Academic journal article Adolescence

Sociology and Psychology

Academic journal article Adolescence

Sociology and Psychology

Article excerpt


This paper is the second part of a review of the phenomenology of movie portrayals of juvenile delinquency, the first part having described the epidemiology and criminology of the content of such films (Snyder, 1995).

The historical significance of movies as both a visual representation and causative factor in juvenile delinquency is significant. Movies (and other forms of visual media often depict a high-consumption lifestyle that is largely unattainable for most youth. The quick pacing and rapid, up-tempo montages produce a visual experience of constant stimulation, and may induce a gap between media-fueled expectations of material gratification and experience that fails to meet them (Gitlin, 1990). Youth, especially delinquent youth from deprived backgrounds, may be especially sensitized to such influences. Shoplifting, auto theft, and petty larceny, for example, may represent ways delinquent youth attempt to bridge the gap.

Movies and other media may serve as control systems for the working through of psychological and social conflicts. Youthful audiences may experience and transact their inner conflicts, desires, and fears within the managed forms of the motion picture. The star system developed as a crucial element, joining the movies and their youthful audiences to the consumer, pleasure-seeking society (Ewen, 1988). The stars have become part of a media-fueled fantasy world, by which youthful audiences can indulge in the panoply of contemporary American culture.

But such potentially positive aspects of the motion picture experience may be counterbalanced by its proclivity to psychologically damage today's youth. The significant influence on youth, and delinquents in particular, may be understood through the concept of social learning theory, which proposes that repeated exposure to almost any type of stimulus tends to induce positive feelings toward it. Bandura (1986) suggested that aggression is learned primarily through imitation (modeling) and sustained through various forms of intermittent reinforcement. He felt that visual media were especially influential since they (1) taught actual methods of aggression, (2) often showed few of the normal social restraints in expressing aggression, (3) desensitized viewers to violence through repeated exposure, and (4) taught methods of rationalizing and excusing personal responsibility for aggression. Other aberrant behaviors of youthful offenders may be modeled in similar ways.


The empirical research in the area of the personality of the juvenile delinquent is some of the most extensive in all of psychiatry and psychology. In reviewing the literature, one of the few consistent findings is that delinquents score higher on measurements of psychopathy (Arbuthnot et al., 1987).

Quay (1987) has proposed that delinquents can be divided into four identifiable subgroups. He found that the vast majority of factor-analytic studies also identified four major underlying dimensions associated with delinquency.

The first subgroup is known as the undersocialized aggressive delinquent, characterized as assaultive, disobedient, destructive, disloyal, boisterous, and with a lack of concern for others. In addition, this subgroup is resistant to change, causes great difficulty for society, and has the most guarded prognosis for adult adjustment. Movie examples of this subtype include Bad Boys (1983), Knock on Any Door (1949), and Rumble Fish (1983). This subgroup is also seen in the brutal reenactment of the Charles Starkweather-Carol Fugate murder spree through the midwest in 1958, which was the theme of the movie Badlands (1974). The Starkweather character is portrayed as a social reject who kills innocent people out of boredom.

The second subgroup is the socialized aggressive delinquent. These delinquents are involved in group stealing, associate with bad companions, are loyal to delinquent friends, are truant, and frequently stay out late at night. These patterns account for between 42% and 62% of institutional delinquent populations. An illustration of this subgroup is found in The Wanderers (1979), which examined the rivalry between various ethnic street gangs in the Bronx. The controversial film The Warriors (1979) portrayed the plight of a Coney Island gang which had been falsely accused of murdering a charismatic gang leader. Other examples are found in A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Lords of Flat-bush (1974), Tuff Turf (1985), and Colors (1988).

The attention-deficit subgroup is characterized by delinquents who are preoccupied, daydream, have a short attention span, and are sluggish and impulsive. The character of Plato in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Horowitz of Bad Boys are representative examples.

The fourth group is known as the anxiety-withdrawal-dysphoria group. These youths are shy, hypersensitive, socially withdrawn, anxious, and sad. Delinquent acts such as chronic truancy from school and home could be precipitated by a need to escape situations which induce anxiety. These latter two nonaggressive subgroups may account for anywhere between 38 to 58% of the delinquent population. East of Eden (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause provide the quintessential examples of the complex delinquent who is preoccupied and aloof, shy and hypersensitive, yet seemingly independent and superficially self-reliant.


Some investigators have proposed a causal link between low self-esteem and a proclivity toward delinquent behavior (Kaplan, 1980). However, the predominant opinion is that the association between self-esteem and delinquency may result from their conjoint association with third variables (e.g., I.Q., family relations, school performance, and personal success or failure). Diminished self-esteem may result as much from delinquent behavior as cause it. But there is no question that regardless of causality factors, self-concepts of juvenile delinquents are lower than those of nondelinquents and are important to understanding the personality of the delinquent (Henggeler, 1989).

An early example how low self-esteem can contribute to delinquency was depicted in Are These Our Children? (1931). This movie presented the story of Eddie Brand, a lower-middle-class teenager from a broken home who initially becomes delinquent and then a killer. His plunge into crime began after he failed to win a debating contest at school. He is emotionally shattered and believes the only way he can become famous is through criminal activity.

The lonely, isolated character of Cal Trask is presented in the film East of Eden. His mother abandoned him as a child so that she could pursue her own interests, eventually becoming the town madam. His self-esteem was further damaged by his rejecting father, who much preferred his twin brother. Cal was devastated by the rejection of both parents and his self-righteous twin brother, but he was able to show his despair and alienation openly and without shame.

Delinquents have consistently been shown to believe that they have little control over their destiny. Poor personality integration and low inner strength resulting in problems dealing with external pressures and frustration, pervasive tension, dissonance, and discomfort, and a significant discrepancy between their self-view and how they are seen by parents or teachers (with the latter usually more critical), also characterize the delinquent. The "esteem enhancement" model proposes that delinquency is an adaptive or defensive response to such impaired self-esteem. The delinquent derives enhanced self-regard from his aberrant behaviors.

This theory is depicted in Rebel Without a Cause. The three principal characters all suffer from extremely low self-esteem. Jim Stark is the brooding, alienated central figure who protects himself with a veneer of toughness and indifference. "If I didn't have one day when I didn't have to feel all confused and didn't have to feel I was ashamed of everything, if I felt I belonged somewhere, "Jim explains. He first meets Judy at the police station's juvenile division. She has been detained for violation of curfew. Her father fails to recognize her need for love and affection and rejects her budding sexuality, while her mother is distant and superficial. She desperately seeks males to bolster her fragile self-esteem. Plato is the most unstable of the three. His parents have essentially deserted him and he becomes a lonely social outcast with being cruel to animals as one of his favorite pastimes.

Immediate Gratification and Sensation Seeking

It has often been assumed that delinquents are very present-oriented; with an impulsive need for immediate gratification and little regard for future consequences (Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985). Although research in this area is not definitive, the literature as a whole has noted that delinquents prefer immediate versus delayed gratification. One consistent finding has been the wishful thinking phenomenon (i.e., delinquents have shorter perspectives but also have highly positive views of their future (Landau, 1975).

Farley and Sewell (1976) proposed that the delinquent has a partially physiologically based arousal deficit which induces an exaggerated need for stimulation. An environment which does not provide sufficiently stimulating and socially acceptable experiences will lead high-stimulus seekers into antisocial behaviors. Research has shown a modest association between sensation seeking and delinquency. White youths seem to be especially prone to sensation seeking, irrespective of delinquency status (Karoly, 1975).

Desire for immediate gratification and a compulsive need to avoid boredom were exemplified in The Wild One (1954), the prototype of the motorcycle gang movies. Johnny requires constant stimulation. "We're just gonna go," he proclaims, "the idea is to have a ball." This movie presaged a whole generation of motorcycle movies such as Hot Rod Gang (1958), The Wild Angels (1966), and reached its artistic peak with Easy Rider (1969). More contemporary examples of sensation seeking can be found in Less Than Zero (1987), and Lost Angels (1989).

In Easy Rider, the main characters proceed on a cross-country odyssey financed by an illegal cocaine transaction. Symbolically they throw away their wristwatches at the beginning of the trip, signifying their spontaneity and lack of responsibility. Their own view of time is summarized in such dialogue as "You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud."

Alex, in A Clockwork Orange (1971), portrays the sadistic, violent leader of a small gang in futuristic England. His entire life is a self-indulgent pursuit of immediate pleasure through violence and sex. Sensation seeking is also exemplified by the famous "chicken run" scene from Rebel Without a Cause. This rite of passage consists of racing cars toward a cliff, with whomever jumps out of their vehicle first being the "chicken."

Locus of Control

Rotter (1966) proposed that individuals could be categorized as having an external or internal locus of control. Those with an external locus of control perceive events as being caused by such factors as luck, fate, powerful other people, and chance; those who feel personal control over their life have an internal locus of control. It has been suggested that delinquents have a much greater tendency toward an external loss of control.

There are numerous film examples of this issue. The teenage lovers in China Girl (1987) are caught between two rival gangs and are depicted as helpless to escape their environment. The "Greasers" of The Outsiders (1983) see themselves as trapped in their environment and resign themselves to never achieving the social status of their middle-class gang rivals, the "Socs." Nick of Knock on Any Door (1949) is portrayed as a victim of his environment and the relationship with his family, over which he presumably has no control.


Kohlberg (1969) proposed several stages in the development of moral reasoning. Children in Stage 1 obey authority without question and act morally to avoid consequences. Stage 2 is characterized by a minimal awareness of the needs of others, and defining as correct those behaviors which satisfy one's own needs. Those in Stage 3 feel that actions which fulfill the expectations of significant others are morally right. Gibbs (1987) proposed that Stage 2 individuals are more likely to break the law because their thinking is egocentric and pragmatic. Stage 3 individuals are more sensitive to the feelings of others, expect negative self-judgement for rule breaking, and are less inclined to engage in criminal activity. Researchers have concluded that delinquent adolescents are more likely to display Stage 1 or Stage 2 moral reasoning whereas nondelinquent youth are more often in Stage 3 (Arbuthnot et al., 1987).

Almost all the films described here depict this lack of morality in the delinquent. Some recent films which demonstrate a more subtle internal struggle over moral issues include The Outsiders (1983), Bad Boys (1983), and At Close Range (1986). These also show the youthful offender as being occasionally empathic toward others, albeit often in an ambivalent, confused way.


On an affective level, empathy reflects a sensitivity to another's needs. Its development has been considered important to the reduction of antisocial behavior (Goldstein & Glick, 1987). A delinquent may intellectually understand the plight of another while failing to react to that person's predicament on an emotional level (Arbuthnot et al., 1987). Empathy seems to be a significant factor in the reduction of aggression, although its role in reducing delinquency is less clear (Henggeler, 1989).

The sociopathic delinquent with a total disregard for the feelings of others is portrayed in such films as Badlands, Tuff Turf, and Colors. Lost Angels provides an example of disturbed adolescents who completely lack empathy.

The Family

Researchers usually have measured two broad dimensions of parent-child relations when evaluating the roles of family transactions in child psychosocial functioning. The first dimension is affective; parents may range from being accepting, responsive, and child-centered at one end of the continuum to rejecting, unresponsive, and parent-centered at the other. The second dimension is that of control strategies. Parents may range from undemanding and low in attempts to control to demanding, domineering, and restrictive (Macoby & Martin, 1983).

In numerous studies, delinquency has been shown to be associated with low levels of affection and acceptance by parents, and high levels of marital and family discord (Henggeler, 1989). An example is found in the movie Rebel Without a Cause, in which Jim Stark is plagued by a domineering, yet aloof, mother. "She eats my father alive and he takes it," he complains. He screams at his father, "She doesn't want to hear. She doesn't care." In East of Eden the protagonist is caught between a self-righteous, rigid father and a cold, deviant mother. In both films he is victimized by extremely dysfunctional parents. Plato in Rebel Without a Cause exemplified the rejected, abandoned youth who vents his rage by shooting puppies.

Snyder and Patterson (1987) in a review of the literature found that the families of delinquents used ineffectual disciplinary strategies both before and after the onset of delinquency. They also concluded that proper supervision minimizes adolescents' contact with deviant peers and allows parents to more readily intercede in their misconduct. Family adaptability (i.e., the ability of the family system to change in response to situational and developmental stress) may be either chaotic or rigid in response to delinquent behavior (Geismar & Wood, 1983). Mayor of Hell (1933) was one of the first films to present scenes of lack of parental authority, lax discipline, and parental abuse. In The Unguarded Moment (1956) the antisocial actions of a high school hero, including an attempted rape of his teacher, are explained by family discord. The divorced father of the delinquent youth hates women and believes they are "dirty" and "ought to be wiped off the face of the earth." Runaway Daughter (1957) presented parents who were either cold and aloof, divorced and unavailable, or dictatorial and overcontrolling as contributing to the delinquency of their daughters.

A very consistent finding in the literature is the association between parental criminality and delinquency. Loeber and Dislion (1983) concluded from their reviews of the literature that criminal behavior of family members was a significant predictor of male delinquency. Another study demonstrated that family normlessness and deviance were associated more strongly than even affective and family control measures with juvenile delinquency (Canter, 1982). If one assumes that parents who physically or emotionally abuse or neglect their children are deviant, there is research evidence that such behavior may contribute to delinquency (Brown, 1984).

At Close Range (1986) examines the desperate need of an adolescent boy for the love and acceptance of his father, and how destructive such family ties can be if they are perverted. Brad Jr. is attracted to a criminal life because his father approves and supports it. He assumes nothing bad will happen to him because his father is protecting him. His boredom and emptiness attract him to the seemingly exciting, albeit antisocial lifestyle of his father. He never realizes that his father is an animal driven by survival instincts who values his own life above all others including his son (Nash & Ross, 1985). This film shows how influential identification and imitation can be in forging the future delinquent; the psychopathic father provides positive reinforcement and acknowledgment of his son only when he performs criminal acts.

Broken Homes

Research suggest a modest association between broken homes and delinquency, but it is greatly reduced when self-report measurements of delinquency are used and when social class is controlled (Geismar & Wood, 1986). A consistent finding has been that adolescent deviant behavior is more likely to occur in mother-only or natural parent-stepparent homes as compared to homes with two natural parents. Youths from these homes were believed to have high rates of aberrant behaviors because they were more autonomous, less involved with their parents and susceptible to peer pressure (Kaplan, 1980). An illustration of such family influence is found in Lost Angels (1989), which deals with the wayward offspring of the rich of Los Angeles. The parents of the central character, Tim Doolan, an unsupervised, pampered youth, are portrayed as vacuous and inane. The mother and stepfather have little time or motivation for their son, and eventually hospitalize him in an institution for troubled, wealthy, youths. His biological father is vindictive, and wants to use his son to exact revenge on his ex-wife. The family is portrayed as very dysfunctional, with Tim's half-brother, Andy, portrayed as the sociopathic leader of a gang. The Outsiders (1983) and Rumble Fish (1983) are films devoid of positive adult role models. The adolescents depicted were left to fend for themselves, utilizing older siblings as role models and caretakers.

Peer Relations

The quality of peer relations is associated with the development of emotional security, self-esteem, behavioral norms, and moral values. Peer interactions can provide an arena where youth can improve their interpersonal skills through mutual exploration and feedback (Panella et al., 1982). But researchers also have observed that association with deviant peers is one of the strongest predictors of delinquent behavior.

There are several ways deviant peer relations can have a negative impact on adolescents. Modeling and social approval for delinquent acts are two of the most common processes. In Dead End (1937), Hollywood's favorite juvenile delinquents of the 1930s, The Dead End Kids, modeled themselves after the movie character Babyface Martin, a killer who had recently returned to their neighborhood. But this gangster, far from being portrayed as a romantic individualist as in other films of the era, is shown as a lonely malcontent, rejected by his mother, and disillusioned by his former neighborhood girlfriend who is now a prostitute. Nevertheless, the "Kids" consistently chose Babyface Martin as their role model (Nash & Ross, 1985). This identification and imitation illustrates how powerful group phenomena and peer pressure can be in shaping the future delinquent.

Evidence also suggests that delinquent peer relations are qualitatively similar to those of nondelinquents. Some attachments are even stronger than those of nonoffending adolescents (Henggeler, 1989). However, the majority of these findings were based upon data obtained from self-report measures. When observational methods were used, aggressive adolescents showed less positive affect and social competence when interacting with both friends and strangers as compared to well-adjusted youths (Panella & Henggeler, 1986).

An example of these peer relations can be found in The Wanderers (1979), a film chronicling the activities of a gang of Italian-American teenagers who lived in the Bronx in 1963. The gang provided a sense of family to its adolescent members who otherwise felt estranged from the world. Chronic feelings of emptiness and boredom as well as frustration over their status as social outcasts lead the gang members to bond together in periodic forays of aggression and violence. This alienation from distant or abusive parents seems to unite them and increase their camaraderie. The Lords of Flatbush (1974) depicts a tough street gang in Brooklyn in the 1950s, but its members were more interested in socializing than pillaging or vandalizing. They were very supportive of each other. Dead End (1937), The Outsiders 1983), and Less Than Zero (1987) provide other examples of the role of peer relations in the etiology of juvenile delinquency.

The School

Poor performance in school has consistently been associated with delinquency. Evidence has shown that academic competence, aspirations, and attitude are related to delinquent behavior. Within the school itself, problems in social functioning are related to delinquent behavior. A majority of dropouts left school for social rather than academic reasons, and their delinquent behaviors actually decreased. Recent research indicates that the "ecology" of the school (e.g., percentage of lower socioeconomic status students, faculty morale, and organizational structure of the school) was a greater factor in the development of delinquent behavior than individual capabilities or academic programs (Lorion et al., 1987). Since the academically unsuccessful are ridiculed or excluded from sponsored school activities such as clubs and athletics, this ostracism contributes to the alienation and subsequent delinquency of youths (Polk, 1984). Several organizational aspects of the school such as relevance of courses, consistent and fair policies, strong school principals and accessible teachers, and a rational reward system, have also been shown to be negatively associated with juvenile delinquency.

Beginning in the late 1940s, American filmmakers presented the notion that the school as a social environment, combined with the personal adjustment of the individual, contributed to student behavior. Although City Across the River (1949) was one of the first films to deal directly with the problems of youth violence in the schools with teachers as victims, The Blackboard Jungle (1955) is considered the prototype of this genre.

The Blackboard Jungle is a powerful drama about teachers' efforts to deal with juvenile delinquents in a big-city school. The violence depicted was much greater as compared to earlier film efforts. A young teacher is almost raped in the school, and the bigoted bully, Artie West, even pulls a switchblade on the idealistic teacher. This was the first motion picture to use a rock-and-roll soundtrack and introduced "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets, which would become a national theme song for adolescents. The film was extremely controversial because it was one of the first to show the problems of violence, severe behavior disorders, and aggressiveness of juvenile delinquents juxtaposed against the inadequacies and frustration of the school system in dealing with them.

The Class of 1984 (1982) is a raw, violent, and at times brutal depiction of the fight between a teacher and a delinquent gang for control of a high school. It continued the tradition of The Blackboard Jungle in an even more blunt and vulgar manner. 3:15 - The Moment of Truth (1985) and The Principal (1987) are two more recent examples of this genre.

Several movies have provided a more optimistic outlook. The forerunner of such films was To Sir With Love (1967) in which Sidney Poitier plays the part of Mark Thackeray, who accepts a teaching position at a school in the slums of London's East End. It provided a somewhat simplistic and sentimental view of how unorthodox and creative instructional techniques can transform rude, rebellious, and poorly educated youth into respectful, considerate adolescents. Thackeray earns the students' respect by being physically strong while at the same time sensitive to their needs.

Stand and Deliver (1988) also presents a more prosocial perspective. Inner-city Mexican-American youths, including some delinquents, are taught calculus by a dedicated teacher. The film demonstrated how perseverance and determination enabled a group of underpriviledged youths to complete seemingly impossible tasks, especially when they are provided with an inspirational role model. Lean On Me (1989) is another fact-based film dealing with a crusading yet controversial high school principal's efforts to resurrect Eastside High School of Patterson, New Jersey. Joe Clark is the principal who places chains on the doors of the school, paints over its graffiti-scrawled walls, expels "miscreants," and demands total control of students and faculty in order to prevent the disintegration of the school.


Since the late 19th century, there has been a trend in the U.S. toward obtaining pleasure, self-fulfillment, and immediate gratification. Wolfenstein and Leites (1950) referred to it as the "fun-morality." Enjoyment became a central measure of the American experience. Alongside the production of basic goods, public fascination shifted to fashion, travel, and amusement. Part of this transformation was the flooding of our everyday world with mass-produced visual images. Motion pictures are particularly adept at conveying the tangibility of things and their desirability as possessions (Berger, 1972). The idea of instant gratification and the freedom to obtain personal happiness, have been a Hollywood tradition for generations, and contemporary films portraying youth reinforce this view. In the process the delinquent comes to devalue hard work and self-sacrifice and builds "respect" through intimidation and actual violence and related antisocial activities. Today's juvenile offenders, more than ever, may feel that their lives are shaped by factors beyond their control. With the deteriorating infrastructure of their urban homes, a faltering economy, and limited education, they may feel they have little choice but to pursue an antisocial lifestyle. Our present broad socialization encourages youths to follow their impulses - to do whatever attracts them or feels good. There is a relative paucity of countervailing influences which might cause them to restrain their impulses - out of respect for others, out of concern that their behavior is morally wrong, or out of fear of negative consequences (Arnett, 1991). And movies may significantly influence social institutions - family, law, politics, religion - which in turn have an impact on our youth. The visual media may show minorities in demeaning roles and women in passive and subservient positions. At the other end, overglamorization of professionals increases unrealistic expectations of the youthful viewer. Family life is either funny and simplistic or overly tragic. Alcohol use is shown with great frequency. Few characters are shown wearing seat belts; nor are they depicted as driving recklessly or exceeding the speed limit as a result of drinking (Rubinstein, 1983).

Of course, some motion pictures may have a positive or prosocial effect on adolescents, even those that are aberrant. However, the visual and auditory messages of most films involve youths in events that are beyond their real-life experiences, and even beyond ordinary reality. Their involvement is compounded by the accompanying music, and special sound and visual effects. Children and adolescents with limited ability to think in the abstract may have difficulty following complex plots and may come away with the wrong message. Thus, in sum, when the medium has become the message, movies may indeed play an important role in shaping the future of our youth.


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Scott Snyder, M.D., is Medical Director, Adolescent Psychiatric Program, Charter Winds Hospital, Athens, Georgia and Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Child and Family Development, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.

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