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UNH Prof: Kids are more virtuous these days

By Tom Spencer, Staff Writer

The kids are all right, according to David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes against Children Research Center and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire.

Finkelhor wrote an article entitled “Are kids getting more virtuous?” that The Washington Post published on Nov. 26.

Some of the article’s main points were that alcohol abuse, delinquency and suicide rates among young people have decreased to levels that have not been seen in many cases since the 1950s.

Moreover, despite many recent stories about badly handled rape and sexual assault victims, such crimes are actually down among youth overall, according to the article.

Finkelhor speculated on possible causes for these trends in his article.

“… the Internet, electronic games and related technology [have] combined to relieve boredom, one of the chief drivers of adolescent mischief,” the article reads.

Finkelhor elaborated on this point in an interview. 

“The whole electronic environment may be a factor in reducing teen violence,” Finkelhor said. 

This conflicts with common narratives about videogames increasing violence among youth, such as “Little By Little, Violent Video Games Make Us  More  Aggressive,”  which Time published in March.

“The evidence supporting a link between videogames and violence is weak to start out with,” Finkelhor said. “What young people do online is usually social networking and browsing the web anyway.”

According to Finkelhor, a larger factor in causing crime among adolescents may be restlessness, but he pointed out that this is merely a possibility, not definitively proven.

“We do know boredom and a sense of nothing to do pushes some young people to juvenile delinquency,” Finkelhor said.

The decline in violence may also be related to trends in illegal drugs, according to Cesar Rebellon, a professor in the sociology department at UNH.

“… juvenile violence increased and decreased largely in tandem with the popularity of crack,” Rebellon said. “… the correlation here does not definitely prove that one caused the other, but certainly is consistent with the idea that crack’s increasing and declining popularity contributed to violence trends among youth.”

But this theory came with a warning from Rebellon that “it is very difficult to establish causality definitively in the research that has tried to evaluate the following explanations …”

Rebellon clarified that the violence was not shown to be a direct result of being under the influence of cocaine. Instead, “many criminologists suggest that it was ‘turf wars’ related to crack dealing that contributed to violence,” Rebellon said.

Finkelhor agreed that drugs were a possible influence on youth crime. 

“Cocaine was a big factor in violence in inner cities in our studies. Homicide and robbery increase and decrease with the popularity of cocaine,” Finkelhor said.

Economic factors may also play a role in reducing crimes, but Rebellon and Finkelhor both mentioned some challenges to that reasoning.

“… some have argued that the strong economy that boomed in the 90s played a role in decreasing juvenile crime, but others dispute this argument for a host of reasons,” Rebellon said.

Finkelhor cited one statistic that did not quite fit with the economic explanation.

“Poverty among families with children has increased over the last ten years,” Finkelhor said. Yet even with the increase of poverty, there was not a notable spike in crime or delinquency rates.

“There are economic factors at work, but in the economic slump of 2008, risky behaviors did not increase, possibly because there were other factors at work that were more influential,” Finkelhor said. “Those might include better intervention methods, better medication for depression and aggression.”

That being the case, Finkelhor is “… cautiously optimistic that we will continue to see improvements in these indicators.”

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