How criminal activity near home affects children

Research shows impact neighborhood crime has on child

By Aaron Wische - Senior Executive Producer, Lauren Freeman - Anchor

HOUSTON - The numbers are sobering. According to the FBI, there were 1.2 million violent crimes in the United States in 2016 -- up more than 4 percent over the previous year.

Violence is unsettling for children, whether they witnessed the crime or not.

Emma Adam is a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, studying the impacts of neighborhood crime on preteens' and teens' academic performance.

"How did that violence that they're exposed to get under the skin (and) into the brain to affect performance?" Adam asked.

Adam tracked the stress level and sleep of 82 urban public school students. Researchers tested the students' saliva for the stress hormone cortisol. Students also wore special watches that recorded daily activity levels, including sleep.

"We thought perhaps the violent crime was affecting children's sleep, which in turn may be affecting performance," Adam said.

Using police reports, researchers compared students' sleep and stress levels on nights with violent crime in the neighborhood against a night with no crime reported. They found kids got less sleep when there was neighborhood crime and their cortisol levels were higher the next morning.

"The other interesting thing we found was the more violent the nature of the crime, the larger the effects," Adam said.

Adam said stress and sleep are both influenced by how safe a child feels. Parents can reduce the effects of neighborhood crime by protecting kids from the details of the crime. At home, expressing love and support increases feelings of safety. Also, keeping a regular bedtime is important for helping kids fall asleep, even for teens.

Adam and her colleagues are starting a new study with a larger sample of about 300 kids. She said one of the goals is to measure more of the factors that might buffer kids from the negative impact of crime.

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