Three factors linked to aggressive behavior in teens, but parents are key safeguards

EUGENE, Ore. — It’s common for teenagers to act out in various ways. Wearing unconventional clothing, listening to different types of music, or staying out late with friends are all common examples of such behavior. Some teens end up acting aggressively as well, which is often times accompanied by serious issues both at home and in the classroom. It can be hard to trace back the individual reasons why a teen would act out in this way, but a study by researchers at the University of Oregon has identified three major factors that they believe increase aggressive behavior in teens.

The study reveals that exposure to violence via television and other media, impulsivity, and family conflict all seem to play significant roles in a teen’s propensity to act aggressively towards others.

The research team surveyed 2,000 teens aged 14-17 via an online questionnaire. The participants were selected to equally represent both white and black teenagers. Researchers noted that age-appropriate parental monitoring, especially among white teens, proved to be an effective strategy to prevent aggressive behavior from occurring.

“Accounting for all the risk factors we looked at in this study, parental monitoring continued to have a strong protective effect,” says lead author Atika Khurana, a University of Oregon professor, in a media release. “It was quite interesting that for adolescents who had high levels of media violence exposure, family conflict, impulsivity and sensation-seeking, parental monitoring still continued to provide a protective effect against aggressive tendencies.”

Khurana says her research intended to provide a nuanced and detailed look into the assortment of environmental and familial factors that may be contributing to adolescent aggression.

The survey measured violence in media exposure by asking participating teens about 29 different top-grossing movies, 34 black-oriented movies from 2013 and 2014, and 30 of the top overall TV shows from the 2014-15 season. All of these programs and movies were analyzed to account for the amount of violence occurring in each story.

Participants were asked which shows they had watched, how often they had viewed each, and whether or not they had recently been engaged in any acts of physical violence, face-to-face bullying, or cyberbullying.

To measure family conflict, the teens were asked if their home life usually involved criticism, hitting or striking, arguing, throwing things, or cursing when angry. They were also asked how often their parents talked, engaged in fun activities, and ate meals with them. Other questions probed parental control of violent media consumption.

Finally, impulsivity and sensation-seeking levels were measured using standardized self-report questionnaires.

“Media violence is a known risk factor for aggression in adolescents,” Khurana comments. “The purpose here was to see how strong a risk factor it is compared to other risk and protective factors and how it operates in tandem with these factors.”

The researchers concluded that media violence in and of itself is a strong indicator of teen aggression, even if said teen were to rank low in all the other risk factors.

“The effect is no doubt greater if you also have other risk factors such as family conflict and impulsivity, but it is nonetheless significant even for those at lower risk in other categories,” Khurana says.

As mentioned before, parental supervision was shown to be an effective way to curb teen aggression, but Khurana cautions that this study only relied on self-reporting from one group of teens. Thus, she recommends that a longitudinal study be conducted in order to determine just how much parental interaction and guidance plays a role in in teen aggression, especially when mixed with high levels of violent media consumption and impulsivity.

The study’s authors recommend instituting viewing restrictions early on with children, as restricting violent media among older adolescents can often times result in pushback and be counterproductive.

“Communication style is also important,” Khurana concludes. “Setting boundaries but allowing some autonomy and independence is vital.”

The study is published in the journal Aggressive Behavior.

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Ben Renner

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