Study: Alarming Number of Kids Are Exposed to Violence

Exposing kids to violence, either through abuse or just allowing them to witness it, has long-term consequences.

(Photo: Nina Shannon/Getty Images)

Jul 4, 2015· 1 MIN READ
John Walsh is an editorial intern at TakePart.

A child’s mind is often compared to a sponge because it absorbs everything around it. Unfortunately, a recent study shows that too many U.S. children are being raised in abusive environments that are crippling their future.

The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence found that nearly four of every 10 children and teens in the U.S. were either witnesses to or victims of violence or abuse over the previous year, according to a study published by JAMA Pediatrics.

“You hear things like, ‘My dad used to whip me and I turned out fine,’ but we’re finding that often those people have places where they really are damaged,” said lead researcher David Finkelhor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Researchers relied on phone interviews to gather information on 4,000 children ages 17 and younger. Children over 10 spoke directly to researchers, and a caregiver helped younger kids answer. The interviewers asked about conventional crime, child maltreatment, peer and sibling abuse, and sexual assault.

“Children are the most victimized segment of the population,” Finkelhor said. “They are more exposed to violence in the household than adults are. Kids who grow up in abusive families think that it is normal.”

About 37 percent of children said they had been physically assaulted over the previous year, and almost 10 percent were injured as a result, the researchers found.

Exposure to violence can not only leave children physical scars, but it was recently proven to alter their mental makeup too, according to another study on the subject. In that study, Duke University scientists measured cellular aging by studying the ends of children’s chromosomes, called telomeres, to find that the effect of abuse on their DNA causes changes that are equivalent to seven to 10 years of premature aging.

In Finkelhor’s study, interviewers also asked about issues related to an indirect exposure to violence.

“The study recorded those being called names, being told they are not wanted, being constantly told that they are incompetent,” he said. “This includes having stigmatizing references made about them in terms of their looks or weight or sexual orientation or anything like that. These are the things that are destroying their prospects for the future and leading to later mental health problems.”

If the child surveyed had been exposed to any of these events over the previous year, the interviewers then asked about who committed the act. Of the statistics gathered, 15 percent of the children had experienced maltreatment by a caregiver, and almost 6 percent had witnessed violence between their parents.

“This issue is one of the strongest predictors of both health and later-life social problems of anything that we have,” Finkelhor said. “Exposure to abuse and violence in your childhood is associated with chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease. But it is also associated with drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety, and other mental health issues.”