Do Instagram and TikTok reduce youth crime?

Frank Weerman sitting on a pouffe

Research from the Central Bureau for Statistics (CBS) and the Research and Documentation Centre (WODC) shows a decline in the number of young suspects and criminal offenders since 2010. The number of young suspects and offenders has remained stagnant in recent years. These numbers are noteworthy, as the media often portrays a different image. How can this decline be explained? Frank Weerman, Professor of Youth Criminology at Erasmus School of Law, argues in De Volkskrant that young people spend less time on the streets and increasingly hang out online, which is a significant reason why they are less susceptible to criminal behaviour.

“It is important to emphasise that this decline is not only seen in the Netherlands but that there has been a decrease in youth crime across the entire Western world since around 2010,” Weerman says. “So, the government can not take credit for this, saying we’ve handled it well because this decline doesn’t seem to result from specific policies but rather a universal societal change. If you look at the timeline, the decrease in youth crime aligns precisely with the rise of smartphones and social media.”

Hanging out online instead of on the streets

Swedish and American research shows that young people are spending less time on the streets hanging out, explains Weerman, which explains a significant part of the decline in youth crime. “Previous criminological studies show that loitering aimlessly on the streets is a major risk factor for committing crimes. Young people who are bored on the streets challenge each other, seek excitement, and find an audience of peers they want to impress. Gaining status is a significant motivation for criminal behaviour among teenagers.”

Do young people now gain status online? According to the criminologist, this hasn’t been sufficiently researched yet, but “that seems plausible to me.” The online world also provides opportunities for new types of crimes, such as DDoS attacks, online threats, and fraud. However, according to Weerman, there is no direct shift from offline to online crime: “It’s not as if a significant increase in cybercrime offsets the decrease in offline offences committed by young suspects. Even considering that, there’s still a substantial decrease in youth crime.”

Youth in the media

For many news readers, the CBS and WODC research findings may be surprising, as the media frequently report on young people involved in stabbing incidents, explosions, and drug-related crimes. Weerman also has an explanation for this: “The most serious incidents make the news, they stand out, and people remember them. There was a sudden increase in stabbing incidents, specifically around 2019, committed by young people. There are still relatively many of those, but the numbers have not increased. Also, from that point onwards, slightly more young people were involved in drug-related crimes and firearms, as police statistics show. So, something is going on, but when viewed in the long term, the number of serious violent incidents has decreased. Residents of disadvantaged neighbourhoods may not recognise this, as there are also areas where youth crime has not declined. However, the overall picture is that things are much better.”

Are criminals getting younger, then? The professor of Youth Criminology points out that this was not evident from the research: “Offenders are not getting younger either. When a police officer is faced with a 12-year-old suspect, such an incident leaves a lasting impression. Back in the 1990s, when I started in this field, people were already saying that youth crime was spiralling out of control and suspects were getting younger. But that is a distorted image that does not match the data.”

More information

Click here for the full article from De Volkskrant (in Dutch).

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