More than 700 children murdered somebody in the past year. This chilling statistic was revealed with the release of the annual crime statistics by the South African Police Service (SAPS) on Thursday. And the number of child killers has been rising rapidly. In fact, in the past four years, the number of children who committed murder has risen from 47 to 736. The statistics paint a bleak picture of the levels of violent crime in South Africa, with increases seen in murders, attempted murders, sexual offences and robbery with aggravated circumstances. According to Zita Hansungule, senior project coordinator for the Centre for Child Law's Research, Monitoring and Evaluation Project at the University of Pretoria, one of the biggest factors that contributes to children acting violently is being exposed to violence themselves. READ | Violence in SA's schools is worse than you think, and spanking is part of the problem"A lot of violent behaviour [in children] can be attributed to what children are exposed to, their environment they grow up in. Children could be exposed to violence, gang violence, drug abuse - all of those affect how a child responds."Hansungule is quick to point out that one should not assume all children exposed to violence will become violent themselves, but that research shows that children who commit crime are acting out what they are being exposed to. Wider culture of violenceIn an earlier interview with News24, UCT psychology professor Cathy Ward said that murders by children were "part of a wide culture of violence in our schools and communities".A study by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) has shown that violence is widespread in South African schools. "One in five secondary school learners – a total of 22.2% – had experienced any violence while at school in the 12 months between August 2011 and August 2012. This translates to just over a million learners (1 020 597) across the country," according to the study. In 2016, the Birth to Twenty Plus (Bt20+) study, led by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development at Wits University, found, among other findings, that 99% of all children have witnessed or have been victims of violence in their home, school and/or community, with 36% reporting that they had been victims of all categories of violence studied.ALSO READ | Crime Stats: Children charged in 736 murder casesPatrick Burton, executive director at the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP), earlier told News24 that violence among children is usually caused by a number of factors. "We have a solid understanding of what the drivers and predictors of violence in childhood are and those are usually associated with broader socio-economic factors where children are exposed to violence and an increased risk of conflict. Substance and alcohol abuse, exposure to disrupted or abusive families - all these factors tend to interact. But different children respond differently."South Africa has a culture of violence, Ward says, so we "shouldn't be surprised" when it happens at schools. Ward says, where there is a lot of gang violence in a community, it's hard to keep any area of the community neutral territory, and that includes schools. "If gangs are active in a community, children get drawn in from the age of 11. So high school is the period when children get drawn into gangs. So there will be gang violence on the school grounds and the school itself can do little to prevent it." What can be done?According to Hansungule, child offenders fall into two groups. "The first group of children we should be focusing on are those who are quite young and still living with their families and communities where early prevention methods can be provided. The Children's Act provides for many such services. We need to go into communities and assess what issues children are facing and what interventions they need, so that we can keep them away from crime. "The second group of children are those who have already committed crimes and are already in the system. A number of services and therapies can be provided to them in order to rehabilitate them and reintegrate them. Because we're dealing with children, there is good potential for rehabilitation. "The numbers are, however, quite concerning," says Hansungule.