Doing it My Way

Solutions In Sight: Doing It My Way

What causes teen violence and what are the other choices?

June 1999

By Russ Huffman, A Teen Editorial Board member.

April 20, 1999 will always be remembered in Littleton, Colorado. That day two students threw themselves "over the edge." Angry at years of insensitive treatment from classmates, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold decided that the only way to deal with their feelings was to turn their school into a mass murder scene. The boys shot and killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves. In the aftermath of this horror, and several other school shootings in the past year a half, we wonder... "Why?" and "What can be done to prevent more violence?" Russ Hoffman, explores these questions. 

What's going on? Recent tragedies caused by young people with guns have created a fanfare of media coverage and spawned the seemingly age-old debate over youth violence: What causes of youth violence, and what can be done about it? As a youth of the day I wonder about it myself. Did any of this happen when my parents were in high school? What has changed so drastically in the past few decades that kids now seem so willing to commit violent acts?

Did this stuff happen when our parents were kids? It seems odd that we would suddenly,, begin seeing youth violence on this scale. Has it happened in the past? Some people believe that thirty years ago kids didn't have time to think about violence. Most people reading this weren't alive in the 60's, but we've all heard of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, a movement spearheaded by young people. This anti-war focus challenged many teens to put their energy into nonviolence while organizing, lobbying, protesting and doing what they could to stop the war. But when there is no war to protest against, is the youth violence we are seeing just a part of "human nature"?

Humans have a long history of violence. History books are filled with violent conflicts. The Romans conquered most of Europe, Egyptians enslaved Jews, the Mongols invaded China, the settling of the entire North American continent was violent. In this century alone we've seen mass violence perpetrated against people in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, South Africa, Rwanda and currently in Kosovo. We know this is wrong and yet, what parts of our own society contribute to a "culture of violence"?

What do you watch on TV? There are few things in our lives that take as much of our time and reflect our culture as much as television. According to The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry American kids watch an average of 3-4 hours of TV daily. Television can be a "powerful influence in developing value systems and shaping behavior. Unfortunately, much of today's TV programming is violent. Hundreds of studies of the effects of violence on children and teenagers have found that children may:

  • Become "immune" to the horror of violence
  • Gradually accept violence as a way to solve problems
  • Imitate the violence they observe on television
  • Identify with certain characters, victims and/or victimizers

This does not mean that violence on television is the only source for aggressive or violent behavior, but it is a significant contributor."

Who's responsible for violence on TV? Does the media have a responsibility to maintain a certain amount of integrity to its viewers, especially us, youths who are continually absorbing information around us? Is it censorship to dictate what can and cannot be shown on TV? Is our freedom of speech at risk if we make laws governing violence on TV? I can't answer questions like these. They require an amount of personal choice. However, as responsible youths, hopefully we understand that TV shows are created as entertainment (in the case of cartoons and other forms of dramatic violence), or as an expression of how violence affects society (in the case of the news). TV shows are not produced to give us ideas about how to commit violence.

Violence is hazardous to your health. Violence is so much a part of our society, yet we know it is not healthy. Every war had its own "syndrome," a long term mental and/or physical conditions caused by the stress and violence of the battlefield. In World War I it was called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In World War II it was referred to as being "shell shocked." Some veterans of the Gulf War came down all kinds of chronic illnesses that were lumped together and called "Gulf Syndrome." What does all this mean? When one person acts out in violence, many people suffer. This includes the grief of those who lose loved ones to violence as well as the eternal shame of the family of those who commit violent acts.

What can lead a person to commit an act of violence? There are so many factors involved in youth violence - we touched on media and society. Parents are another factor. When children live in a stable family, where they can communicate their feelings will have receive help coping with them, they grow up learning was to effectively, and safely, deal with problems. They also learn the mechanisms that allow them to overcome any situation. When we lack this basic support, because our parents are too busy or unwilling to help us, we attempt to find our own solutions, or look for guidance somewhere else.

Alternatives to violence. When you feel as if life is too confusing, or that you can't cope, there are people willing to help you straighten out your life and get you back on track.

Where can you go when you need help? Try talking to your parents! If, for some reason your parents aren't available or you don't feel comfortable talking to them about what's bothering you, there are other places to turn for help.

  • Other family members. Older siblings, aunt, uncles, grandparents. These people know you well and love you. If you need someone to listen, they can be there for you.
  • Caring, experienced teachers. Good teachers obviously like teens and understand them, that's why they chose their profession! Sometimes the perspective you can get from a teacher is just what you need to help you sort things out.
  • School counselors. Unlike teachers, who have certain courses they were hired to teach, school counselors are there to help kids understand their problems and work through them. Because of their specialized training in psychology and counseling techniques, they are usually very easy to talk to. It's also likely they have helped some other teen with a similar problem, and if not, they have the resources to find people who have.
  • Friends. Friends can be exactly the support you need when you have a problem. They understand you, they've probably felt the same way you're feeling now. They are a great place to let off steam, but be sure they are not your only source. Often times their enthusiasm to help can cause them to give advice when they don't really understand the problem or have any experience in the area.
  • Adult friend. Possibly someone you know like a neighbor who you trust, and who knows your family and will understand the situation. Adult friends have the benefit of understanding you, and wanting to help you, with the added knowledge and experience that comes from having lived longer than you have.
Help Lines and Web Sites Talk City's The InSite. Your place to find out about yourself, your Inner Voice, dealing with emotions and alternatives to violence. The InSite is all about making the world a safer, saner, cleaner, more equitable place to live. Youthwork Links and Ideas Hot lines. This site lists many toll free crisis hot lines for you to call any time you need to talk to someone who cares.

TEENLINE (800) 522-8336 is free to call and will not appear on your phone bill. Trained listeners who care about teens are there for you every day noon to midnight.

National Youth Crisis Hot line 1.800.621.4000 is also free to call and won't appear on your phone bill. Any kid can call these folks and know that someone who cares is listening.


Life's a journey, not a destination. Make sure that when all is said and done, the choices you made are choices you won't regret.


Email Russ at [email protected]

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