Researchers Find Violence Is Prevalent in the Lives of Rural Youth

A young woman standing in a field.

"'Constant Violence From Everywhere’: Psychodynamics of Power and Abuse Amongst Rural and Small-Town Youth" (abstract). Robin A. Robinson, Judith A. Ryder. Critical Criminology, Vol. 22, No. 4 (November 2014).

What it’s about: Researchers conducted focus groups with youth and youth-serving professionals in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  While this study captures a qualitative snapshot of experiences of violence in just one rural community, the authors write that the characteristics of Cape Cod mirror those of other rural areas across the United States, such as "constrained educational and family-supporting resources, limited health services, especially mental health resources, limited recreational outlets and jobs for youth, and disproportionate numbers of court-involved youth." Youth were 18 to 20 years old and were diverse in terms of gender and sexual orientation, school attendance, relationship status, whether they lived with their parents or not, whether they had housing or were homeless, and whether they had perpetrated, experienced or witnessed violence.

The researchers sought to understand what they call “youth relational violence” by looking at how youth experience violence in their everyday lives.

Why read it: Rural youth are an under-researched and under-served population. Programs and studies addressing violence among rural youth are few. This study seeks to provide a starting point for developing such programs, taking into account that the way young people experience intimate partner violence may differ greatly from the way adults do.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Youth described a web of violence that spanned all social domains, the authors write, including home, school, work, social media and the greater community. Youth had experienced diverse types of violence including intimate partner violence, rape, bullying, peer-to-peer violence at school and elsewhere, family violence, racism, workplace sexual harassment, and homophobia. The unique stresses of rural life – geographic isolation, economic hardship, a lack of employment and recreational opportunities, a lack of social services and limited transportation options – further exacerbate rural youths’ vulnerability to violence perpetration and victimization, the authors say.

Here are some of the authors’ findings:

Violence at school is common. One student reported that tensions ran high between students regarding issues such as relationships and drugs: “… people kill each other over that. It’s ridiculous. I don’t understand it but I’ve witnessed it. I’ve been there. I’ve fought people over stupid things … When you are in an environment like that and you’re used to that that’s just how you lash out on people.”

Violence at home is common. Young people who experience violence at home may choose homelessness as their safest option, but rural communities may offer few housing options for unaccompanied youth. One study participant noticed that his own aggression had been triggered by abuse he experienced in his family. He said he left home so he could change his behavior. He “was working a minimum wage job nights and weekends, living in his van, and attending high school days, determined to finish,” the authors write.

There are few safe places for youth to connect. Youth in the study went to great lengths to connect with peers, even if the relationships, activities or the travel necessary to meet up with peers were unsafe. It was not uncommon to travel 30 minutes to see a friend; one participant said she rode her bicycle 5 miles along dark, empty country roads to get together with a friend. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth, had it especially hard finding nearby LGBTQ youth with whom to connect.

In conclusion, the authors say combating the violence to which youth in rural Massachusetts and other similar communities may be exposed requires improved access to affordable housing, health and mental health resources, sexual health and safety at school, public transportation, healthy recreation, safe social gatherings, and jobs.

Additional references: Visit the NCFY library to learn more about violence among youth who live in rural communities. Check out NCFY’s resource roundup on community violence prevention to learn about ways you can address various types of youth relational violence. Read about the CDC’s framework for multilevel violence prevention.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.


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