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Juvenile Gang Violence: Genetic Predisposition vs. Environmental Influences

Updated on November 17, 2013

Nature vs. Nurture

The question is whether or not the cause of juvenile violence derives as a result of genetic predisposition or if it is a by-product of environmental influences. Scores of scientists, scholars, psychologists and other behavioral experts line up on either side of the issue. A case can be made and supported for both views. I believe the scale tips in favor of environmental influences. All humans have the capacity for violence, the majority of us have it under control. When confronted with a volatile situation we tend to reason it out, we look for a non-violent solution to our disputes. We think of violence as the last resort and not the first option. We, as a species, tend to be “learners” we are not born knowing everything. If anything, the opposite is probably true. Violence is a learned behavior, there are myriad influences for this type of behavior. In the following passages, I intend to discuss five that are consistent contributors: economic factors, permissive families, unstable neighborhoods, delinquent peer groups and the mass media.

Most juveniles learn how be violent through environmental influences. History tells us that violent behavior and crime has many faces, which usually depend upon who are occupying the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Ethnic groups such as the Irish, Italians and Jews at one time resided in pockets of depressed neighborhoods. Each group displayed a tremendous capacity for violence and criminal behavior. Turf wars over drugs, gambling, prostitution, and other criminal enterprises were common in those communities. Drive by shootings aren’t a present day phenomenon, it was the favorite form of execution and assassination used by Italians and Irish mobsters in the nineteen twenties, thirties, forties and fifties. Today’s depressed neighborhoods are infested by drugs, guns, and a sense of hopelessness. What we are faced with is a dangerous situation. Inner city role models in these deprived neighborhoods are drugs dealers, pimps and gang bangers. They’re the ones driving expensive cars, live in luxury apartments, and have huge (tax-free) bankrolls. That’s a powerful image to an impressionable teenager living in poverty, his only alternative is to stay in school, work hard, and maybe, if he’s lucky, he can avoid the pitfalls associated with the ghetto. According to Elliot S. Delbert, author of "Environmental Factors Contribute to Juvenile Crime and Violence.” “Single parent families, ineffective parenting, violent schools, high drop out rates, high adolescent pregnancies rates, substance abuse and high unemployment rates are all concentrated in such neighborhoods” (3).

Adolescents of today are dealing with issues that are unique to their generation. They live in the super information age. The Internet has opened doors to violent topics that parents used to keep closed. Parenting involves a great deal more than it once did. Teenagers, as a rule, are not sophisticated enough to process the images and data that are received on a daily basis. Single parents have a primary responsibility to payment of bills, to keep a roof over their heads, and food on the table. That’s a full time job. A mother can be many things, but she can’t be a father. As a result, the adolescent ends up with very little structure, and occasional discipline in his life. Too often, teenagers are forced to grow up on their own. Another unfortunate situation that manifests itself is that a void is created. The void exists because of a lack of guidance, structure, and discipline, which happen to be the main building blocks of maturity and adulthood. This void is being filled too often by neighborhood gangs. Many juveniles who do not have strong parental supervision from early childhood are more likely to become attracted to gang life. Additionally, I have surmised that joining gangs gives juveniles a sense of comraderie, a sense of family, a sense of security and a sense of being part of something greater than themselves. Gang members see themselves as brothers and sisters completely loyal to each other. Initiations into a gang is seen as a rite of passage. No matter what happens in life they will always have their surrogate brothers and sisters. Most of these juveniles seem to find their identity through being part of a gang.

In addition, the media also plays a prominent role in creating indelible images that make gang life attractive. Take a look at some of the “violent music lyrics,” they glorify violence, they disrespect women, and they also promote the illusion that illicit money making schemes, like selling drugs, pimping and extortion are perfectly normal options for earning a living. As an article by Frank Palumbo revealed “Violent Music Lyrics Can Harm Children.” “According to a U.S. Department of Education report, a large percentage of young women and girls have been "subjected to a pattern of overt sexual hostility accompanied by actual or threatened physical contact and the repeated use of obscene or foul language." (1). Television, video games, and movies engage in such over-the-top violence that many youth become desensitized to murder, mayhem, blood, and gore. An article by Scott Barbour acknowledged that there is, “a clear cause-and-effect relationship between television violence and violent behavior. This connection has been confirmed by government officials and institutions, including the surgeon general in 1972 and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1982.” (1). Moreover, the same article further highlighted, “The NIMH stated the issue plainly: "Violent programs on television lead to aggressive behavior by children and teenagers who watch those programs." (Barbour 1). The not so subliminal method is, if one needs money, use violence, if one has a dispute, use deadly violence, and on and on it goes. Furthermore, Charles S. Clark, “T.V violence” pointed out, “Leonard Eron, a University of Michigan psychology professor and longtime researcher on TV violence.” “The child who has been watching programs with primarily aggressive content comes away with the impression that the world is a jungle fraught with dangerous threats,and [sic] the only way to survive is to be on the attack.” (2).

I believe that we are already seeing the effects of juvenile gang violence all across the nation. For instance, the tragic and senseless massacre that happened at “Columbine” is a perfect example. As author Paul Klite pointed out in his article, The Government Should Restrict News Coverage of Violent Crime, “Many fingerprints are on the proverbial trigger—inadequate parenting; the availability of guns; alienation of youth; mental illness, school security, manipulative violence in film, video games, television, the internet and pop music.” (1). The mere fact that children have to pass through metal detectors on their way to class is a clear indicator that juvenile violence is greatly affecting America.

The opposing viewpoint strongly suggests that the predisposition argument has merit. Most of the studies and test have been in the area of I.Q. Many criminologists lean towards the bio-socialist findings because they feel it’s a more balanced view of anti-social behavior. To paraphrase, [Buikhuisen and Mednick, 1988; Fishbein, 1990] bio-researchers do not slight the contribution of the environment, nor do they claim the existence of “crime genes”, the biosocial perspective fully recognizes the mutually influencing and interactive effect of the biological and the social in producing human behavior. According to an article by Anthony Walsh, “Genetic and Environmental Explanations of Juvenile Violence in Advantaged and Disadvantaged Environments,” “biosocial researchers Rose and Osgood found that the genetic component was approximately three times more important than the common environmental, and about four times more important than the specific environmental component in accounting for variance in delinquent peer association and delinquency itself” (2). Nevertheless, most of the evidence previously mentioned clearly demonstrates how environmental influences have a greater impact on juveniles in comparison to those of the genetic predisposition argument.

In the final analysis, the argument, (nature vs. nurture) is still raging. There is supportive data for both sides of the issue. The overwhelming evidence points towards environmental influences, despite the fact that some researchers assert that the genetic predisposition argument has validity. More importantly, additional studies need to be conducted in order to establish conclusively that genetics are responsible for juvenile violence. Science and technology are opening new windows of information into the world of genetics. While this may be true, it is still too early to rely on current findings. We are taught to behave according to values and beliefs handed down through parenting, religion and social, societal mores and decorum. It can be easily argued that our entire lives, from the cradle to the grave, is a learning experience. We are taught how to eat, act, crawl, and walk before we utter our first words in life. Furthermore, I believe we are in a transitional phase, we as a society, need to start looking at new ways of preventing juvenile exposure to violence. We need to think about what part we are playing in this deteriorating drama. There are principles we should all stand for as a society. Unfortunately, its one of the things we haven’t quite learned yet. There will be a time when genetics, combined with environmental solutions, play a role in curbing violence but we as a nation are not there yet. We may be on the precipice but we still have a long way to go, in the interim, we are a species of “learners” and we always will be.

Works Cited

Clark, Charles S. "TV Violence." CQ Researcher 3.12 (1993): 265-288. CQ

Researcher.Web.18 Nov. 2009

Elliott, Delbert S. "Environmental Factors Contribute to Juvenile Crime and

Violence." Opposing Viewpoints: Juvenile Crime. Ed. A.E. Sadler. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. CUNY –

Bronx Community College. 2 Nov. 2009

Klite, Paul. "The Government Should Restrict News Coverage of Violent Crime."

Opposing Viewpoints: Media Violence. Ed. Louise I. Gerdes. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2004. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. CUNY - Bronx Community College. 18 Nov. 2009

"Media Violence Causes Teen Violence." Opposing Viewpoints Digests: Teen Violence.

Ed. Scott Barbour. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. CUNY - Bronx Community College. 20 Nov. 2009

Walsh, Anthony "Genetic and Environmental Explanations of Juvenile Violence in

Advantaged and Disadvantaged Environments." Aggressive Behavior 18.3 (1992): 187-199. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 20 Nov. 2009.

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