A study of more than 4,000 teens suggests that adolescent violence may be thwarted more effectively by targeting prevention programs to specific teen populations.

Conducted at the UT Southwestern Medical Center, the analysis of what triggers teen violence revealed that a perception of support from families and schools helps lower incidents.

Computer-assisted interviews were conducted with 4,010 California teens ages 12 to 17 to gauge health, health-related behaviors and access to healthcare among the state’s non-institutionalized population. The seven-month process included the availability of interviews in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese, and subjects were drawn from the adolescent portion of the 2003 California Health Interview Survey.

“Our findings tell us that it’s unlikely that traditional cookie-cutter violence-prevention programs will be effective for everyone,” said Dr. Rashmi Shetgiri, instructor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern and lead author of a new study.

Currently statistics reveal that teen violence is a prevalent problem across the U.S. with one in three high-school students involved in fighting. Homicide is also the second-leading cause of death among teens and young adults.

Factors of daily life can contribute to teen violence including destructive behaviors like drug abuse, drinking or high-risk sexual encounters, poverty, academic troubles and depression.

By narrowing in on specific populations, researchers were able to identify Caucasian and Latino teens at higher risk of violence if they smoked or consumed alcohol. African-Americans were found to be at higher risk if they lived below the poverty threshold.

The findings were also the first to suggest that depression may increase risk in Latino teens—an important observation since prior studies suggest that this population has higher rates of depression than other groups.

“Our study didn’t examine why depression might lead to increased fighting among Latinos, but it showed that this mental-health disorder was a significant risk factor among both Latino boys and girls,” Shetgiri said.

Latino youth said in the interviews that if there was perceived support from at least one person at their school, they would be less likely to engage in violence. In the same way, Caucasian adolescents noted less risk if there was perceived support from family members.

“We didn’t find distinctive protective factors for African-American kids, but there were trends toward both family and school support being potentially important,” Shetgiri said.

While the study focused on California youth, Shetgiri suggested that the findings could be extrapolated nationally.

“The data set reflects the kind of racial/ethnic diversity of a lot of urban populations throughout the country, particularly in terms of the increasing Latino population,” she said.

She added that while the way adolescents perceive support varies, those who were expected to succeed were less likely to fight. “Expecting them to be successful, expecting that they’re going to do a good job, could play a very important role in preventing fighting,” Dr. Shetgiri said.

The next step, Dr. Shetgiri said, is to complete focus-group studies with North Texas teens to identify factors that influence fighting from the teens’ perspectives as well as which interventions would be most acceptable and feasible.

The study is available online and in the September/October issue of Academic Pediatrics.

Source: UT Southwestern Medical Center