Children and teen’s exposure to violence dropped markedly over the eight-year period between 2003 and 2011, a new survey finds, in spite of the public perception that youth culture is becoming increasingly more unstable.

Media attention has the unfortunate effect of giving otherwise minor topics a lasting impression in people’s minds. Plane crashes and school shootings receive disproportionately more attention, for example, than asthma and allergies, despite both conditions being immensely more common than either major tragedy. Researchers find that violence, too, may be lumped into this category: What seems like an epidemic may actually be a decline.

Researchers from the University of New Hampshire in Durham conducted phone interviews with 2- to 17-year-olds in 2003, 2008, and 2011. They asked children over 10 years old directly about their involvement with various types of violence, including bullying, assault, and sexual assault. For kids younger than 10, researchers asked the children’s parents. In total, the team asked questions pertaining to 50 different forms of violence.

Of those 50 types, 27 showed declines over the study period. "We're seeing an improving trend and an overall decline in the exposure to violence, abuse and crime among young people," said study leader David Finkelhor, according to Reuters. Finkelhor and his colleagues point out in their report that these trends echo the claims made by perpetrators of violence as well. In other words, violence exposure isn’t just becoming more concentrated on smaller numbers of people. It could be going away completely.

The areas violence exposure decreased the most involved assault, where cases reduced by 33 percent over the eight years. Bullying fell by a comparable amount, and sexual assault dropped by 25 percent. Even between 2008 and 2011, the bulk of the economic recession, violence waned. Indeed, it fell in fewer numbers — only 11 out of the 50 dropped — but there were also no significant increases in exposure.

Why these trends are occurring could have something to do with a few factors. The first is a rise in electronic forms of media and entertainment. While the migration to social media over face-to-face contact has raised questions about kids’ fading sociability, the limited interaction may also mean less violence. Other potential factors are the influx of mood-stabilizing psychiatric medications, used by both parents and children, and anti-violence campaigns in schools.

Researchers believe their study is indicative of a larger trend, not just a blip on the radar screen. "There are multiple data points that give us some confidence in this direction that what we're seeing is not just a fluke,” Finkelhor commented.

Of course, the United States’ rates of violence are still far higher than in other developed countries. In 2011, there were approximately 742,000 instances of confirmed child maltreatment, according to the Children’s Bureau. What’s more, the U.S. incarceration rate is higher than any other country. This fuller picture needs to be considered, argues John Lutzker in an accompanying editorial. “All of this is not quite as rosy as it looks," Lutzker, director of Georgia State University's Center for Healthy Development in Atlanta, told Reuters. Still, he said, the findings should be taken at face value. "These declines are not spurious. They're real and corroborated."

 

Source: Finkelhor D, Shattuck A, Turner H, Hamby S. Trends in Children’s Exposure to Violence, 2003 to 2011. JAMA Pediatrics. 2014.