Youth policy topics Youth policy topics

Youth violence

The case for youth violence prevention

Violence is one of the leading causes of death and disability among young people in Europe. Over 10,000 15-29 year old Europeans lose their lives to violence each year (World Health Organization, 2008) and far more suffer physical, emotional, psychological or social harm due to involvement in, witnessing or fearing violence. Violence can affect every aspect of young people's lives, hampering their prospects for education, employment and health, and reducing their ability to form healthy personal and social relationships. Preventing youth violence is a critical aspect in meeting a wide range of youth, social, family, health and employment policies. More widely, high levels of youth and other forms of violence can form barriers to economic investment in areas.

Compared with other age groups, young people have increased risks of involvement in violence as both victims and perpetrators (Sethi et al, 2010; Bellis et al, 2011). Youth is a period marked by rapid physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioural changes that can contribute to both aggression and vulnerability to violence. For example, biological and neurological changes occurring during puberty, such as a rise in the level of stress hormones, can increase the risk of engaging in aggressive or anti-social behaviour. Further, during youth, relationships with peers can take precedence over the influence of parents and other authority figures, and young people can be exposed for the first time to situations where violence may occur, such as sexual interactions, drinking environments and illicit drug markets. How young people cope with these challenges depends on the strength of their social and emotional skills, the family and social support they have around them and the cultural and social norms they have learned during childhood.

Early life opportunities for youth violence prevention

Many of the key risk factors for involvement in youth violence stem from the family and community environments in which young people grow up. Children who are abused or who live in dysfunctional households - for example where they witness domestic violence, parental substance use or criminal behaviour - have increased risks of later involvement with youth violence (Duke et al, 2010). Other risk factors in early life include having a teenage mother, coming from a single parent family, having poor parental relationships, and low educational achievement.

The impacts of children's early life experiences on their risks of violence mean that early life interventions have an essential role to play in preventing youth violence. Such interventions work with children and their families from the very earliest stages of life, fostering healthy brain development, the formation of social and emotional skills and strong family and community support. Effective programmes include home visiting by nurses for new parents, parent training programmes and preschool enrichment programmes (World Health Organization, 2009a). These interventions work to strengthen bonds between parents and their children; provide parents with knowledge and skills to understand and care for their child; and develop emotional, social and learning skills in young children. They can also incorporate broader support for families with health, social wellbeing and employment. As well as youth violence prevention, early interventions can have long-term benefits in reducing other forms of risk taking in young people such as alcohol abuse, tobacco and drug use and unsafe sex and can enhance their educational and employment outcomes. Such programmes can be highly cost effective; returning health, social and criminal justice related savings well in excess of programme costs (Aos et al, 2004).

Schooling and youth violence prevention

When children enter formal education, the provision of safe school environments is critical in protecting them from bullying and youth violence, and enabling them to learn and develop effectively. Whole school approaches create environments where bullying is not tolerated, incorporating clear regulations and procedures for addressing bullying, teacher training, parental education, the provision of safe physical environments and educational curricula that strengthen children's life skills. Life skills programmes include those that develop children's social and emotional skills, such as empathy, self-respect, problem-solving, anger management and effective conflict resolution. These programmes can reduce aggressive and violent behaviour in youths (World Health Organization, 2009b). School-based dating programmes can also provide youths with relationship skills and address gender stereotypes and norms with the aim of protecting young people from intimate partner and sexual violence.

Preventing youth violence through tackling alcohol

Youth violence is strongly associated with the use of alcohol, which can disinhibit aggression and increase individuals' vulnerability to assault. Measures to reduce the availability of alcohol and its harmful use by youth are important elements in violence prevention strategies (World Health Organization, 2009c). Strategies to reduce the availability of alcohol include those to increase price, implement and enforce age restrictions, reduce alcohol advertising and promotion, and limit the number of outlets that can sell alcohol. With much youth violence occurring in and around drinking venues, including pubs, bars and nightclubs, measures to promote responsible server practice (e.g. no sales of alcohol to minors or those already drunk), improve comfort levels (e.g. more seating, less crowding), prevent cheap alcohol promotions, enforce licensing legislation and provide deterrents to anti-social behaviour and aggression are also important.

Social determinants and youth violence prevention

The length and severity of youth involvement in violence can vary considerably. For many, fighting and other forms of delinquent behaviour can be a temporary phase of youth that is outgrown as individuals move into adulthood. For others, however, aggression and conduct disorder can emerge early in childhood, develop into more serious forms of offending and violence during adolescence, and continue into adulthood. These youths and their families can require more intensive support, such as that provided through multi-systemic therapy. Such therapy has been found to reduce violence, delinquency and crime among youths already engaging in offending behaviour, by incorporating psychotherapeutic techniques (e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy) with parent training and broader support to help youths and their families address problems with peers, schools and neighbourhoods.

Youths who live in areas with high levels of deprivation and crime, or who have few educational and employment opportunities may see little potential for their future and consider violence and crime as the only options for achieving status, resources and wealth. Where such communities have endemic violence, aggressive behaviour can be seen as both a social norm and a necessary response for self-protection. Such factors contribute to young people accessing weapons for self-protection, and joining gangs where violence can be legitimised and even promoted. The presence of gangs, weapons and drug markets is an important risk for youth violence. Youth violence can also thrive in societies with low levels of social cohesion, wide social inequalities, growing youth populations, high unemployment, weak criminal justice systems and where social and gender norms are tolerant of violent behaviour (Sethi et al, 2010).

Policy and youth violence prevention

The Council of Europe's Recommendation on the prevention of injury and the promotion of safety, covering both intentional and unintentional injury, identifies young people as a key group for attention. The World Health Assembly resolutions on the Prevention of violence: a public health priority (WHA49.25) and Implementing the recommendations of the World report on violence and health (WHA56.24), provide a framework for governments to take action to prevent violence. This is supported in Europe by the WHO Regional Committee for Europe's resolution on the Prevention of injuries in the WHO European Region.

The broad range of risk factors that contribute to youth violence are addressed through many broader European policies, including those focusing on education, employment, health and well-being, social inclusion and human rights. Violence prevention is also a core foundation of achieving many key youth-focused policies including the EU Youth Strategy, Agenda 2020: the future of the Council of Europe Youth Policy, and the European Union's Youth in Action Programme. While violence is one of many challenges in particular facing deprived populations, it is often a barrier to addressing other health and social issues as individual, community and financial investment in affected areas is impeded by fear and instability. Consequently, preventing violence is often a prerequisite for the successful implementation of other health and social policies.

The Violence prevention: the evidence series published by the World Health Organization details the evidence behind many of the prevention strategies outlined in this text. Specific to youth, WHO Europe's European report on preventing violence and knife crime among young people brings together information on the extent of youth violence in Europe, risk factors, evidence of what works in prevention and policy options. 

Text drafted by Mark Bellis and Karen Hughes for the partnership between the European Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of youth.