Forget Strep! Violence Extremely Contagious Among Children

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Parents often worry about sending their kids to school amid seasonal flu outbreaks, but it seems something else spreads among children that has nothing to do with germs. According to researchers at Ohio State University, violence is also extremely “contagious” during adolescence.

The alarming study shows children are up to 183 percent more likely to commit an act of violence if a peer committed the very same act. It might make sense among close friends, but the study actually reports that the violence “bug” continues among peers by up to four degrees of separation.

The study took place from 1994-1995 and then again in 1996 among 5,913 students from grades 7-12 in 142 schools across the country. Participants were interviewed by researchers who asked them to list five friends of each sex and then reveal how many times over the previous year they’d been in a physical fight; if they’d hurt someone to the point that bandages or care from a health professional was needed; and how often they’d wielded a gun or knife during an altercation. Then each student’s friends, friends of friends, and two more friends beyond were asked if they’d committed the same acts of violence.

The results are eye-popping: students were 183 percent more likely to have hurt someone badly and 140 percent more likely to have pulled the knife or gun on someone if a friend did the same. The participants were also 48 percent more likely to have been in a serious fight if a friend had as well.

‘Clustering effect’ to blame for violence among children

“This study shows just how contagious violence can be,” Robert Bond, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University, said in a release. “Acts of violence can ricochet through a community, traveling through networks of friends.”

Bond pointed to the “clustering effect” — the result of people with similar interests banding together — as an explanation of why the students would commit the same acts of violence as their friends. He said the study was the first to show how far violent behavior might spread within a social network.

“If we can stop violence in one person, that spreads to their social network. We’re actually preventing violence not only in that person, but potentially for all the people they come in contact with,” Bond said.

The study is published online by the American Journal of Public Health.

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