingly exposed to violence.
"While U.S. crime rates have declined steadily in recent years, adolescents comprise one segment of the population that continues to be plagued with the problem of violence," said Swisher. "So much so, that some consider violence a public health epidemic for today's youth."
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.