Youth delinquency

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Essay question:
What socio-psychological factors contribute to youth delinquency?

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Abstract: This paper explores primarily the social factors but also psychological factors such as personality and intelligence that impact on youth delinquency. It has been found that the media increases aggression in youths and that socio-economic status along with peer relations, education and parenting neglect can increase the probability of juveniles engaging in delinquent behaviour. Two theories of personality and intelligence are looked at which show that psychological factors may also contribute to juvenile delinquency.

Youth Delinquency: Youth delinquency is essentially a criminal act committed by a juvenile (usually defined as being between seven and eighteen) (Schafer &Knudten 1970). It is usually a by-product of antisocial behaviour. Antisocial behaviour refers to behaviour that either damages interpersonal relationships or is culturally unacceptable (Baumeister & Bushman 2008), or in some cases both. Commonly antisocial behaviour is identified in self harming youths or in youths that are truant with school and engage in theft or drug taking activity (Luncheon, Bae, Gonzalez, Lurie and Singh 2008). A large factor in youth delinquency can also be attributed to a form of antisocial behaviour known as aggression.

Aggression is a major factor in youth delinquency as acts of aggression are usually carried out on other people and as such are a crime. Two types of aggression identified by Baumeister and Bushman (2008) are “hostile aggression” and “instrumental aggression”. Hostile aggressions constitute crimes or acts with impulsive or emotive motivations whereas instrumental aggression is more calculated and motivated by goal driven behaviour. The difference in motivation behind aggressive behaviour has led researchers to explore whether aggression in youths and subsequently adults, is a result of the increasing violence shown in the media, the situational circumstances one is in or if there are physiological factors such as personality that determine how aggressive one is.

Media, video games and the effects on aggression.

In the early 1950s horror comics were criticised and linked to juvenile delinquency. Since then television as well as video and computer games have been accused of undermining moral values and cultivating a more violent and criminally oriented social climate (Gunter, 1994). Clint Eastwood’s movie “Dirty Harry” has been linked to copy cat serial killings and more recently the school shootings at Columbine (1999) have been linked to violent video games (Carnagey, Anderson and Bartholow). Numerous studies have been undertaken to see what effects video game playing has on feelings of aggression and subsequent acts of aggression.

Video Games: There is a large number of studies that look at different factors of video games that increase frustration and feelings of hostility in youths and adolescents who engage in video playing activity. The past research has led to the application of the General Aggression Model (GAM) in violent video game studies (Bartlett, Harris and Baldassaro 2007). The GAM encompasses all past theories on aggression and relies on short term affect, arousal and cognition components (Anderson & Bushman 2002) According to Anderson (2002), the GAM can account for the wide variety of effects seen in the media violence literature which lead to the child exposed becoming more desensitized to violence and habitually more aggressive. The GAM suggests that individual factors interact with the situational factors, which may lead to a person’s feeling impacting on real world actions (Bartlett et al 2007). Therefore if a youth has been playing a violent video game and has experienced an increase in frustration or hostility it is more likely that they are to act out. Bartlett et al. sought to demonstrate this in an experiment where participants played a video game with measures being taken at a timed interval. Participants were given story stems to respond to where participants had to say how they would react to certain scenarios and their heart rate was taken.

The results supported the theory that aggression increased in the individual while engaging in violent video games as there was an increase in physiological arousal (heart rate) and the responses to the story stems increased in aggression significantly between baseline to the time interval. The study found that the GAM offered an adequate explanation of the short-term effects of video games (Bartlett et al.) Although this particular study was conducted on participants with an average age of 19 (1 year older than what is recognised as being juvenile), the GAM suggests the desensitisation would have occurred in previous exposures to stimuli, while they were juveniles and the high internal validity does not suggest that findings would significantly differ if participants were 18.

Television and movies: The concern surrounding movies, television and their effects on the youth watching them stem from the social learning theory of imitation (Leyens, Herman and Dunand 1984). In 1961 Albert Bandura conducted an experiment measuring levels of aggression in children (1961). The experiment consisted of an adult exhibiting physical and verbal aggression towards the doll. Afterwards Bandura would place the child in a room with the doll and see what would happen. It was found that it was much more likely for those who had witnessed acts of aggression to act out such acts when placed in the same situation than those who did not (Bandura 1961). The experiment was run with live models as well as a video taped model with no difference in the results. Thus it can be reasonably applied to youths that witness violent acts in movies and television would be more likely to repeat those acts than those who don’t. Criticism came about the contrived nature of the experiment and the use of artificial films however, was quietened by numerous field experiments that yielded the same results (Leyens et al.). Numerous studies have also found the proclivity to act out aggressively strengthen upon watching violent acts carried out and that the movie or show will act as a primer for an individual to act out (Berkowitz, 2008). An experiment demonstrating this effect was carried out by Jopenson (1987). In her experiment a group of school boys were first frustrated by some act, after which they watched either a violent or non-violent television show. After watching the show the participants were observed playing a game of hockey. The groups displaying more aggression were the ones who displayed more aggressive acts throughout the game were those that had seen the violent show.

Social Factors:

Socio-economic factors- Class is considered an important social marker that plays an undeniable role in deviance (Wahrman, 1972). Studies have been done and replicated using a range of measures of socioeconomic factors including income, poverty and status (Ferguson, Campbell & Horwood, 2004). Each study has led to the same conclusion; youth in lower socioeconomic standing are more likely to be delinquent. This idea was furthered explored by the strain theory (Merton, 1938). According to the strain theory, individuals in a lower socioeconomic status are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviour to try and alleviate the imbalance and strain of the social situation (Ferguson et al.). The dilemma faced is able to be adapted to in five ways according to Merton, they are: 1. Innovation: individuals who accept socially approved goals, but not necessarily the socially approved means. Individuals who may adapt using innovation may aim to achieve socially approved goals but in order for them to attain them may be more likely to engage in delinquent behaviour as they do not have the same opportunities as the higher classes may have. 2. Retreatism: those who reject socially approved goals and the means for acquiring them. These individuals may entirely shun societal norms and follow just what they want without regard for societal laws thus engaging in delinquent activity. 3. Ritualism: those who buy into a system of socially approved means, but lose sight of the goals. Merton believed that drug users are in this category. 4. Conformity: those who conform to the system's means and goals. 5. Rebellion: people who negate socially approved goals and means by creating a new system of acceptable goals and means (Wikipedia 2008) Peer relationships Ferguson, Campbell and Horwood (2004) further suggest a differential association theory that may act as an influencing social factor in youth delinquency. The differential association states that an increase in youth delinquency and its relation to socioeconomic status are due to the fact that youths in the lower socioeconomic class have a larger exposure to criminal peers and environments. Sutherland’s (1947) original finding that personal networking leads to either a favourable or unfavourable view of delinquency, which supports Haynie’s (2002) finding that adolescents who report that their friends are delinquent tend to report higher levels of delinquency than adolescents with fewer or no delinquent friends. If the strain theory is applied, then it is not unreasonable to deduce that there would be more individuals in the lower socio-economic class engaging in delinquent activities, more delinquents associating and forming peer relationships with other delinquents or nondelinquents increasing the likelihood of non offenders engaging in delinquent behaviour and repeat offending in already delinquent individuals and therefore perpetuate the cycle of youth crime.

Education Youth delinquency has many interactive and causal effects which is the case when it comes to education. Blackorby and Wagner (1996) found that many juvenile delinquents are unable to attain skills and knowledge that would help them in employment opportunities or the chance to further their academic career due to expulsion or dropping out of school. This inability to attain the relevant skill can be linked back to the strain theory previously discussed as the disadvantage of lack of education and employment may create an imbalance in the social situation which may lead to delinquent activity to achieve the goal.

Parenting: The family circumstances have a considerable impact on the risk of engaging in some form of delinquency. Studies show that children who are provided with adequate parental supervision are less likely to engage in criminal activity, while children from dysfunctional family settings such as conflict, inadequate parental control and premature autonomy are more closely associated with juvenile delinquency (World Youth Report 2003) hostility and rejection as well as low child involvement are the most salient predictors of behavioural problems and delinquency (Simons, Simons, Chen, Brody, & Lin 2007). These lines of study are important as Gerstien and Briggs (1993) found 30 percent of violent offenders in their study were reared in the absence of a father. These types of studies has also allowed for intervention programs to be brought in to try and control increasing delinquent behaviour in youths. One such program outlined by Connel, Dishion, Yasui and Kananagh (2007) focuses on preventing substance abuse in youths. It does this by targeting problems in the family arena, primarily in parental monitoring and management of children engaging in delinquent activities. The research demonstrates that the motivation of parents to manage and monitor their children results in less delinquent behaviour exhibited by the youth. Further research should look into developing similar programs of intervention for the other aspects of parenting that contribute to an increased likelihood of delinquent activity.

Psychological Factors:

Personality: The three major personality factors according to Eysenck (1977) are: Psychoticism, extraversion and neuroticism. According to Eysenck’s criminal theory, juvenile delinquents would score highly on all three of the personality dimensions (Van Dam, Coleta, De Bryun & Janssens 2007). To test his theory Eysenck surveyed a sample of males in juvenile detention to assess their levels in the personality dimensions compared to a control group of college participants. The study found that of statistically high significance were the high extraversion levels in juvenile offenders, suggesting that highly extraverted juveniles that score low on neuroticism and psychotocism are more at risk of becoming delinquent.

While Eysenck described personality in three dimensions, Block and Block (1980) looked at personality in two area’s: Ego control and ego resiliency, later used to determine three types of personalities: Over-controllers, under-controllers and resilients (Akse, Hale, Engels, Raaijmakers & Meeus 2007). Over controllers tend to be internalising problems, under controllers tend to externalise problems while resilients strike a healthy balance (Akse et al.) In internalising their behaviour, over controllers tend to reject help from others, isolate themselves and have increased anxiety and depression, whereas under controllers who externalise their problems are more likely to act out in a deviant manner (Akse et al.)

Intelligence: Delinquency is found to be more prevalent and more frequent among young males with a low IQ (Koolhof, Loeber, Wei, Pardini & D’Escury 2007). An experiment run by Koolhof et al. compared impulsivity, psychopathy and empathy between high and low IQ individuals. The results found a significant difference in the impulsivity of individuals with a lower IQ as well as finding those with a lower IQ less empathetic and with less reported feelings of guilt. This is an important finding as those factors are related to delinquency, and would seem to suggest that due to those factors individuals with a low IQ are more prone to juvenile delinquent behaviour (Koolhof et al.).

Attachment: Bowlby (1969), theorised that as children we create internal working models which are based on the responsiveness of our primary caregiver. He states that these internal working models would allow for us to predict the future and how to react to our environment and the people in it. He predicted that children who formed secure attachment would feel free to explore their environment and interact freely with it as they would feel comfortable having their mother as a secure base should anything happen. This idea is based on previous experience and the mother or primary caregiver responding to needs. This is likely to continue on through life and set them up to be able to maintain strong social connections (Sigelman & Rider 2006). Conversely, if a child had not had all needs consistently met as a child they may form an insecure attachment. Children who develop an insecure form of attachment may develop a penchant to avoid social situations or have trouble regulating mood, emotion and behaviour.

A study by Elger, Knight, Sherman and Worrall (2003) found support for Bowlby’s insecure attachment theory. In surveys completed by youth delinquents reporting on attachment characteristics, substance abuse and behavioural problems, it was found that insecure attachment was related to the internalising and externalising of behaviours. As previously discussed those who have problems in doing this often act out in a deviant manner. It also showed a relation to antisocial and aggressive behaviour, which is a precursor to delinquent behaviour.

Conclusion: Delinquency in children can be affected by a myriad of factors either in the social realm or the psychological realm. The media increases hostility and aggression in youth, socio-economic status may effect how an individual acts to try and reap the same benefits those who are more fortunate already have and may also in turn effect who the individual forms peer relationships with, which may serve to increase delinquent behaviour. Parenting neglect results in higher instances of juvenile delinquency, as do certain psychological traits such as personality and intelligence. Attachment theory in infants effecting adolescents has also shown to have an effect in studies. The best method of reducing the risk of delinquent behaviour appears to be intervention programs such as motivating parents to monitor and manage their children and their behaviours, and as such further research might look at other area’s where similar programs may be introduced to alleviate some of the problems contributing to youth delinquency.


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