x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A child's 'chain of violence' in the Syrian crisis

A study of Palestinian and Israeli children shows that regular exposure to conflict profoundly influences future behaviour, writes John Henzell.

A wounded boy is treated by a doctor in Aleppo, Syria, where the civil war is expected to have a terrible psychological impact on children.
A wounded boy is treated by a doctor in Aleppo, Syria, where the civil war is expected to have a terrible psychological impact on children.

Many say the Arab Spring took root in Syria after the detention, torture and murder by government forces of a 13-year-old boy named Hamza Al Khateeb.

He was arrested at a protest in Daraa in April last year. When he was returned to his family nearly a month later, his lifeless body bore burn marks, broken kneecaps, three gunshot wounds and mutilated genitals.

His death became an early rallying point for opponents of Bashar Al Assad's regime, who organised under the slogan "We Are All Hamza Al Khateeb". Since his death, about 2,000 more children have died as Syria has become mired in civil war.

For the children who will escape the conflict physically unscathed, questions remain about the long-term psychological impacts.

For an indication of what might be ahead for the children of Syria, one only needs to look across the border to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

A study released two months ago based on 1,500 Palestinian, Jewish-Israeli and Arab-Israeli children showed that a "chain of violence" is created when children are exposed to ethnic and political conflict. The younger the children are, the more strongly they are affected and the more aggressive they become in response.

The findings, based on peer-reviewed research funded by the US-based National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, are seen has having profound implications on how disputes become intractable.

The study involved three yearly sets of interviews with 600 Palestinian families, 451 Israeli-Jewish families and 450 Israeli-Arab families. In each group, one third were 8 years old at the time of the first round of interviews, another third were 11 and the final third were 14.

The research began in 2005, around the time of the end of the Second Intifada.

Paul Boxer, the lead author of the study, said the evidence was clear: ethnic and political violence adversely affect children, especially the very young.

"We found that over time, exposure to all kinds of violence was linked to increased aggressive behaviour among the children," said Boxer, a Rutgers University psychologist.

"We also found that these effects were strongest among the youngest age group, and that they appear to result from a chain of influence in which ethnic-political violence increases violence in families, schools and neighbourhoods, which in turn increases aggressive behaviour among children."

The exposure to violence was quantified by asking the children and their parents questions such as: how often a friend or acquaintance had been injured as a result of political or military violence; how often they had spent a long period of time in a security shelter or under curfew and how often they had witnessed actual violence.

They were also quizzed about the exposure of violence in the community that was not ethnic or political, such as violence at school and violence within the family.

Children were asked how often in the last year they had engaged in violent behaviours such as pushing, punching, hitting or choking, saying mean things, or taking others' things without asking.

They found that Palestinian children had the greatest exposure to violence, although Israeli Jews experienced more security checks and threats. Palestinian children also showed the highest levels of aggressive behaviour. Boys experienced more violence and displayed higher levels of aggression than girls.

Rowell Huesmann, the co-author of the study and a research director at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, is a veteran of several studies about the impact of violence on the young, including western children who watch violent television or movies or play violent video games.

"Violence is really like a contagious disease," he said.

"Except in one sense, it's worse. With contagious diseases, you have to be near the person in order to get it. Violence is contagious even at a distance.

"We found that late childhood was a critical period. The children who were 8 years old at the start of our study were more susceptible than older children to the effects of witnessing violence."

The results are unsettling, but not surprising. An earlier study by Huesmann based on the same study showed both Palestinian and Israeli children are being psychologically scarred.

Roughly half of all Palestinian children aged between 11 and 14 had seen other Palestinians upset or crying because someone they knew had been killed by Israelis. Nearly as many had seen in person Palestinians who were injured or dead as a result of Israeli attacks in the previous year.

The figures in reverse - of Israeli children seeing the effects on other Israelis of attacks by Palestinians - were more than one quarter and nearly 10 per cent.

Although the Palestinians' experience was worse and they were seeing "extraordinary amounts of very disturbing violence in their daily lives", Huesmann said both groups' exposure to violence was appallingly high.

"This exposure is very deleterious. It is associated with dramatic increases in post-traumatic stress symptoms and increases in aggressive behaviour directed at peers," he added.

The reaction was directed inwards, in the form of fear, anxiety, nightmares and incapacitating thoughts, or outwards, in the form of increased violence towards others.

He said the study also showed the behaviour was a reaction to what was being experienced rather than characteristics of the subjects' families.

What has happened to the children caught in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute - and is likely to happen to the children caught in the middle of Syria's civil war - is also being compared to other parts of the world associated with a culture of blood feuds.

The mindset is described as a "culture of honour", characterised by a tendency to avoid unintentional offence to others but also with a low tolerance to perceived slights by others.

Sicily, Corsica, the Basque country in the Pyrenees and Greece are examples of feuding cultures, as are the southern states of the United States.

When University of Michigan social scientists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen investigated why the southern states had significantly higher rates of violence than northern states, they did an experiment in which young men were recruited for an undisclosed task.

After having their testosterone and cortisol levels measured, they were asked to complete a questionnaire and then walk down a long, narrow hallway to submit it to a proctor, who would utter an insult under his breath as he accepted it.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell said there was only one significant difference that predicted how the young men responded.

"The deciding factor isn't how emotionally secure you are, or whether you are an intellectual or a jock, or whether you are physically imposing or not," he wrote.

"What matters … is where you're from. The young men from the northern part of the United States, for the most part, treated the incident with amusement. They laughed it off. Their handshakes were unchanged. Their levels of cortisol actually went down, as if they were unconsciously trying to defuse their own anger.

"But the southerners? Oh my. They were angry. Their cortisol and testosterone jumped. Their handshakes got firm."

The experiment went a step further. After being insulted, the subjects walked back along the narrow corridor, where they met an imposing 6 feet 3 inch man who was secretly part of the experiment. They would test how close they got to the man before stepping out of the way.

The northerners got out of the way two metres before meeting the man, whether they had been insulted or not. The southerners were more deferential if they had not been insulted, stepping aside nearly three metres away, but if he had just been insulted, they waited until they were less than 60 centimetres away.

Theories vary about why the southerners had such short fuses when insulted - one is that they were descendants of herdsmen from the lawless borderlands of the United Kingdom - but the implications for places like Syria and more widely through the Middle East is that behaviours and attitudes become entrenched and can continue to affect behaviour generations later.

And for the traumatised children of Palestine and Syria and their increased tendency to violence, that is troubling indeed.

John Henzell is a senior features writer for The National.