Science: What makes a child a killer?

Young men pick up cues from a violent society and pose their own threat. How can we break the cycle?

Last week, two teenage boys bombed and shot at their own classmates in a school in Colorado, killing 12 students and their teacher. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold then committed suicide. These appalling events at Columbine High School, situated in the predominately white, middle-class town of Littleton, raise disturbing questions about the nature of violence. What turned two apparently ordinary boys, from affluent backgrounds, into ruthless killers?

An epidemic of violence among the young is sweeping America. Arrests have soared in the last few decades, gang membership increased by 50 per cent between 1989 and 1995, and the juvenile murder rate has more than doubled since the Eighties. One psychologist, Professor James Garbarino of Cornell University, has gone so far as to say that the US is in danger of losing a generation of young men to violence. He calls them the "lost boys".

Prof Garbarino, who is professor of human development at Cornell and a director of its Family Life Development Centre, has just finished a book of the same title in which he tries to unravel the factors that lead children to extreme aggression. His approach is to listen to individual cases as they are presented to him and attempt to understand what causes a child to become a potential killer.

"Sometimes as I listen to people talk about violent youth... it seems that few people really care about hurt little boys who have grown up to be violent teenagers. It is as if we want to forget how they got to be kids who kill in the first place," he says.

"Perhaps we feel that understanding them is unnecessary because punishment is the only issue, or perhaps we feel that an attempt to understand them is dangerous because it may excuse their actions."

Factors cited to explain why a child may kill include genetic inheritance, parental upbringing and the increasingly toxic nature of contemporary American society. "These boys fall victim to an unfortunate synchronicity between the demons inhabiting their own internal world and the corrupting influences of modern American culture: vicarious violence, crude sexuality, shallow materialism, mean-spirited competitiveness and spiritual emptiness," says Professor Garbarino.

The problem usually begins in early childhood. Over the last seven years, child abuse has doubled: 42 out of every 100,000 children are abused every year in the US. Many of the children Professor Garbarino talks to at his family centre were either abused or abandoned by one or both parents.

Boys often react to abandonment in two main ways, according to the Professor: they gradually lose the capacity to feel emotions, as well as externalising the pain, so that they attribute how they feel to the actions of others. They feel victimised, and deal with their distress through action, particularly violent action. The condition is known as "covert depression", since the sufferer fails to acknowledge his own feelings. Depression is a particular problem for violent boys. Professor Ronald Kessler, of Harvard Medical School, has shown that the rate of serious depression among American youth has risen from 2 per cent in 1960 to 25 per cent today.

Abuse and abandonment are crucial factors here, but one of the more controversial areas in psychology is the theory that criminals are born, not made. One programme begun in the Sixties showed that children who were aggressive at eight turned into 38-year-olds who hit family members, got into fights and drove aggressively. "This gives a developmental spin to road rage: it may start as `tricycle rage'," says Professor Garbarino. However, he argues that a combination of nature and nurture is the key. The very kind of environment a person grows up in will affect his genetic legacy. For example, a child growing up in a deprived area could be subject to poor nutrition and industrial carcinogens; a child with the same genetic make- up, in a middle-class area, may have the benefits of intra-uterine surgery or nutritional therapy for a genetic disorder. "Biologically based predispositions to violence translate into behaviour only when they occur in social situations that permit or encourage that."

A recent study by the psychologists Sarnoff Mednick and Elizabeth Kandel, conducted in the Netherlands, looked at children who had a slight physical defect, such as a misshapen head. This can indicate a underlying minor neurological disorder arising during pregnancy, which may lead to mental instability and learning disorders. Those children who grew up in stable families had no greater risk of being arrested for violent crimes by the time they were 21 than any other child; yet 70 per cent of those who were in unstable, troubled families had been arrested by the time they reached the age of 21.

Professor Garbarino whole-heartedly believes that being born difficult does not mean you will end up difficult. In his own words, he was a "cranky, troublesome, wilful and aggressive" child. He was saved by social circumstances, and by his teens he had become a model citizen. Although he was born on an urban American housing estate, it was not the war zone these have become in inner-city America today. His parents both cared for him; he lived in a safe area with no guns, drugs or gangs; television at the time was tame; and his teachers were supportive. The opposite is true of many children in America today.

It is not that people have changed; rather, the social milieu has altered. America, as Colorado has so aptly demonstrated, has become a gun culture, especially in the southern counties where nearly 50 per cent of households have guns. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia discovered that nearly a third of boys carry a lethal weapon with them, and 12.5 per cent carry a gun to school every day.

There are four basic reasons why children are drawn to guns, according to Professor Jeremy Shapiro and colleagues from Cleveland University. They need to be the type of person who reacts aggressively to shame: if someone insults you, you have to fight them. Secondly, gun-carrying children are not worried by other people possessing firearms; thirdly, guns excite them; and finally, they feel powerful and secure when in possession of a gun.

Coupled with easy access to guns is the pervasive spread of violence on TV. A typical American child can witness more images of death and destruction in films and television than a policemen or a soldier sees in a lifetime. The American Psychological Association (APA) conducted a survey of TV violence and showed that nearly half the violent acts committed are perpetrated by the hero; more than two-thirds of the time the aggressor shows no remorse and receives no criticism or punishment. Though there is no simple correlation between screen violence and real violence, the APA states that the link between the two is as strong as the correlation between smoking and cancer.

In the absence of any change in attitude in the gun culture of America, where the National Rifle Association still holds huge influence, is there any hope for disaffected, violent youth? Professor Garbarino believes that some lost boys can be saved. He cites the example of one such boy, Malcolm, who is on death row. He has participated in drug-related kidnappings as a victim and perpetrator, has been fired at during drive-by shoot-ins and has been involved in them himself. He has committed armed robbery, committing murder for the first time at the age of 13; he has been scarred by beatings from his mother, his uncle, his stepfather, drug bosses, neighbourhood rivals and the police; and he lost his baby son after his heavily pregnant girlfriend was shot at. Garbarino remembers that when he gave Malcolm a book, the hard-boy image suddenly crumpled with emotion. "This is for me, really? Thanks, man. Nobody ever gave me a book before," he said, as a tear ran down his cheek. As the Professor says, "A single tear is a precious commodity in the emotional economy of boys like Malcolm."

`Lost Boys' by James Garbarino is to be published in May by Free Press

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy