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Youth Violence and Effective Interventions

4th November 2010

A review, Youth Violence in Scotland: Literature Review, commissioned by the Scottish Government, aiming to identify and collate available qualitative and quantitative research data and information about youth violence in Scotland, has recently been published.

 The review draws on readily available sources of data from administrative sources (recorded crime, criminal proceedings, school exclusions, referrals to the Children’s Hearings System) and from the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (SCJS) in order to construct a picture of what is known about youth violence using official data sources. It also draws on the range of primarily, but not solely, qualitative research studies that have been undertaken within Scotland over the past 15-20 years.

 Youth violence remains a contentious public and political issue, with a great deal of media attention and public debate devoted to it. Yet very little is known about the scale or nature of violence committed by youth, trends in violent youth offending, or the role played by violence in the everyday lives of children and young people. This report hoped to construct a research informed picture of what is currently known about youth violence, creating the ability to determine the existing informational gaps and establishing the best ways to go about filling them.

 The secondary aim of the review was to assemble key messages from contemporary research and debates on risk factors for youth violence, and provide a brief overview of effective interventions to reduce youth violence, drawing on national and international literature.

The list of risk factors is long and divided into separate categories – biological, individual, peer, school, neighbourhood, and situational factors.

The most well-known risk-focused programmes were found to have been targeted towards individual and family risk factors draw on cognitive behavioural concepts. The most effective of these programmes involving skills training, parental education and pre-school programmes. 

One of the key findings from the research literature was that for any intervention to be effective, the targeted risk factors must be amenable to change. Data suggests that the strongest predictors of serious and violent offending for youths are relatively changeable factors – early offending and substance abuse, and anti-social associates and social ties. This suggests that disrupting early patterns of anti-social behaviour and negative peer association and promoting positive social ties is likely to be an effective strategy for the prevention of future violent and serious offending.

 The review found that early intervention is key to improving outcomes for young people and early indicators of risk factors for poor outcomes include multiple disadvantage, social isolation and bullying. The most successful interventions make use of family, school, community etc in innovative way to support individual change, working with the needs and motivation of offenders to enhance change. in order to be effective interventions need to be targeted to specific offenders and their needs. 

However, while structured programmes can contribute to a reduction in offending for different types of crime the effect is limited by wider social and individual factors such as living in neighbourhoods characterised by deprivation, social instability and high crime rates. 

The review stated that whilst research evidence from the identification of both risk and protective factors has established the potential for strategies to reduce young people’s risk of offending and involvement in anti-social behaviour, there is intense debate about the relationship between the identification of childhood risk factors and risk-focused prevention as many writers have warned of the dangers of the risk approach on the basis that defining and measuring risk factors is problematic and that the interpretation of risk factor evidence is difficult. Whilst many risk factors are relatively well-established, far less established are the causal mechanisms linking such factors with offending. In order to increase the success of early interventions these causal links must be further studied and explored.

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