Lack of social skills at core of problem

What makes kids smack others and maybe grow into homicidal adults? Not the tube, says new research, but a lack of social skills.

All babies are born with violent tendencies, which most kids learn to control as they grow older, a U. of Montreal professor who has spent more than 20 years studying 35,000 Canadian children told ScientificAmerican.com. Those who don’t or can’t learn are the ones who become violent.

“It’s a natural behavior, and it’s surprising that the idea that children and adolescents learn aggression from the media is still relevant,” Richard Tremblay told the website. “Clearly youth were violent before television appeared.”

Tremblay, who is about to present his preliminary findings to Britain’s academy of sciences in London, rejects the recently renewed criticisms of media violence as behavioral influences, instead maintaining that “unexpressed” or damaged genes affecting behavioral skills are the likely culprits.

“We’re looking at to what extent the chronically aggressive individuals show differences in terms of gene expressions compared to those on the normal trajectory,” Tremblay told ScientificAmerican.com. “The individuals that are chronically aggressive have more genes that are not expressed.” This is an indication “that the problem is at a very basic level,” he added.

A pregnant woman’s smoking, drinking, poor nutrition or exposure to excessive stress can cause or contribute to a fetus’s abnormal genetic development, Tremblay said.

Damaged genes can prevent a child from learning skills for self-expression, reducing his ability to interact socially, and thus make him prone to violence. Tremblay cited genes involved with language acquisition and development as an example; children who can’t speak well get frustrated easily and can erupt violently as a result.

Pointing to other research that claims to link media violence and childhood behavior, some social conservative groups as well as child advocacy organizations have in recent months urged Congress to take action against media violence, particularly violent TV programming and videogames. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has promised to introduce legislation that would regulate TV violence, but has yet to do so.

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