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March 29, 2005

The Decline in Violent Behavior Among Adolescents in the 1990’s: Clinton or Doom?

A colleague, Bill Harbaugh, is an expert in how children learn to make economic decisions. If you haven’t seen Bill’s research, I highly recommend that you take a look at it. He is an experimentalist and he has some really interesting papers on bargaining behavior in children, how risk attitudes and consumption choices change with age, economic experiments you can perform at home on your children, the development of rational choice behavior in children, and so on. In addition, he also does research on the economics of altruism and he has some interesting papers in this area as well. Here is Bill's brain:

Bill told me about a link to data illustrating one of the hidden stories of the 1990’s, the broad improvement in children’s security during the Clinton administration and, so far, continuing into the Bush administration. This story, which is potentially good news for the Democrats in the battle between the parties over family values, has not received the attention it deserves. Consider the following graphs from Child Trends, an organization that is a “a 26-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to improving the lives of children by conducting research and providing science-based information to improve the decisions, programs, and policies that affect children and their families.” First, here is a graph showing the decline in the percentage of high school students who report carrying weapons:

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Next is a graph showing the decline in percentage of students fearing attack at school:

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The third graph shows the violent crime victimization rate for adolescents. The rate increases in the mid to late 1980's, then begins falling sharply in the early 1990's:

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And finally, a graph showing homicides, suicides, and firearm related deaths for youth aged 15-19 from 1970-2002. This graph shows a large increase in homicide and firearm related death rates in the late 1980’s and an equally dramatic decline beginning in the early 1990’s echoing the pattern in the previous graph:

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Was it the policies of the Clinton administration that brought about the improvement in outcomes for teens, or was it something else? As Bill notes:
There is no agreement about the causes of these improvements - and a lot of reluctance to admit that life for teenagers is actually getting better. But the trends are pretty dramatic. Suggestions for what is behind the improvement in outcomes range from smaller families, people waiting until they are older and better prepared to raise children, or the abortion of unwanted children - the ones who tended to get in trouble in the past. But no one with any familiarity with popular culture can ignore the explosion in sales of violent video games that occurs at the same time violent behavior by teenage boys starts to decrease. Is this just coincidence? While people are very comfortable with the idea that basketball and football keep boy's violent impulses under control, they have a hard time thinking about Doom and Quake in the same way. It's hard to see why video games shouldn't work at least as well as sports though. While only a few children win in real life sports tournaments, in video games the difficulty of the contest is automatically adjusted by the software. Everyone human can win, and experience the satisfaction of winning. The only losers in video games are software androids.
So encourage your kids to play video games long and often and get all that aggression out. You won’t be sorry you did. At least we hope not. [Update: The day after this was posted, the AP ran the story "Children today doing better than parents were" with the sub-title "Kids engaging in less risky behavior, but still eating too much" which makes similar points about the improvement in children's well-being, but adds that they have also become more obese.]

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