New Research Highlights Long-Term Impact of Political Violence on Young People

Golan Shahar, Ph.D., Expert on depression research and anxiety research
Golan Shahar, Ph.D.

A difficult-to-conduct multi-year study has measured, perhaps for the first time, the psychological and behavioral impact of exposure to repeated acts of political violence on young people. The results were not precisely as expected, according to Golan Shahar, Ph.D., a 2004 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee who is based at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel.

Along with an American collaborator, Dr. Shahar has published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry the results of a 4-year study. It involved 362 Israeli 7th- through-10th graders, growing up in a portion of the country that is within range of rockets fired from the occupied territory of the Gaza Strip. The subjects were assessed in four “waves,” over time, and were about evenly divided among boys and girls.

As one might expect, based on prior studies of the relationship of chronic stress and trauma upon young people, children recently exposed to rocket attacks showed symptoms of anxiety, depression and aggression. What surprised the researchers was the longer-term impact. Only modest amounts of anxiety and depression were observed; “but we did see a major impact on the commission of violent acts,” the researchers noted. This included such behaviors as hurting someone badly in a physical fight; being involved in gang violence; being arrested for a violent crime or having carried a weapon.

“The findings should serve as a red flag for health care practitioners working in places affected by terrorism and political violence,” Dr. Shahar said. The human brain is still developing throughout the time of adolescence, and its circuitry is known to be much more “plastic” than it is later in life. Chronic trauma likely has neurobiological impacts during this vulnerable time of life, but social cognitive theory, too, sheds light on “violence begetting violence through its impact on social cognitions,” as Dr. Shahar and his colleague Dr. Christopher C. Henrich point out in their new paper.

Read the abstract in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Article comments

I'm not sure why this result caused surprise. Studies going back to the 1930s indicated that children who viewed violent behavior were more aggressive toward their peers in the period right after the viewing. In the 1980s I worked extensively with a group or kindergartners and first graders who were better behaved than many. I ended up barring discussion of cartoons even in less structured situations because discussing He-man, the most popular cartoon at the time because their behavior became more active and there was an immediate increase in mock aggressive behavior towards each other during the conversation. Since my job was to provide guidance rather than conduct research, I intervened immediately and directed them toward other activity.. From a research point of view it would have been interesting to see how much more aggressive behavior they exhibited if allowed to continue the conversation and how long the behavior might continue after the conversation. Older children have longer memories in every area of human interaction that I'm aware of. These young people were potential targets in a situation which threatened which threatened serious injury or death.
We know Vietnam veterans exposed to combat had a higher rate of subsequent violent behavior than service members who did not serve in the theater or those of their peers who did not serve in the military.
Perhaps, I would have considered this a more likely outcome than the researchers since my higher education was in child development rather than psychology or psychiatry and we became familiar with different bodies of research.

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