This paper reports on a study that examined children's perceptions of the prevalence, incidence and impact of violence experienced or witnessed by them, and factors that mitigated and reduced its impact. A national survey was undertaken of New Zealand children aged 9 to 13 years, with a representative sample of 2,077 children from 28 randomly selected schools of various sizes, geographic areas and socio-economic neighbourhoods. A questionnaire was developed for children to report the nature and extent of physical, sexual and emotional violence (including bullying) experienced at home, school and in the community. To assess the impact of this violence, as well as children's perceptions of school, their coping experiences and the extent to which they used violence in their own interpersonal relationships, analyses of data examined frequencies, bivariate correlations, t-tests and multiple regressions. Results showed a high prevalence of physical, emotional and sexual violence. The study also examined the ethical considerations and philosophy underpinning research that involves children. Guided by Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the findings support the controversial ethical decision to adopt a passive consent procedure and demonstrated children's competence to express the ways in which violence has affected them.
Perceptions of increased rates of violence worldwide have heightened the need to understand what children think about their experiences as victims or witnesses of violence (Amaya-Jackson et al. 2000, Finkelhor et al. 2005, Garbarino 2001, Ghate 2000, Osofsky 1999, Wolfe et al. 2003). Much has been written about children and violence, but less has been written from the viewpoint of the children themselves (Mason and Falloon 2001). However, there is increasing recognition of the value of research that examines the direct experience and perceptions of children (Christensen and James 2000, Lloyd-Smith and Yarr 2000, Smith et al. 2000). The meanings that children attach to their experiences are not necessarily those shared by adults because their conceptions are informed by the impact these events have on them rather than by legislation or research (Lloyd-Smith and Tarr 2000, Maxwell and Carroll-Lind 1998). As argued by Anderson et al. 1994:
... it is only through trying to understand young people's own views of their experiences as victims and witnesses that we can confront the problem in a way that is meaningful and acceptable to them: that is, in a manner which recognises both the reality of those experiences and the legitimacy of their strategies for dealing with them. (p. 66) Consideration of children's expressed experiences of violence is consistent with Article 12 of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC). Article 12 acknowledges that children are people who have a right to be heard, and it underscores the importance of children having opportunities to express their feelings and views. Therefore, guided by Article 12, this study (Carroll-Lind 2006) aimed to examine children's perceptions of the prevalence, incidence and impact of violence experienced or witnessed by them, and to explore the factors that might mitigate or reduce its impact.
A national survey was undertaken of New Zealand children aged 9 to 13 years, with a representative sample of 2,077 children from 28 randomly selected schools of various sizes, geographic areas and socio-economic neighbourhoods. Using the passive consent procedure (2) facilitated the right of children to report on their experiences of violence. The Ethics Committee carefully weighed and gave credence to the issue of children's rights to protection, and acknowledged and confirmed Article 12 of the UNCROC that grants children the right to speak on matters that concern them. Active consent could have compromised both of these rights. The view was held that protecting the rights of children was more important than parental rights to privacy regarding abuse in the home. As Perry (1997) suggests, violence and abuse are not private issues; they are social issues. The choice of a passive consent procedure proved to be effective in obtaining a high participation rate (93% overall) and enabled children the right to choose for themselves whether or not they wanted to participate.
A questionnaire, Children's Experiences of Violence (CEVQ) was developed for children to report their perceptions of the nature, extent and impact of physical, sexual and emotional violence (including bullying) within the context of their own environments (home, school and the community). The questionnaire was also used to gather data on children's perceptions of their coping experiences, the characteristics of their schools, and the extent to which they used violence in their own interpersonal relationships. Analyses of the data examined frequencies, bivariate correlations, t-tests and multiple regressions. Qualitative data are also included in the form of quotes to describe the children's experiences. The quotes support the quantitative data and help to extend understanding of the violent events experienced by the children.
First, the data were analysed to reveal the number of children who had ever been victimised (prevalence) and the number of violent or traumatic incidents that had happened to them within the last year (incidence). The types of violence experienced by the children are categorised as physical, sexual or emotional (which, if it happened at school, could also be defined as bullying).
Not all 2,077 participants answered every question. It was emphasised to each group of students before they began that they did not have to answer any questions they did not want to. In other cases they did not need to answer each question. For example, if children answered: "No it has never happened to me", then the following questions: How often did it happen?; Who did it?; How bad was it?; were not applicable. So because the numbers of respondents vary for each question, percentages are based on the number of students who answered each particular question.
Examining prevalence extends understanding of how common and widespread children's experiences of violence are and provides an estimate of the extent to which these forms of violence may occur in New Zealand. The participating children were asked whether or not they had either directly or indirectly experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence at some time in their lives. Children were asked whether, within the past year, the violence happened to them and whether they had witnessed violence against others. The latter are events in which the violence was not directed at them, but was directed at others in their presence (e.g. family members, friends, peers, or others within their own communities). The children were also asked about their exposure to violence in the media, such as television, videos and movies.
To determine incidence rates, children who reported experiences of either physical, sexual or emotional violence were asked to indicate in the frequency ("ever happened") columns how many times they had experienced this form of direct or indirect violence within the last year. For example, if they had experienced two events, they wrote "2" in this column. If it had happened to them more than 10 times within the last year, they wrote "L", meaning "lots", in this same column to indicate their high number of experiences involving that particular form of violence.
The data, by their very nature, are skewed because the number of students who reported no direct or indirect involvement varied according to the type of violence (physical, sexual or emotional). For example, many children had not experienced any form of sexual violence. Rather than reporting the measures of central tendency, where the real average of the children who experienced violence will be deflated, the results for all single-response answers are presented as frequencies and valid percentages.
The participating children were asked whether or not they had ever experienced a variety of events that were or might have been harmful to them, and in particular, their experiences of direct and indirect physical, emotional and sexual violence. Their violent experiences were categorised according to: "Who did it?" (that is, whether the violence was committed by an adult or another child); "Where did it happen?" (whether the events occurred at home, school or in the community), and whether the events had "happened since Christmas" (that is, within the last year). The children rated the impact of these events on their lives.
This paper only reports on the children who said they had been exposed to some form of violence. The results showed high prevalence rates of physical, sexual and emotional violence experienced by New Zealand children within their homes, schools and communities.
In the questionnaire, physical violence was defined as "being...