Recently, an increasing number of North American youth are committing violent crimes. Although the consequences of these violent crimes are easily apparent, the causes behind them are often abstract and obscure, making it difficult to pin blame on a single source. Moreover, this deviant behaviour among young people can be attributed to a combination of several generalized factors. Leading contributing factors of youth violence include the media, the influence of family life, widespread abuse of drugs and alcohol, the ease of access to weapons and a lack of strong punishment that exists for juvenile offenders. If this rise in aggressive acts is to be stemmed, the causes youth violence must be determined and analyzed to determine which ones, if any can be affected by change.
First, the most obvious and publicized cause explaining youth violence is the inescapable and highly influential exposure of youths to violence in the media, especially violence on television. Young people, most notably children are susceptible to learning violent ideals through their high level of exposure to North American television programming. Parents have come to rely on the use of television as a babysitting service and therefore have increased the influence of television on the fragile, easily manipulated minds of their children. On average, a typical Canadian child will watch about 22 hours of television per week (Childley 38). Over their adolescent lives, this adds up to more time spent watching television than time spent at school, playing sports or communicating with parents and friends (Childey 39).
It is not the amount of television viewed that has created this problem, but rather it is the content of North American television that has spiraled out of control and that has warped the minds of countless children. The correlation between aggressive behavior and television viewing is accounted for by the violent content of modern television shows. Estimates have indicated that by the time a child reaches the age of twelve, s/he will have witnessed as many as 12, 000 violent deaths on television, and that this can lead to heightened aggression in the short term (Childley 38). We live in an era where Hollywood is applauded for its creativity and originality when it comes to new ways to murder characters. Consequently, it is no wonder that youth violence is up 140% in Canada since 1986, as many young people will absorb this message of aggression and project it upon others (Bale C9). The recent shooting of a six year-old girl in Flint, Michigan supports this claim that North American children are indeed affected by the violence they watch on television. The Toronto Star states that the five year-old boy who did the shooting admittedly enjoyed watching violent movies and TV shows (14). In addition to mimicking hostile behaviour they view on television, the sheer number of violent acts seen by young people is responsible for desensitizing them to violence (Landau 38). Consequently, juveniles are at a high predisposition to committing violent acts and most feel no hesitation or remorse when they do so because television has showed them violence to be a way of life.
Although the media, namely in the form of television, has an impact on young people exhibiting violent behavior, the home environment of these young people must also be considered a primary factor in promoting hostility. This influence takes into account a childs acquisition of values learned from his/her parents, the behavior of his/her parents, and abuse of a child by a parent. These are the three prominent factors that determine the cognitive growth of children and hence they dictate their social interaction and behavior (Lerner and Spanier 50).
The foremost explanation of violent conduct in youths that can be traced back to family life lies in the ideals that are projected upon children by their parents. This theory is confirmed by Landau when she writes, The environment in which a boy grows to manhood will naturally exert a strong influence in shaping his values (65). Parents are usually legally responsible for their children until they reach the age of 18. A parents legal accountability for a child implies much more than this law states. Specifically, in the context of this subject, a parent is responsible for teaching their child right from wrong in both moral and legal senses (Lerner and Spanier 50). For all intents and purposes, this implicit onus on parents ensures that they will instruct their children not to commit illegal offenses, including violent ones, which are detrimental to society. In the absence of this parental instruction, be it due to neglect, or for other reasons such as single parenthood, children tend to become involved in delinquent acts, which can and often involve violence. This failure to instill proper values upon a child recently became headline news when a six year-old boy from Michigan fatally shot a young girl during class. Debbie Howlett reported that that this boy, who suffered from neglect and who was being raised by a single mother, shot the girl in anger over a quarrel that had occurred the previous day (A3). This incidence of violence is indicative of a parental failure to show the child proper values, and consequently the child knew no better than resort to violence to settle his emotions. In North America, stories of misguided children behaving violently such as this one are not at all uncommon, and they have been occurring unexpectedly. Both Canada and the United States are experiencing a recent epidemic of these violent incidents in places like Taber, Alberta in Canada and Littleton, Colorado in the U.S., proving that youth violence is not localized to any one region or country.
Another cause of youth violence for which parents are accountable is the impression they create with their own respective behavior. While growing up a child will follow the example set by his/her parents, as interaction with parents is normally the childs first social experience and consequently the child will take on part of his parents personalities (Wickes 17-19). This fact provides another potentially violent influence on a child. According to Wickes, it can be said that if a parent tends to display aggressive behavior and is easily disposed to violence, the child will undoubtedly learn that this reaction to others in society is the norm. As a result the child will reproduce this pattern of violence and aggression on his own when stimulated to do so. Again, referring to the incident in Flint, Michigan mentioned before, the shooting was an example of this inheritance of violent tendencies as the childs father was serving time in prison for armed robbery (Out of Control 14). Assuming a connection between the fathers prison sentence and the boys violent act, the father must share some of the blame for this incident.
The last noteworthy cause that family relations has on youth violence is inherent in the highly sensitive issue of child abuse by a parent. Child abuse may take several forms, with physical abuse and sexual abuse being the most prominent ones that place children at a high predisposition to committing acts of violence (Leroux and Smith 683). Roger Levesque, a professor of criminal justice at Indiana University reports that in cases studied, 30% of abused children will exhibit negative psychological effects that include hostile anti-social behavior (161). Estimates in the United States have determined that in one year approximately one million children suffer from abuse of some form or another (The Truth About Child Abuse and Truth About Children IV). In light of the sheer number of cases of child abuse that occur and the propensity to violence created by this abuse, it is clear that it plays a significant role in pushing juveniles towards hostile acts.
Shifting perspectives from the youth being a victim of external forces, the role of the youth him/herself must be evaluated. Primarily, abuse of drugs and alochol by children is also responsible for promoting youth violence. This cause of youth violence can work in two ways, either by gang violence related to the selling of drugs or by drug-induced acts of aggression.
The first and most obvious way violence is created is by the trade of illegal drugs, particularly by gangs composed of young people. Michelle Shephard writes that in the city of Toronto, Ontario there are approximately 180 gangs, involving more than 2000 youths. These gangs exist to facilitate the trade of illegal drugs (B4). She goes on to state that these gangs have recently aligned themselves with two notorious gangs from the U.S., the Bloods and the Crips. These infamous gangs reigned terror on Los Angeles, California in the 1960s and have rapidly recruited smaller gangs in other cities to cover more turf. This has created two giant armies of adolescents ready to die fighting over their drug dealing business (Shephard B4). To give and idea of how bad this problem has gotten, in the city Los Angeles alone there are 100 000 gang members (Krikorian 24). Extrapolate this figure for major urban centres all over North America, and that is a conservative estimate of the number of youths involved in gangs. Shephard interviewed a Crip gang member who claims that almost every person affiliated with his gang carries a gun and a knife. With this many youths running the streets selling drugs and carrying weapons it is inevitable that violence will occur. High profile gang violence related to drug trafficking is reported all over North America on a daily basis. For example, Compton, California, a suburb in South Central Los Angeles, is the original home of Bloods and Crips drug trafficking. If the 1998 Blood-Crip murder rate in Compton were applied to the entire population of Los Angeles, there would be 22 512 murders in that city alone (Krikorian 24). As alarming as it sounds, this drug-related gang violence is a reality that has become an epidemic.
On a neurophysiological level, drug abuse can cause youth violence by altering with the psyche of juveniles. In the United States, the amount of children and adolescents who use narcotics is somewhere near 11 million, and this figure does not include the staggering number of youths who consume alcohol (King). Sidney Cohen, a medical doctor states that narcotics and alcohol interfere with the function of the brain and central nervous system, causing the user to get high(1). It is this interference with normal brain function that can tamper with a youths personality and place him/her to violent outbreaks. Aggressive behavior due to intoxication can result in belligerence and hostility by diminishing self-control, impairing judgement, causing paranoia, and by inducing feelings that include restlessness, irritability, impulsiveness, combativeness (Cohen 358-359). Therefore, the large number of youths who abuse drugs and alcohol, which carry the side effects mentioned above, are impeding the normal cognitive function of their brain and thus can be prone to violent outbursts.
In addition to the media, family and the child him/herself, poor legal systems implemented by both major federal governments in North America has made youth crime possible. Young people seem to be getting their hands on firearms they use to commit violent crimes too easily these days, and when they get caught for the violent crime they have committed, the punishments handed down by the courts are rarely severe enough to discourage others from committing the same acts.
In the U.S. the accessibility to firearms is an issue of utmost importance. It is a nation where gun control laws are very lax, and there are about 220 million privately owned guns, or nearly one per person (Kenna A1). In the U.S., gun related crimes perpetrated by youth have resulted in making gun violence the number two killer of youths aged 15 to 24 and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention Estimates it will be number one by the year 2001 (Kenna A1). These tragic statistics are spurred by the ease with which youths can obtain guns. Kenna states that in the U.S., there are 4400 gun shows each year, where purchasers are subject to virtually no discrimination when they buy a gun (A1). When one considers the number of guns out there and the accessibility to guns, it is not hard to envision a determined youth getting his/her hands on a firearm. This fact has rung true with recent acts of violence in Littleton, Colorado and Flint, Michigan. In the case of the Columbine massacre in Littleton, the youths that shot 35 of their fellow students obtained their weapons at a gun show, where no background check is required (Frandsen ARC). In Flint, Michigan the boy who shot the six year-old girl took his uncles gun which was not locked up (Howlett A3). Stories identical to these two occur all the time in North America, proving that poor gun control legislation has given kids access to weapons of murder.
At the root of the legal problems, penalties given to young offenders have failed to deter the youth of North America from committing crimes. In Canada young offenders under 16 years of age are untouchable by the law when it comes to being charged with serious offenses such as rape, murder and manslaughter under the protection of the Young Offenders Act. (Kids and Crime 16). In the U.S., the minimum age a youth offender must be to qualify for adult-sentencing varies from state to state, but averages out near 14 years of age. Unfortunately, this minimum age needed to incur adult-sentencing is rarely enforced (Jennings A1). This judicial flaw in North American judicial policy has allowed young people who have committed violent crimes to suffer virtually no repercussions for their actions. If there is no legislation preventing the release of potential repeat violent offenders and no legislation to scare potential first-time offenders from committing acts of violence, how can the general public expect youth crime rates to decrease? They cant as there is little reason to believe that such leniant sentencing of juvenile offenders who have committed acts of violence can succeed in rehabilitating them if they spend little or no time in a correctional institution.
It can be conclusively stated that youth violence in North America is a multi-faceted issue and its causes can be approached from several angles. The media, particularly in the form of television plays an enormous role in presenting the world to young people, albeit it is a violent world that is presented. At home violence can be learned objectively or subjectively through observing a parents aggressive behavior or by experiencing it first hand. In addition, North American youth place themselves at a high predisposition to violence by selling and using drugs. In a legal sense, governments in North America seem to have done little in the way of setting up obstacles to restrain youths from committing violent crimes. All of these factors are not necessarily omnipresent, but enough influence from one or a combination of them is enough to incite violent behavior in young people anywhere. The extent and severity of these problems has already stigmatized an entire generation of youths, not to mention others to come.
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