Why so many knives?

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Karen Sullivan continues her focus on the reasons behind the knife crime epidemic among young people, and considers how the perpetrators are often victims as well

An interesting and anonymous column in the Guardian recently made some interesting points.

The author writes: “Children tell me what they get out of gang life: friendship, support and a way to achieve independence. All reasonable desires that most of us hold. When I ask how people might achieve those things without selling drugs or feuding, it’s really hard for them to find meaningful answers.” (Guardian, April 2018)

And a BBC investigation in June found that “gang members in the capital are experiencing levels of post-traumatic stress disorder equal to troops in a war zone”. It states that research by criminologists in London suggests “living with violence, abuse at home and drug use all lead to high levels of paranoia, anxiety and depression”.

What we are seeing here is a painful indication that young people are suffering. More kids are in care, more are the victims of benign and/or intentional neglect, more are the product of broken homes and violent upbringings, and witness to violence on the streets.

According to recent NHS statistics, mental heath problems are at an all-time high in today’s youth and, with cuts to social services, policing, education budgets and local amenities to support and engage young people and keep them off the streets, we have a perfect storm of circumstances that is fuelling a rise in violence, a rise in gang culture, and a rise in hate and violent crime.

Junior Smart, founder of the SOS Project, which offers intensive support for young people affected by gangs and works to divert them away from the gang culture, blames on-going “postcode wars” between rival groups. He says that drug dealing, social media and falling police officer numbers have worsened the situation.

Speaking to the Independent in April, he said: “When we speak to the young kids they say there are not enough reasons for them not to carry knives. Social media means everything now – these kids have massive following.”

Add to this the fact that social media – and easy access to technology – has created limitless possibilities to amass supporters, round up “warriors” and rile up rivals. Social media also means that even “good kids” can be dragged into situations which might previously have been an anathema to them.

The Home Office Serious Violence Strategy published in April 2018 notes that the “growth in smart‐phones between 2011 and 2014 has transformed social media accessibility and created an almost unlimited opportunity for rivals to antagonise each other, and for those taunts to be viewed by a much larger audience for a much longer time”.

The report continues: “There is strong evidence that rival gangs are using social media to promote gang culture, taunt each other and incite violence. Some gang members have thousands of followers. Research shows the most viewed comments and videos are the ones most likely to result in retaliatory violence. This glamorises weapons and gang life, possibly leading to emulation.”

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that young people – indeed, millennials onwards – are much less empathetic than their predecessors, widely speculated to be the result of the “me generation”, with its focus on self and not others.

There is also the growth of social media and online gaming, which allows interaction but not the all-important physical/personal interaction required for the growth of empathy. One study found that with children spending up to seven hours a day on entertainment media, it is “reasonable to assume that they won’t be getting the face-to-face interaction that is vital to learning how to read and express emotion”.

It went on to find that children who play violent video games struggled to recognise happiness. The emotional hardship experienced by children, noted above, may also be to blame. When children become warriors, capable of killing one another, they are clearly unable to understand the feelings of others or the impact of their actions.

Empathy is learned and developed across childhood and adolescence. Where there is an absence of emotional wellbeing and support, it will falter. Another interesting suggestion is that the decline in reading for pleasure is partly to blame.

Several good studies have found that reading fiction can improve both social skills and also encourage the development of empathy. For example, in 2000, Jèmeljan Hakemulder at Utrecht University in The Netherlands published a book called The Moral Laboratory, which outlined the results of 20 or so experiments that linked reading to better social skills.

And a landmark 2013 study, published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, found that the process of imagining scenes while reading led to an increase in empathy and pro-social behaviours.

But we can also look at this in a slightly different light. Are the intense feelings that young people experience within their gangs, their peer group, their relationships – many of which take the place of meaningful relationships with caring adults (and that includes teachers and parents) – something that sparks a sort of proprietorial aggression?

Are they naturally responding to a perceived threat to their “family”? Are emotions so heightened by the events to which they are witness on the street that their loyalty, their sense of empathy is simply skewed in the wrong direction?

What if elders in the gang become surrogate parents, or, indeed, more understanding and “there”, more compassionate and committed, than other adults in a young person’s life? How can we reach kids whose moral compass is skewed by this environment?

Once again, there are more questions here than answers – a preponderance of potential causes, all of which have escalated violence on the streets and put our students’ lives at risk. There are, however, many commonalities in these causes, with much research that suggests areas where interventions can and will be effective. What’s more, many of these can be employed with ease in the school environment.

And that’s what we will look at in my final part of this series, due to publish on January 24.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com. To read her previous articles for SecEd, go to http://bit.ly/1SNgg00

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