Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002
Effects of Gun Violence on Children and Youth
Exposure to gun violence can traumatize children and youth not just physically, but emotionally as well. Studies have documented that young people exposed to gun violence experience lasting emotional scars. Some children may develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can affect brain development. The psychological trauma of gun violence may lead some children to arm themselves "for protection," or desensitize them so that they feel less hesitation about engaging in violent acts.
Psychological Impacts Associated with Exposure to Gun Violence
Young people who are exposed to gun violence may experience negative psychological impacts in both the short and long term. For example, a recent study of rural third- through eighth-graders indicated that children exposed to gun violence reported significantly higher levels of anger, withdrawal, and posttraumatic stress.5 The problem is exacerbated when youth get caught in a cycle of violence: Those who witnessed at least one incidence of gun violence reported significantly greater exposure to other types of violence, higher levels of aggression, and less parental monitoring than their peers.5 Exposure to gun violence also can desensitize youth to the effects of violence and increase the likelihood that they will use violence as a means of resolving problems or expressing emotions.
Sleep Distortion and Withdrawal
Research shows that exposure to violence can cause intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event and sleep disturbances.6 Therefore, it is not surprising that children and youth exposed to gun violence commonly experience difficulty concentrating in the classroom, declines in academic performance, and lower educational and career aspirations.7,8 Other outcomes associated with exposure to violent trauma include increased delinquency, risky sexual behaviors, and substance abuse.7,8
Exposure to gun violence can cause children and youth to withdraw from the very people who may be best equipped to help them—friends and family. Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Trauma Psychiatry Program conduct interventions with young people who have sustained or witnessed violent injury. Their research suggests that exposure to gun violence affects the quality of youth friendships. For example, wounded adolescents are particularly focused on the physical scars resulting from their injuries because the scars are daily reminders of the trauma.8 These injuries can disrupt social relationships, because they often prompt questions from peers or even strangers about the event—questions that only perpetuate the distress. Victims or those exposed to violence often become estranged from friends who were with them during the trauma,8 because seeing people who were involved in the incident can remind them of it.
Wounded and violence-exposed youth may experience other disruptions in their relationships with important peers and family members. Some young people experience survivor guilt after witnessing the violent victimization or death of a peer. Studies at UCLA indicate that many survivors and bystanders agonize during the event about whether to flee from the danger in self-preservation or to stay to aid their victimized friend. Memories of this dilemma can be extremely distressing. Furthermore, bystanders' actions can affect their subsequent relationship with the victim, because many victims report feeling angry when bystanders and friends do not intervene.8
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
In some cases, exposure to gun violence can lead to PTSD.3–5,8,9 PTSD in children is typically associated with hypervigilance (an overly alert state), an exaggerated startle response, anxiety, and recurring thoughts and dreams associated with the traumatic event.10 Traumatized children may attempt to avoid people, places, or objects that remind them of the trauma. "Psychic numbing" also can occur, causing children to detach emotionally from others and show decreased interest in activities they once enjoyed.10 Some trauma witnesses have difficulty expressing their emotions, lose their temper easily, or exhibit outbursts of anger.
Based on studies of how children's brains adapt to trauma, researchers at Baylor Medical College have concluded that a distinctive pattern of brain activity develops in response to exposure to threatening stimuli.11 The greater the intensity and frequency of stimulation —and thus the distinctive brain activity—the more likely that the brain will form "an indelible internal representation" of the trauma. Recurrent exposure to the trauma strengthens this response and lowers the child's ability to deal with any type of trauma. The child's brain becomes highly sensitive to threat and trauma-related cues, which in turn can affect his or her emotional and psychological well-being.11 Several studies have documented that children with a history of trauma develop a persistent, low-level fear, and respond to threats either with dissociation (separating certain ideas or emotions from the rest of their mental activity to avoid stress or anxiety) or with an unusually heightened state of arousal.11,12 This pattern of brain activity may also affect children's general information processing.13 For example, children who have experienced trauma may misinterpret ambiguous stimuli as threatening.
Children do not have to witness gun violence directly to develop symptoms of traumatic stress. After hearing about incidences of gun violence or learning about them on television, children may feel that their safety is threatened.14 Teens may respond to this threat by adopting what they perceive as "protective behaviors," such as joining a gang or arming themselves with guns or knives.15 Many youth associate great power with carrying or having access to a gun.
Conversely, some youth may perceive the media attention to youth gun violence as attractive and commit "copycat" shootings or try to "outdo" publicized school shootings.16 For example, some of the recent school shooters (including Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado) reported that they planned a "better" school ambush by learning from the "mistakes" of other publicized school shooters.3 (See Box 1.)