Many indicators reveal youth violence has been rising in Australia in recent decades. Recorded rates of youth assault and sexual assault have increased and are high relative to comparable nations. For example, rates of arrest for violent offences (assault and other offences) for youth aged 15 to 24 in Australia in 2009 were 711-880 per 100,000 and thus higher than in the United States (4-500 per 100,000). Eight to nine per cent of Australian youth aged 13 to 15 self-reported violent behaviour in the past year in surveys conducted between 2002 (Hemphill et al., 2009) and 2006 (Williams et al., 2009). These rates are high relative to international benchmarks.
This article provides an overview of how psychologists have contributed to our understanding of the causes of youth violence and the development of effective public health prevention programs, and concludes with a discussion of the prospects for these to be integrated into a formalised national prevention framework in Australia.
Major risk factors for youth violence
Psychological research has made a significant contribution to our understanding of youth violence. This research has highlighted that factors across multiple domains play a role in increasing the likelihood of violence perpetration among adolescents and young adults. Moreover, no single factor can account for the expression of violence; rather, it is the cumulative total exposure to risk factors during development that appears critical. This article focuses on a selected list of risk factors that have been rising in Australia during the same period that youth violence has been rising. Modifiable risk factors for youth violence are generally categorised according to four broad categorie – family, school, environment/neighbourhood and individual domains.
Of the contextual factors for youth violence, risk factors from the family domain are thought to be the most pertinent. This may be due to the home environment playing a central role in the development of youth violence. Key risk factors include: poor behaviour management practices, such as poor supervision of children; high levels of family conflict; and family history of antisocial behaviour. In other cases it has been noted that young people who have been abused or neglected as children may subsequently perpetrate violence, particularly in the family home. Rates of child neglect and abuse notifications and substantiations have been steadily rising in most Australian jurisdictions in recent decades (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2011), potentially contributing to the trend for rising youth violence.
School risk factors for youth violence have increased for students in disadvantaged communities in recent decades. For example, many Australian schools now use suspension to address student discipline, with rates higher in disadvantaged communities. However, school suspension has been identified as a unique risk factor for violence (Hemphill et al., 2009). Other key factors include low educational achivement, disengagement and exclusion.
Overcrowding, poor housing and living in high crime neighbourhoods increase the risk for youth violence. Violence also tends to be more common in societies with larger income differences, and these differences have grown in Australia in recent decades. Australian work has shown that levels of youth violence differed markedly between communities and were much higher in disadvantaged communities (Williams et al., 2009). Community disorganisation and peer antisocial involvement (indicators of community disadvantage) have also been shown to increase the likelihood of future violent behaviour (Hemphill et al., 2009). Growing up in disadvantaged neighbourhoods can increase the likelihood of children experiencing a number of factors that could elevate the risk for violence, including witnessing and experiencing violence, and being in situations with low environmental security and where there are high rates of alcohol and drug use.
A number of individual factors also relate to youth violence. These include a history of early aggression, conduct problems, beliefs supportive of violence, and temperament characteristics such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness, poor behaviour control and attention problems. Another key factor is adolescent alcohol use. Indeed, the available evidence suggests that alcohol availability and early age of alcohol use have increased as risk factors in recent decades in Australia (Williams et al., 2009).
Psychologist’s involvement in an evidence-based public health approach to prevent youth violence
It is clear that there are many, often interconnected factors that may influence the current Australian trend toward increasing youth violence. In order to reduce exposure to multiple risk factors, the coordinated delivery of evidence-based approaches targeting different social contexts is warranted (Matjasko et al., 2012). Public health approaches seek to coordinate the delivery of effective prevention strategies to reduce the exposure to risk factors that are elevated in a specific community context (e.g., child behaviour problems, family conflict, school exclusion) and increase exposure to protective factors (e.g., promoting family attachment). Given that psychologists work in varied settings, a variety of approaches may be relevant for health, clinical, counselling, community and organisational psychologists to support. Forensic psychologists tend to work in corrections with young offenders utilising tertiary programs in the rehabilitation of these young individuals, where selective prevention and early intervention can make important contributions.
Within public health systems, community-level approaches seek to reduce situational risk factors, to encourage healthy child development environments, and to establish links between a young person and their community. These programs can either be targeted, such as mentoring programs for vulnerable youth (e.g., Big brothers/Big sisters), or population-wide and multi-level, such as training and consulting approaches that develop community capacity in evidence-based prevention of youth antisocial behaviours that include violence (e.g., Communities That Care). Approaches such as family home visiting, cross-age tutoring and mentoring seek to reduce the intergeneration transmission of child development risk factors in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. To encourage youth violence prevention, funding systems are required that reward community investment in effective prevention. This occurred in the roll-out of the Communities That Care program in Pennsylvania USA, where population reductions in youth crime were achieved. Effective public health approaches require good quality community-level data on rates of youth violence and local risk factors to enable local communities to plan the coordinated delivery of primary and secondary prevention programs that have evidence for effectiveness.
School-level approaches seek to improve school effectiveness, and to enhance connectedness and engagement with school to improve academic achievement and encourage regular attendance. It has been shown that well organised schools and well trained teachers can be integral to youth violence prevention efforts. As such, programs have been developed to enhance school management and to train and support teachers in effective classroom practices and behaviour management. Examples of such programs are the Seattle Social Development Project, Good Behaviour Game, and Incredible Years teaching intervention, which focus on building teacher classroom management strategies, and student pro-social behaviour and school readiness. Psychologists working in the school system may be of crucial importance here, and can assist teachers in developing skills in building positive relationships with students, effective use of encouragement and in promoting school readiness to young people.
Where family risk factors are elevated, relational level approaches seek to improve the quality of the relationships that young people have with adults, family and peers. Family-based interventions reduce risk by equipping parents with effective parenting skills and establishing positive and supportive relationships to improve family interactions and communication. Examples of effective primary prevention programs include parent education and parent-child relationship therapy. These programs are comprised of building skills for: parents (effective communication, establishing clear expectations and consequences); young people (managing emotions, effective communication and peer resistance); and, combined supervised family activities. Effective secondary prevention programs include functional family therapy and brief strategic family therapy (Hemphill & Smith, 2010).
Individual-level prevention programs are often delivered to selective populations within universal approaches and seek to reduce the influence of individual characteristics or behaviours (e.g., impulsivity, anger, externalising) that increase the risk of violent behaviour. Protective factors are increased, such as promoting emotional and social skills, and pro-social beliefs and attitudes through social skills training. These programs reduce violence by improving competencies and social skills with peers and by promoting friendly, positive and cooperative behaviour. They focus on managing anger, improving behaviour, and building skills in social interactions, problem solving and conflict resolution and can be carried out in schools.
A number of evidence-based public health approaches also have the potential to curb levels of alcohol-related violence, including reducing the availability of alcohol through taxes and price increases, restricting trading hours and advertising, discouraging risky venue characteristics such as overcrowding, enforcing the minimum age of purchase and supply, and increasing the legal age of alcohol purchase to 21 years.
Conclusion: Towards a national youth violence prevention framework
Australia does not currently have a formalised national youth violence prevention framework (House of Representatives, 2010), despite the outstanding international expertise of many Australian psychologists. The key features of an effective framework for youth violence prevention have been outlined in this discussion. To ensure effective prevention practice, it is important to select strategies that have been shown in rigorous evaluations to reduce violence and/or the factors that influence violence. To achieve this, it is critical that an Australian violence prevention program analysis is completed and then publicised among government and non-government organisations as the 'best-bets' for effectively preventing youth violence, as well as conducting economic modelling studies that demonstrate effective investment returns for various prevention strategies. This work could then be utilised to lobby and encourage governments to adopt evidence-based youth violence prevention approaches appropriate to different communities and to implement them with fidelity.
- Australian Government. (2010). National strategy for young Australians. http://www.youth.gov.au/sites/youth/media/pages/nationalyouthstrategy (retrieved 7 May 2013).
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2011). Child Protection Australia 2010–11. Canberra: AIHW.
- Hemphill, S. A. & Smith, R. (2010). Preventing youth violence: What does and doesn’t work and why? An overview of the evidence on approaches and programs. Report prepared for the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, Canberra.
- Hemphill, S. A., Smith, R., Toumbourou, J. W., Herrenkohl, T. I., Catalano, R. F., McMorris, B.J., & Romaniuk, H. (2009). Modifiable determinants of youth violence in Australia and the United States: A longitudinal study. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 42, 289-309.
- House of Representatives. (2010). Avoid the Harm - Stay Calm. Report on the inquiry into the impact of violence on young Australians. The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra.
- Matjasko, J. L., Vivolo-Kantor, A. M., Massetti, G. M., Holland, K. M., Holt, M. K., & Dela Cruz, J. (2012). A systematic meta-review of evaluations of youth violence prevention programs: Common and divergent findings from 25 years of meta-analyses and systematic reviews. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17, 540-552.
- Williams, J., Toumbourou, J., Williamson, E., Hemphill, S., & Patton, G. (2009). Violent and antisocial behaviours among young adolescents in Australian communities: An analysis of risk and protective factors. Report for Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), Canberra.