Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 44, Issue 1, pp 75–86 | Cite as

Emotional Desensitization to Violence Contributes to Adolescents’ Violent Behavior

  • Sylvie MrugEmail author
  • Anjana Madan
  • Michael Windle


Many adolescents are exposed to violence in their schools, communities and homes. Exposure to violence at high levels or across multiple contexts has been linked with emotional desensitization, indicated by low levels of internalizing symptoms. However, the long-term consequences of such desensitization are unknown. This study examined emotional desensitization to violence, together with externalizing problems, as mediators of the relationship between exposure to violence in pre-adolescence and violent behavior in late adolescence. A community sample of youth (N = 704; 48 % female; 76 % African American, 22 % Caucasian) reported on their exposure to violence in multiple settings at ages 11, 13 and 18. Internalizing and externalizing problems were assessed at ages 11 and 13; violent behavior was measured at age 18. Structural Equation Modeling showed that exposure to high levels of violence at age 11 was associated with lower levels of internalizing problems (quadratic effect) at age 13, as was exposure to violence across multiple contexts (linear effect). In turn, fewer internalizing problems and more externalizing problems at age 13 predicted more violent behavior at age 18. The results suggest that emotional desensitization to violence in early adolescence contributes to serious violence in late adolescence.


Exposure to violence Desensitization Internalizing problems Externalizing problems 



This research was supported by grants K01DA024700 and R01MH098348 from the National Institutes of Health to the first author and grant R49-CCR418569 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the third author.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Aber, J. L., Brown, J. L., & Jones, S. M. (2003). Developmental trajectories toward violence in middle childhood: course, demographic differences, and response to school-based intervention. Developmental Psychology, 39, 324–348.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Allwood, M. A., & Bell, D. J. (2008). A preliminary examination of emotional and cognitive mediators in the relations between violence exposure and violent behaviors in youth. Journal of Community Psychology, 36, 989–1007.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., & Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 151–173.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bartholow, B. D., Bushman, B. J., & Sestir, M. A. (2006). Chronic violent video game exposure and desensitization to violence: behavioral and event-related brain potential data. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 532–539.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Beyers, J. M., & Loeber, R. (2003). Untangling developmental relations between depressed mood and delinquency in male adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 31, 247.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Boxer, P., Morris, A. S., Terranova, A. M., Kithakye, M., Savoy, S. C., & McFaul, A. F. (2008). Coping with exposure to violence: relations to emotional symptoms and aggression in three urban samples. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 17, 881–893.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bradshaw, C. P., Rodgers, C. R. R., Ghandour, L. A., & Garbarino, J. (2009). Social-cognitive mediators of the association between community violence exposure and aggressive behavior. School Psychology Quarterly, 24, 199–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brook, D. W., Brook, J. S., Rubenstone, E., Zhang, C., & Saar, N. S. (2011). Developmental associations between externalizing behaviors, peer delinquency, drug use, perceived neighborhood crime, and violent behavior in urban communities. Aggressive Behavior, 37, 349–61.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bushman, B., & Anderson, C. (2009). Comfortably numb: desensitizing effects of violent media on helping others. Psychological Science, 20, 273–277.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Census Bureau, U. S. (2004). 2000 census of population and housing, population and housing unit counts PHC-3-1, United States summary. Washington: Author.Google Scholar
  11. Cooley-Quille, M., Boyd, R. C., Frantz, E., & Walsh, J. (2001). Emotional and behavioral impact of exposure to community violence in inner-city adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 30, 199–206.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Crouch, J. L., Hanson, R. F., Saunders, B. E., Kilpatrick, D. G., & Resnick, H. S. (2000). Income, race/ethnicity, and exposure to violence in youth: results from the National Survey of Adolescents. Journal of Community Psychology, 28, 625–641.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Davis, T., Ammons, C., Dahl, A., & Kliewer, W. (2015). Community violence exposure and callous-unemotional traits in adolescents: testing parental support as a promotive versus protective factor. Personality and Individual Differences, 77, 7–12.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Elliott, D. S., Huizinga, D., & Ageton, S. S. (1985). Explaining delinquency and drug use. Beverly Hills: Sage.Google Scholar
  15. Engelhardt, C. R., Bartholow, B. D., Kerr, G. T., & Bushman, B. J. (2011). This is your brain on violent video games: neural desensitization to violence predicts increased aggression following violent video game exposure. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1033–1036.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fanti, K. A., & Avraamides, M. N. (2011). Desensitization to media violence. In M. Paludi (Ed.), The psychology of teen violence and victimization (pp. 121–133). Santa Barbara: Praeger.Google Scholar
  17. Fanti, K. A., Vanman, E., Henrich, C. C., & Avraamides, M. N. (2009). Desensitization to media violence over a short period of time. Aggressive Behavior, 35, 179–187.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Farrell, A. D., & Bruce, S. E. (1997). Impact of exposure to community violence on violent behavior and emotional distress among urban adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 26, 2–14.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R. K., & Turner, H. A. (2007). Polyvictimization: a neglected component in child victimization. Child Abuse and Neglect, 31, 7–16.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Finkelhor, D., Turner, H. A., Shattuck, A., & Hamby, S. L. (2013). Violence, crime, and abuse exposure in a national sample of children and youth: an update. JAMA Pediatrics, 167, 614–21.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Flannery, D., Wester, K., & Singer, M. (2004). Impact of violence exposure at school on child mental health and violent behavior. Journal of Community Psychology, 32, 559–574.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fowler, P. J., Tompsett, C. J., Braciszewski, J. M., Jacques-Tiura, A. J., & Baltes, B. B. (2009). Community violence: a meta-analysis on the effect of exposure and mental health outcomes of children and adolescents. Development and Psychopathology, 21, 227–259.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Frick, P. J. (2006). Developmental pathways to conduct disorder. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 15, 311–331.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Frick, P. J., & Dickens, C. (2006). Current perspectives on conduct disorder. Current Psychiatry Reports, 8, 59–72.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Funk, J. B., Baldacci, H. B., Pasold, T., & Baumgardner, J. (2004). Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the internet: is there desensitization? Journal of Adolescence, 27, 23–29.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gaylord-Harden, N. K., Cunningham, J. A., & Zelencik, B. (2011). Effects of exposure to community violence on internalizing symptoms: does desensitization to violence occur in African American youth? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 39, 711–719.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Guerra, N. G., Huesmann, L. R., & Spindler, A. (2003). Community violence exposure, social cognition, and aggression among urban elementary school children. Child Development, 74, 1561–1576.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Howard, A. L., Kimonis, E. R., Munoz, L. C., & Frick, P. J. (2012). Violence exposure mediates the relation between callous-unemotional traits and offending patterns in adolescents. Journal of Child Abnormal Psychology, 40, 1237–1247.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Huesmann, L. R. (2007). The impact of electronic media violence: scientific theory and research. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41, S6–13.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kazdin, A. E., Rodgers, A., & Colbus, D. (1986). The hopelessness scale for children: psychometric characteristics and concurrent validity. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 54, 241–245.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kilpatrick, D. G., Ruggiero, K. J., Acierno, R., Saunders, B. E., Resnick, H. S., & Best, C. L. (2003). Violence and risk of PTSD, major depression, substance abuse/dependence, and comorbidity: Results from the national survey of adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71, 692–700.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Leadbeater, B. J., Kuperminc, G. P., Blatt, S. J., & Hertzog, C. (1999). A multivariate model of gender differences in adolescents’ internalizing and externalizing problems. Developmental Psychology, 35, 1268–1282.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Linz, D. G., Donnerstein, E., & Penrod, S. (1988). Effects of long-term exposure to violent and sexually degrading depictions of women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55(5), 758–68.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Little, T. D., Jones, S. M., Henrich, C. C., & Hawley, P. H. (2003). Disentangling the ‘whys’ from the ‘whats’ of aggressive behavior. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 27, 122–133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Lucas, C. P., Zhang, H., Fisher, P. W., Shaffer, D., Regier, D. A., Narrow, W. E., Bourdon, K., Dulcan, M. K., Canino, G., Rubio-Stipec, M., Lahey, B. B., & Friman, P. (2001). The DISC Predictive Scales (DPS): efficiently screening for diagnoses. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40, 443–449.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Margolin, G., Vickerman, K. A., Oliver, P. H., & Gordis, E. B. (2010). Violence exposure in multiple interpersonal domains: cumulative and differential effects. Journal of Adolescent Health, 47, 198–205. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2010.01.020.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Masten, A., Roisman, G. I., Long, J. D., Burt, K. B., Obradovic, J., Riley, J. R., & Tellegen, A. (2005). Developmental cascades: linking academic achievement, externalizing and internalizing symptoms over 20 years. Developmental Psychology, 41, 733–746.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. McCart, M. R., Smith, D. W., Saunders, B. E., Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H., & Ruggiero, K. J. (2007). Do urban adolescents become desensitized to community violence? Data from a national survey. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 77, 434–442.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Molitor, F., & Hirsch, K. W. (1994). Children’s toleration of real-life aggression after exposure to media violence: a replication of the Drabman and Thomas studies. Child Study Journal, 24, 191–207.Google Scholar
  40. Mrug, S., & Windle, M. (2009). Bidirectional influences of violence exposure and adjustment in early adolescence: externalizing behaviors and school connectedness. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 37, 611–623.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Mrug, S., & Windle, M. (2010). Prospective effects of violence exposure across multiple contexts on early adolescents’ internalizing and externalizing problems. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51, 953–961.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Mrug, S., Loosier, P. S., & Windle, M. (2008). Violence exposure across multiple contexts: individual and joint effects on adjustment. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78, 70–84.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Mrug, S., Madan, A., Cook, E.W., & Wright, R.A. (2014). Emotional and physiological desensitization to real-life and movie violence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. doi: 10.1007/s10964-014-0202-z.
  44. Mullin, C. R., & Linz, D. (1995). Desensitization and resensitization to violence against women: effects of exposure to sexually violent films on judgments of domestic violence victims. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(3), 449–459.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Ng-Mak, D. S., Salzinger, S., Feldman, R., & Stueve, A. (2002). Normalization of violence among inner-city youth: a formulation for research. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 72, 92–101.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Ng-Mak, D. S., Salzinger, S., Feldman, R. S., & Stueve, C. A. (2004). Pathologic adaptation to community violence among inner-city youth. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 74, 196–208.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Preacher, K. J., & Hayes, A. F. (2008). Asymptotic and resampling strategies for assessing and comparing indirect effects in multiple mediator models. Behavior Research Methods, 40, 879–891.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Rankin, C. H., Abrams, T., Barry, R. J., Bhatnagar, S., Clayton, D. F., Colombo, J., Coppola, G., Geyer, M. A., Glanzman, D. L., Marsland, S., McSweeney, F. K., Wilson, D. A., Wu, C. F., & Thompson, R. F. (2009). Habituation revisited: an updated and revised description of the behavioral characteristics of habituation. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 92, 135–138.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Reynolds, C. R., & Richmond, B. O. (1997). What I think and feel: a revised measure of children’s manifest anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 25, 15–20.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Rosenfield, D., Jouriles, E. N., McDonald, R., & Mueller, V. (2014). Interparental conflict, community violence, and child problems: Making sense of counterintuitive findings. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84, 275–283.PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Sams, D. P., & Truscott, S. D. (2004). Empathy, exposure to community violence and use of violence among urban, at risk adolescents. Child & Youth Care Forum, 33, 33–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Schwartz, D., & Proctor, L. J. (2000). Community violence exposure and children’s social adjustment in the school peer group: the mediating roles of emotion regulation and social cognition. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68(4), 670–683.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Stein, B. D., Jaycox, L. H., Kataoka, S., Rhodes, H. J., & Vestal, K. D. (2003). Prevalence of child and adolescent exposure to community violence. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 6, 247–264.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Su, W., Mrug, S., & Windle, M. (2010). Social cognitive and emotional mediators link violence exposure and parental nurturance to adolescent aggression. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 39, 814–824.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Thornberry, T. P., & Krohn, M. D. (2000). The self-report method of measuring delinquency and crime. Measurement and Analysis of Crime and Justice: Criminal Justice Series, 4, 33–83.Google Scholar
  56. Wiesner, M. (2003). A longitudinal latent variable analysis of reciprocal relations between depressive symptoms and delinquency during adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 112, 633–645.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Wilson, H. W., Stover, C. S., & Berkowitz, S. J. (2009). The relationship between childhood violence exposure and juvenile antisocial behavior: a meta-analytic review. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50, 769–779.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Wothke, W. (2000). Longitudinal and multi-group modeling with missing data. In T. D. Little, K. U. Schnabel, & J. Baumert (Eds.), Modeling longitudinal and multiple group data: Practical issues, applied approaches and specific examples (pp. 219–240). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Alabama at BirminghamBirminghamUSA
  2. 2.Emory UniversityAtlantaUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of MiamiCoral GablesUSA

Personalised recommendations