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

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

Arts and Entertainment
The episode saw the surprise return of shifty caravan owner Susan Wright, played by a Pauline Quirke (ITV)

Review: Broadchurch

Arts and Entertainment
Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo are teaming up for a Hurricane Katrina drama

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups


An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment


Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original


Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'


Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore