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America's Children in Brief: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2018

Exposure to Violence

Research shows that children's exposure to violence, whether as victims or witnesses, can have adverse consequences for normal and healthy development, including physical and mental health problems, poor academic performance, and delinquent and antisocial behavior.23 Studies have also found that the cumulative effect of repeated exposures to multiple forms of violence is especially harmful.24

Many studies and surveys of children's exposure to violence concentrate on specific forms of violence in limited settings, omit the experiences of younger children, or cover only victimizations that are reported in official records. The measure used here addresses some of these challenges by including exposure to a range of violence, crime, and abuse among children of all ages. Measuring exposure to violence comprehensively across the settings of home, school, and community is important for defining and tracking the extent of the problem and for specifying how different forms of exposure to violence, crime, and abuse co-occur.

The specific types of violence experienced by children can be examined as aggregate categories, including any physical assault, any sexual victimization, any maltreatment, any property crime, and any witnessed violence, but it is not uncommon for children to be exposed to more than one type.25, 26 It is also important to estimate the extent to which children have been exposed to violence, crime, and abuse during the past year and in their lifetimes.

Figure 6: Percentage of children ages 0–17 with past-year and lifetime exposure to categories of violence, crime, and abuse, 2014
Percentage of children ages 0–17 with past-year and lifetime exposure to categories of violence, crime, and abuse, 2014

NOTE: Physical assault in this figure includes any use of physical force with the intent to cause pain or harm, with or without a weapon. It also includes kidnapping and bias attacks. It excludes threats, physical intimidation, relational aggression, and Internet harassment. Sexual victimization includes sexual assault by known/unknown adult, victimization by peer/sibling, forced sex, exposure or "flashing," sexual harassment, and statutory rape/sexual misconduct. Child maltreatment includes physical or emotional abuse by caregiver, neglect, and custodial interference/family abduction. Property crime in this survey includes robbery, theft/larceny, and vandalism. Witnessing violence includes any direct witnessing of family or community violence. It excludes indirect exposure to violence, crime, and abuse.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence.

  • During the past year, more than one-third of all children (37 percent) experienced a physical assault and 5 percent had been sexually victimized.
  • Fifteen percent of children experienced child maltreatment during the past year, which includes physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and custodial interference or family abduction.
  • More than one-quarter of all children were victims of property crimes during the past year.
  • One-quarter of all children had witnessed violence in the past year in the family or in the community.
  • Lifetime exposure to major categories of violence for all children in 2014 was 8 percent for any sexual victimization, 25 percent for any maltreatment, 41 percent for any property crime, and 51 percent for any physical assault. During their lifetimes, 38 percent witnessed any violence.

table icon BRIEF6 HTML Table

23 Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, R., Hamby, S., & Kracke, K. (2009). Children's exposure to violence: A comprehensive national survey (Juvenile Justice Bulletin – NCJ 227744). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

24 Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Hamby, S., & Ormrod, R. (2011). Polyvictimization: Multiple exposures to violence in a national sample of children (Juvenile Justice Bulletin – NCJ 235504). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

25 Note that rates for certain categories of exposure to violence, crime, and abuse in the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence vary from related victimization estimates presented in the America's Children report due to its focus on self-report information, to definitional differences in domain areas and victimization types, included age groups, time frames, and settings.

26 Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Shattuck, A., & Hamby, S. (2015). Prevalence of childhood exposure to violence, crime, and abuse: Results from the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence. JAMA Pediatrics, 169(8), 746–754.