Publication - Research and analysis

Attitudes Towards Youth Crime and Willingness to Intervene: Findings from the 2006 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey

Published: 4 Feb 2008
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This report presents findings from a module of questions included in the 2006 Scottish Social Attitudes survey and revisits a theme first addressed by survey in 2004, namely public attitudes towards young people and youth crime.

Attitudes Towards Youth Crime and Willingness to Intervene: Findings from the 2006 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey


Chapter One - Introduction

This report presents findings from a module of questions included in the 2006 Scottish Social Attitudes survey and revisits a theme first addressed by survey in 2004, namely public attitudes towards young people and youth crime. The module takes as its starting point the idea that the problem of youth crime is not simply about the number of 'things that happen' ( e.g. the number of windows broken, people threatened or assaulted, cars stolen) but about the way that as individuals and communities we respond to those acts. As such, it sets out to understand better how the relationship between different age groups might fuel or help to defuse the problem of youth crime. In particular, the 2006 module was intended to shed light on adult willingness to intervene in situations in which young people are either posing a risk or are at risk themselves.

Specifically, the module set out to answer the following questions:

  • How are adult members of the public likely to react in problematic situations involving young people?
  • To what extent will they modify their own behaviour in the face of groups of young people in public places?
  • How likely are they to intervene directly in situations in which young people's behaviour is problematic for the wider community or in which young people themselves appear to be at risk?
  • What is the balance between direct intervention and other, formal and informal, strategies?
  • How is 'willingness to intervene' related to other variables, such as 'social connectedness' and inter-generational contact; general perceptions of young people and youth crime; and broader social and demographic characteristics?
  • What reasons do adults give for any reluctance to intervene directly in such situations? How do such responses vary according to the gender of the adult and of the young people involved?

Chapter Two - Trust, connectedness and inter-generational contact

  • Most people feel they have a reasonable degree of social support and 'connectedness' within their own communities - though this may be based on relatively few, strong relationships with friends and families rather than on a broader 'density of acquaintanceship'.
  • Women are more likely than men to exhibit higher levels of social connectedness, as are people in higher income households. General levels of social connectedness are also associated with higher levels of inter-generational contact. Older people do not appear to be especially disconnected, scoring higher than other age groups on some measures but lower on others.
  • Older people do score much more highly on the survey measure of social trust, as do men, despite their lower levels of social connectedness. Social trust is also markedly higher among those with higher levels of educational attainment, in higher income households and in areas of least deprivation.
  • The two main measures of inter-generational contact (based on household structure and level of contact with young people in the area) vary greatly according to lifestage, rather than age per se, with the highest levels of contact associated with those most likely to have children aged between 11 and 24 .
  • There are clearly some very significant gaps in contact between the oldest and the youngest age groups - exacerbated by the almost complete absence of households spanning more than two generations - but a sizeable minority of the 65 plus age group do have links through grandchildren of that age.
  • Although around three adults in ten say that they come into contact with young people simply by meeting them in their neighbourhood, for most adults, inter-generational contact is structured around family ties of various kinds.

Chapter Three - Views of young people and youth crime

  • General attitudes towards young people appear largely unchanged since 2004 and remain characterised by a tension between sympathy for and concern about 'young people today'.
  • Key predictors of a more positive attitude towards young people included higher levels of educational attainment, living in an area of less deprivation and having at least some contact with 16 to 24 year-olds within one's neighbourhood.
  • Intriguingly, the most negative attitudes towards 'young people today' were expressed by the youngest age group covered by the survey - those who were themselves aged 18-24 at time of interview. Those aged 55 and over, by contrast, tended to hold much more positive views.
  • Between a fifth and a half of those interviewed thought that the five youth crime-related problems asked about were either very or fairly common in their own neighbourhood, but there was wide variation in overall perceptions of prevalence across sub-groups.
  • One of the most powerful predictors of seeing youth crime problems as common was area deprivation. Other variables independently associated with perceiving youth crime as common included lack of contact with 16 to 24 year-olds in the neighbourhood, living in social rented housing, being directly affected by youth crime and having less positive views of young people in general.
  • A measure of the extent to which individuals have been directly affected by the various types of youth crime-related behaviour suggests a slightly less dramatic picture of the 'problem of youth crime'. Although very clearly related to perceived prevalence, for each type of behaviour, the proportion indicating they had been affected a 'great deal' or 'quite a lot' was very much lower than those saying the problem was 'very' or 'fairly common' in their area.

Chapter Four - Avoidance behaviour and willingness to intervene

  • When asked to consider a scenario in which they had to walk past a group of teenagers to get to a shop, only a small proportion of adults (around one in ten) indicated that they would feel 'very uncomfortable' or would 'probably avoid doing so altogether'. But the fact that a further four in ten would feel 'slightly uncomfortable' is an indicator of the diffuse sense of unease that groups of young people can produce in adult members of the population.
  • Moreover, among some sub-groups - such as women in general and older women in particular - the proportion saying they would feel very uncomfortable or avoid walking past altogether is significantly higher.
  • In relation to a scenario in which a group of male or female teenagers were vandalising a bus shelter, there was wide variation in how likely respondents felt they would be to take different forms of action. The proportion saying they would be 'very likely' to call the police was higher than in relation to any other course of action, but sizeable numbers indicated that they would be likely to take some form of informal action, such as challenging the young people directly, speaking to them later or speaking to their parents.
  • Men were more likely than women to say they would challenge the young people directly at the time, but were no more or less likely to take the other courses of action. And the difference in likelihood of intervening directly between male and female respondents is much greater in relation to the version of the scenario involving boys than the one involving girls.
  • Otherwise, levels of inter-generational contact and general social connectedness are the most important predictors of willingness to intervene in this situation. People living in remote and rural communities are more likely both to intervene directly and to call the police, suggesting that formal and informal mechanisms can reinforce rather than replace each other in certain circumstances.
  • Relatively few respondents said they would have 'no concerns' about intervening in such a situation, with a sizeable group inhibited by what they see as the possibility of threatened or actual violence.
  • Both male and female respondents are more likely to worry about violence in the scenario involving a group of 14 year-old boys than the one involving girls, but for male respondents, concern about wrongful allegations directed against them is the predominant concern.
  • When asked to consider a situation in which a ten year-old boy/girl was potentially at risk, around a third of all respondents said they would speak to the child directly while slightly more said they would call the police.
  • But the interaction of the gender of the respondent with that of the child is critical here. Male respondents are much less likely to intervene directly in a situation involving a ten year-old girl than boy. For female respondents, the opposite is true.
  • Male reluctance to intervene is overwhelmingly associated with concern about wrongful accusations of threat or assault - indeed, as many as 64% of men indicated that they might be reluctant to intervene for this reason in the scenario involving a 10 year-old girl - while female reticence is relatively more likely to be associated with concern about being threatened or assaulted.

Chapter Five - Conclusions and implications

  • The study provides strong support for the idea that there is a connection between levels of general social connectedness, intergenerational contact, perceptions of young people and youth crime and willingness to intervene. A concomitant of this is that, by focusing on any one of these areas, policy may have intended or unintended consequences for the others.
  • In general, the research emphasises the need to understand better the notion of civilities as well as incivilities - the circumstances in which individuals feel able and motivated to engage in actions that are of wider social benefit. This chimes with Bannister's recent call for the development of a 'civic criminology' (Bannister, 2007).
  • As part of this, we need to be aware of the ways in which prevailing attitudes and policies may inadvertently inhibit such interventions. The study has thrown up one hugely significant - if largely unanticipated - finding in this respect: that a large proportion of adult males are now deterred from intervening in problematic situations involving young people because of concerns that they themselves will be falsely accused of threatening behaviour or assault. This has potentially serious consequences for the ability of communities to self-regulate and for the police and other formal agencies who will increasingly be called upon to fill the gap.
  • Although effective informal social control is by no means a cure-all for the problems of youth crime, it is probably a necessary - if not sufficient - condition for effective policing. By strengthening social cohesion and connectedness, such interventions can help to create the conditions in which the public will co-operate with the police while also limiting the demands placed on the police in relation to relatively trivial problems.
  • Looking forward, it is clear that demographic change is likely to limit further the opportunities for intergenerational contact and, consequently, to have important consequences for the construction of the 'problem of youth crime' in Scotland's communities. In policy terms, there is a case both for anticipating the consequences of such developments and considering what steps might be taken to prepare for them - e.g. by seeking to promote or reinforce opportunities for intergenerational contact.
  • As ever, the biggest challenges in this respect lie in the most deprived communities, the areas of greatest need and fewest resources, which also suffer from the most serious crime-related problems. Do high levels of youth crime reduce the capacity to exert such control, or does the lack of informal control lead to youth crime? The answer is almost certainly both, which again emphasises the need for policy to pay as much attention to reactions as actions, to civilities as incivilities, and to pro-social as anti-social behaviour.