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.