Gangs and youth violence continue to be a big problem across the world today. Children and young people are continuously being exploited by gangs to participate in criminal activities either through force, coercion, or bribery (Dearden, 2019). As youth crime is on the rise in the UK (Bhuller, 2018), it is crucial to raise awareness of which factors contribute to children and young people joining a gang or committing youth violence in order to understand how it can be prevented.
There are many reasons why young people join a gang or commit violence. Some of the most common reasons relate to peer pressure and the desire to fit in with a group, a desire of being respected and gaining status to feel more powerful, a need of protection or because they are lured in by the money (NSPCC, 2019).
However, there are also many other factors that put young people at risk of committing violence or joining a gang. These factors may be divided into categories of individual, family, social and environmental factors, thus making it clear that there are many things that can influence a child or young person to engage in criminal activities. Some of the individual risk factors include learning difficulties and exclusion from school, mental health issues, low self-esteem, aggressive behaviour, emotional distress, and involvement with alcohol and drugs (Public Safety Canada, 2007; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020, a). Family risk factors involve problems at home such as neglect or abuse, drug or alcohol abuse, family gang members, lack of a parental role model, and economic problems (Public Safety Canada, 2007). The social risk factors include peer pressure, friends that are connected to a criminal environment, not being able to fit in with peers, and lack of being involved in any activities in the spare time (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020, a). Lastly, the environment also plays a big role with the environmental risk factors including living in an area with high rates of poverty, unemployment, social inequality and existing gang activity (NSPCC, 2019).
These are all things to be considered when developing measures to prevent children and young people from becoming part of a criminal environment.
With youth crime on the rise it is also important to consider how the current situation shaped by COVID-19 might affect youth violence. During the lockdown following the pandemic, it was seen that gang related crimes in London actually decreased, as people were forced to get off the street, thus losing their place for conducting business and other gang related activities and crimes (Dearden, 2020). However, some fear that the crisis might help increase youth violence and make it easier for gangs to recruit and exploit children and young people, as the crisis makes them more vulnerable (Quigley, 2020).
Due to the pandemic, many people have lost their job, and unemployment and poverty rates are rising (Wintle, 2020). This also affects young people, as they may experience a drop in income due to their parents becoming unemployed. As poverty is a risk factor, this means that more young people could become vulnerable to being targeted by a gang (Quigley, 2020). Poverty could also push other people, such as family members, to join gangs and criminal activities in order to earn an income, which could also pose as a risk for young people, as they would be exposed to a criminal environment through the family (Elbro, 2018).
The pandemic has also affected general mental health negatively as feelings of stress and anxiety increases. Isolation makes it harder to be distracted from negative thoughts and the whole situation brings along new concerns, such as worries about loved ones or uncertainty about the future (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020, b). All of this could make children and young people more vulnerable and, thus, susceptible to joining a gang or committing crime in order to escape from other daily struggles (Dearden, 2020).
Lastly, the many opportunities provided by community centres, sports and other forms of social activities have become limited, meaning that young people have become restricted in receiving support, socialising and engaging in fulfilling activities that contribute to the development of positive values and abilities that help build up resilience towards criminal activities by diverting them to a safe and positive environment (Big Lottery Fund, 2018, pp. 10-17). Without these opportunities, it is harder for young people to keep themselves busy and avoid seeking a life on the street. Moreover, many programmes and projects dedicated to combat youth violence are in risk of losing their funding’s due to the economic consequences of the pandemic making it harder to support young people and help them get out of gangs and criminal activities (Coronavirus: Concerns Covid could cause rise in serious youth violence, 2020).
Therefore, it is important, now more than ever, to protect young people and engage them in positive activities to build up their resilience towards gangs and youth violence. Children and young people should be made aware that there is still support to find although it might be in a different way than before. Organisations and youth workers have to adapt to the current situation by for example providing online support, creating online platforms for young people to share their worries and socialise with others, focus on making events and activities for smaller groups or even just one-to-one meetings. All this could help make sure that young people at risk are engaged with people outside of a criminal environment and feel the support and motivation to stay out of a life of crime (UK Youth, 2020, pp. 7-8).
Bhuller, A. (2018) Youth crime on the rise in the UK. Shout Out UK. Retrieved from: https://www.shoutoutuk.org/2018/10/30/youth-crime-on-the-rise-in-the-uk/
Big Lottery Fund (2018) Preventing serious youth violence – what works? Big Lottery Fund. Retrieved from:https://www.tnlcommunityfund.org.uk/media/documents/BLF_KL18-12-Serious-Violence.pdf?mtime=20181017132115
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020) (a) Violence Prevention: Youth Violence – Risk and Protective Factors. Retrieved from:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020) (b) Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Stress and Coping – Coping with Stress. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html
Coronavirus: Concerns Covid could cause rise in serious youth violence. (2020) BBC News. Retrieved from:https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53397549
Dearden, L. (2019) Children as young as seven being used by ‘county lines’ drug gangs. Independent. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/county-lines-drug-dealing-gangs-children-uk-exploitation-a8988916.html
Dearden, L. (2020) ‘Here’s your chance, take it’: Police visit London gang members at home to urge them to change lives during lockdown. Independent. Retrieved from: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-is-child-abuse/types-of-abuse/gangs-criminal-exploitation/
Elbro, D. (2018) Gang violence and exploitation intensifies as crisis deepens. Socialist Appeal. Retrieved from: https://www.socialist.net/gang-violence-and-exploitation-intensifies-as-crisis-deepens.htm
NSPCC (2019) Criminal exploitation and gangs. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/coronavirus-london-crime-gang-stabbing-violence-police-lockdown-a9512396.html
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Quigley, T.S. (2020) Coronavirus: How the pandemic is changing the fight against child exploitation. Hackney Citizen. Retrieved from: https://www.hackneycitizen.co.uk/2020/04/14/coronavirus-how-pandemic-changing-fight-child-exploitation/
UK Youth (2020) The impact of COVID-19 on young people & the youth sector. Retrieved from: https://www.ukyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/UK-Youth-Covid-19-Impact-Report-External-Final-08.04.20.pdf
Wintle, T. (2020) COVID-19 to push up UK poverty levels – state aid expert explains why. CGTN. Retrieved from: https://newseu.cgtn.com/news/2020-04-09/COVID-19-is-pushing-up-poverty-levels-according-to-aid-expert-Pv1VXlqcKc/index.html