Teen Violence Can Spread Like a Virus


By Kevin Ritchart

A recent study conducted by researchers from Ohio State University has found that teens with violent friends are nearly twice as likely to exhibit violent tendencies themselves.

Psychologist Brad Bushman and political scientist Robert Bond reached their conclusion after analyzing data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (or Add Health, as it’s more commonly known). Three times in a span of several years, Add Health researchers met with more than 90,000 students in the United States in grades seven through 12.

Bushman and Bond’s analysis, which was published in February’s American Journal for Public Health, focused on students with friends and/or siblings who also had been interviewed as a means of finding a link between violence and certain social groups.

By the Numbers

Teens who had admitted to being involved in a serious fight at least once during their interviews also were asked about the frequency of their fighting, whether they had injured someone badly enough during a fight to require medical attention, and whether they’d ever pulled out a knife or a gun to use during a fight.

Teens with friends who had admitted being in a serious fight were 48 percent more likely to get into an altercation themselves. Meanwhile, teens with siblings who had revealed being in a serious fight were 38 percent more likely to engage in violent behavior.

Teens with friends who had hurt someone badly enough to need medical attention were almost twice as likely to hurt someone in the same manner themselves, and teens with friends who admitted to using a knife or gun in a fight were 40 percent more likely to mimic that behavior.

“People learn aggression and violence the same way they learn other behaviors — through direct experience and by observing others,” Bushman said.

Diagnosing the Virus

As if the raw numbers aren’t convincing enough, Bushman and Bond’s research used a technique called network analysis to uncover how violence tends to spread through social groups. They found that violent incidents tend to cluster among small groups — and that it’s not just a direct friend of a violent teen who is more likely to become violent themselves. Up to four people away from the original teen (a friend of a friend of a friend, as it were) also showed an increased propensity for violence.

Bushman and Bond have compared their findings regarding violence among teens to the spreading of a virus. While the results of this study are indeed alarming, it’s worthwhile to note that positive behaviors like sharing and cooperation have shown to be contagious as well.

Teaching non-violent behaviors and encouraging non-violent methods of conflict resolution are two of the key approaches to curbing violent behavior and the spread of the virus, according to Bushman and Bond.

“Like other contagious diseases, one can prevent and treat violence,” Bushman said. “Prevention comes in the form of avoiding exposure to violence.”

Discussion Questions

  • What are some other behaviors —positive or negative — that can spread through social groups in the same way violence does?
  • Aside from teaching alternative, non-violent methods of conflict resolution, what are some other ways to curb the spread of violent behavior among teens?
  • Aggression
  • Network Analysis