Does Experiencing Violence Lead to Violent Behavior?

While psychologists cannot prove that viewing violent media causes violent behavior, there is a body of evidence that suggests a relationship between viewing violent media and aggressive behaviors.  This research, while important, does not cover the multitude of ways that someone can witness violence. There are thousands of children who witness or are victims of violence in their home or neighborhood.  In fact, a 2009 study of over 4,500 adolescents in Pediatrics revealed that over 60% had been exposed to violence within the past year as either a victim or a witness. These circumstances can contribute to the cycle in which the victim of violence becomes the producer of violence.  More recently, Dr. Eva Kimonis examined the relationship between anger, exposure to violence, and the likelihood of perpetrating violent crimes.

The 2011 study, in Child and Youth Care, explored a sample of male juvenile offenders between 14 and 17 years old to examine a possible link between anger and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and its relation to violence perpetration.  Participants’ level of violence exposure, anger, PTSD symptomology, and violence perpetration both prior to and while inside the facility was assessed. Anger was found to mediate violence perpetration but PTSD symptomology did not show this same correlation.

According to Dr. Kimonis, “violence exposure can result in problematic outcomes” such as PTSD and anger.  Her research focused on juvenile offenders because “they have extremely high rates of violence exposure.”  She also states that this exposure, if severe enough, can lead to changes in the brain in areas that respond to threats and stressors.  As a result, children that are exposed to large amounts of violence respond stronger and in more aggressive ways than children who are not exposed to violence. 

Dr. Kimonis’ research has shown that anger can, at least partially, provide a link between being a victim of violence and committing violent acts. It is important to realize that this study was correlational, so we cannot conclude that being a victim or witnessing victimization causes any one person to victimize others. However, it is important to note that we can try to identify those individuals who are at risk for becoming violent offenders or those who are already violent offenders. 

Dr. Kimonis’ research seeks to “understand why adolescents act violently. Gaining this knowledge can be helpful to developing prevention and treatment programs to intervene with violent youth or youth at risk for violence.”  Early intervention in young children may be able to save countless lives from violent crimes.  If problem behaviors are addressed early, interventions can be implemented before more severe problem behaviors arise.

By Sarah Bohman
Sarah is a senior with a major in Psychology and a minor in Human Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  After graduation, she plans on attending graduate school to earn a PhD in Clinical Psychology after graduating.

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