Understanding and Conceptualizing Childhood Animal Harm: A Meta-Narrative Systematic Review
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Several perspectives inform research on Childhood Animal Cruelty (CAC), but these perspectives are poorly integrated with each other and there is little dialogue with the rest of the child–animal interaction (CAI) literature. This study reviews the current empirical and theoretical literature on CAC to explore issues regarding research definitions and methodologies. Following the RAMESES guidelines, we performed a meta-narrative review of the CAC literature from 2010 to 2020, including theoretical papers and original research published in English. Four databases (OVID, Web of Science, PubMed, and EBSCOhost) were searched for terms relating to children, animals, and harm in the title and keyword fields. This generated 416 results, and 69 publications were reviewed here. We explore theories of CAC in relation to the historical research strands and discuss how well they are supported by existing empirical evidence. We thematically classified empirical study findings, which showed that (1) environmental factors that predict CAC include exposure to childhood adversity, especially experiences of violence and witnessing animal cruelty, (2) CAC is recurrent or has extreme links to later interpersonal violence, (3) psychological risk factors linked to CAC include externalizing disorders, lower empathy, lower self-esteem, poorer family functioning, and attitudes accepting of cruelty, (4) witnessing animal cruelty is a serious risk factor for a range of internalizing and externalizing behaviors, and (5) a range of psychosocial barriers exist in measuring and reporting CAC. Issues with measures, population selection, and definitions focusing only on more severe forms of CAC are factors which potentially constrain the generalizability of results. We highlight the need for developmentally appropriate definitions of CAC and methods of measurement and argue that the CAC literature is not well aligned with animal welfare legislation. We propose that CAC should be integrated into a broader spectrum of childhood behaviors toward animals.
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