Social Justice

Social media and closure of youth 'safe spaces' could lead to surge in violent crime, research warns

The closure of youth ‘safe spaces’ and the rise of online threats could cause violent crime to surge, new research suggests.

Youth centres provide safe spaces for young people - but many have been forced to close. Image: YMCA

Cuts to youth projects, centres and ‘safe spaces’ in Scotland could lead to a surge in violence among young people, researchers have warned.

Over the past two decades, violent crime in Scotland has plummeted. But the rise of social media and the closure of youth ‘safe spaces’ may reverse this progress, new research from the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice (SCCJ) suggests.

“New trends around youth culture and violence feel different and urgent,” co-author and University of Glasgow professor Alistair Fraser said.

Covid-19 shuttered many youth projects, while funding cuts to local authorities gutted other ‘safe spaces.’ SCCJ interviews with 190 youth workers and young people has revealed growing fear around such closures.

“There [are] these spaces, but they’re lying empty, so there needs to be people actually in them, and facilitating activities and stuff,” one youth worker told researchers.

A whopping £11m was slashed from local authority youth service spending in Scotland between 2016 and 2019, a report from trade union Unison shows. Youthlink Scotland is currently gathering data on cuts since then. The charity hasn’t yet released figures – but have described their initial findings as “deeply troubling“.

The collapse of physical ‘safe spaces’ are also leaving young people vulnerable to online threats.

“If there’s nothing in their communities and there’s nothing happening, then they’re going to build a community digitally,” one social worker told the study.

Unregulated online communities – where conflict can thrive – have sprung up to fill the void.

“You start arguing over Snapchat, two full schemes going at it… telling them you’re going to kill them and aw that,” one young person said. “It’s no good man, it’s frightening.”

As well as encouraging violent crime, online forums can devastate youth mental health, researchers found.

“Aye, give me a wild wean running about with a sword any day,” a social worker told the study. “Instead of worrying about them fighting on a Friday night, Saturday night I worry about them self-harming all the time, every night.”

How has Scotland reduced overall violence?

It’s not all bad news. Despite concerns around young people, overall violence in Scotland has dropped significantly over the last two decades.

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Homicide fell by 55% from its highest level in 2002/03 to its lowest point in 2014/15. Serious assault and attempted murder fell by 58% from a high point in 2004/05 to its lowest point in 2015/16. Since then, rates have remained fairly stable.

But south of the border, things don’t look so good. Between 2015/16 and 2021/22, the number of homicide victims in England increased from nine murders per million people in the year to March 2015 up to 12 murders per million in the year to March 2022.

To counter this upward trend, English authorities are starting to apply the “Scottish model”, establishing 20 ‘Violence Reduction Units’ (VRUs) across England and Wales.

These units bring together specialist teams to prevent crime by investing in local services and education.

But spending on youth services has been slashed south of the border.

‘safe spaces’ such teams provide are crucial to countering the “poverty of opportunity [and] aspirations” that drives young people to violent crime, Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice researchers urged.

“There’s no long term,” one youth worker said. “People are just living day to day and just trying their best to get by and young people growing up in those situations just that’s what they see, that’s what they know and that’s the life that they will statistically go on to live… And as a symptom of poverty young people join gangs.”  

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