Why does violent offending appear particularly common in adolescence

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Violent offending can be defined as "the intentional use [of] physical force to inflict harm on another person" (Tate, Reppucci, & Mulvey, 1995, p.778). It has been well documented that the majority of violent offending occurs during the adolescent years with the highest rate occurring at age 17 (Van der Merwe, & Dawes, 2007; Moffitt, 1993). Interestingly, only 5% of males persist in their offending beyond adolescence, despite offending rates multiplying by 10 during adolescence; this means the majority of delinquent teens do not become delinquent adults (Moffitt). By focusing on the social, evolutionary and biological theories this essay has sought to explain why violent offending appears to be more common in adolescence. Social explanations propose a 'maturity gap'; focus on the culture of youth environments and the influence of peers in explaining violence. Social explanations emphasise that "we cannot understand adolescent-limited delinquency without first understanding adolescents'" development (Moffitt, p.696). On the other hand biological and evolutionary explanations focus on internal factors (e.g. hormonal production and the innate drive for reproduction) as being decisive in driving violent offending.

Moffitt (1993) proposes the reason that violent offending is more common in adolescence is because of a 'maturity gap'. Despite adolescents being biologically mature they are socially and legally treated as children. This theory explains why overall offending rates have increased among the contemporary youth generation in comparison to previous generations (Moffitt). Increased responsibility in previous decades corresponds with lower youth offending rates (Farrington, cited in Moffitt). Due to a lack of social responsibility (e.g. not legally allowed to work until the age of 16) violent youth crimes are likely to be the result of boredom and 'thrill-seeking' (Warr, 2002). In support of this, violent crimes are usually unplanned and impulsive in nature (Gold, cited in Warr). Moffitt argues that throughout the lifespan of an individual, antisocial behaviour is subject to reward and punishment. Adolescents commit violent acts when the outcome of that behaviour has more beneficial implications than that of a prosocial act, thus violent offences can be seen as socially adaptive. In essence prosocial youths observe that antisocial youths have far more freedom and command over their lives than they do themselves, so they mimic their antisocial behaviour. However, Moffitt seems to neglect the importance of the culture of youth environments and how this impacts on their offending behaviour.

The culture which surrounds many youths' lives promotes the use of violence as a means of survival in poverty-stricken and gang-ridden neighbourhoods (Harding, 2009; Anderson, 1994). As Luckenbill and Doyle (1989) note the streets are dangerous places and youths which spend time on them require protection from victimisation (Harding). Any deviation from violence highlights vulnerability (Anderson), thus as a means of protection youths create an overt masculine identity based on physical aggression (Harding). The aggressive identity involved 'connections' to "little niggas" (same age peers), "older mens" (older peers in their late teens or early twenties) and "OGs" (original gangsters aged between 30 and 40 years). Belonging to this culture makes violent offending more common since all members of a gang act to support each other. An attack on fellow gang members provokes retaliation by the entire group. Furthermore, membership to a gang meant physically defending the gangs' status. Teenagers living in dire poverty only had the status of the group to defend, thus displays of disrespect by others led to violence because of the youths vulnerable positions within society.

Furthermore, the moral climate of gangs depicts violence as legitimate (Luckenbill & Doyle, 1989), certain responses are deemed as acceptable because they form part of a particular social world or moral 'code' (Thrasher, 1963; Anderson, 1994). Gangs have created their own justice system outside of the law which legitimises acts of revenge and violence in response to acts of disrespect (Warr, 2002; Thrasher). Brezina, Agnew, Cullen, and Wright (2004) found that 'code' beliefs effectively predicted violent offences and those beliefs were more likely to be present in those who had committed acts of violence. Furthermore, Thornberry and colleagues found that membership to gangs was a very important factor in explaining violent offending (Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, Smith, & Tobin, 2003). Violent behaviour increased once membership began and reduced when membership ended. This suggests that gang members were behaving according to the social context in which they lived. This study was longitudinal in nature meaning that it followed individuals throughout adolescence (purportedly before the majority had become involved in gangs) rather than studying gang members and monitoring their criminal activity (cross-sectional research). Before Thornberry et al.'s study it was not easy to attribute adolescents' violent offending to gang membership because violence could have been present before membership to the gang was reported. This study shows that there is a relationship between gang membership and violent offending because the termination of gang membership brought an end to violent offending in the individual.

However, Thornberry et al. (2003) note that approximately 30% of the sample were involved in a gang, yet Lipsey and Derzon (1999) estimate that only 8% of youths are violent offenders. Moreover, the ratio of girls and boys in gangs remains fairly equal (Thornberry et al.) yet males tend to violently offend far more than females. Therefore although gang membership makes violent offending more likely it does not fully explain violent offending fully since the number of gang members is far higher than the number of violent offenders and the number of male violent offenders is higher than the number of female violent offenders. Also gang membership is far more common in early as opposed to late adolescence (Thornberry et al.); yet violent offending is at its highest in late adolescence (Moffitt, 1993). Although, it is clear that gang culture may encourage violent offending (Thrasher, 1963) it is by no means the sole determining factor.

It is well known that peers have a much greater impact on an individuals' socialisation than those within the family during adolescence (Harding, 2009). The benefits involved in being part of a peer group and thus being involved in violent behaviour, to an adolescent, may actually outweigh the negative implications (Warr, 2002). Life may be risked and individuals harmed, but in the eyes of the juvenile this may be a better possibility than being denied by one's peers (Warr). This fear is intensified because an identity has been established outside of the family and this identity is dependent on the acceptance from other adolescents. Peers' influence is important as at age 16 violent acts were twice more likely to involve multiple juvenile offenders as opposed to one juvenile offender (McCord & Conway, 2005). Moreover, the best predictor of juvenile delinquency at ages 12-15 is the number of delinquent peers a juvenile acquires (Warr). Deviant peers are also perceived as being at least partly responsible for the progression of general forms of delinquency to violence (Dishion, Veronneau, & Myers, 2010). Therefore, external or situational factors seem very important in explaining violent juvenile offending.

Situational factors have also been emphasised by Warr (2002), he argues that criminal behaviour is more likely when the individual has at least one accomplice because the presence of others reduces responsibility for each individual involved. In addition, crime may also be committed when in the company of others because it is a social activity, the 'buzz' experienced when committing a crime is shared by each perpetrator. These theories are particularly salient because they do not overestimate the importance of individual characteristics in explaining violent offending (Warr; Ross 1977). Furthermore, Luckenbill and Doyle (1989) concluded that violence in youths usually emerges when an act of disrespect occurs in the public realm. Situational factors may be particularly important in explaining adolescent violent offending because if the behaviour was caused by individual characteristics then it would be likely to continue (Warr). It is only when the external characteristics of youths' lives change (e.g. reduction in time spent on the streets) that violent offending declines, for instance Sampson and Laub (2005) found that marriage reduced offending in men by 35%.

However, the influence of peers should not be overestimated in causing violence. It is important to note that violent offences generally occur in the late teens and early to mid twenties (Marcus, 2009). This is a time at which peers become less important. Coleman (cited in Warr, 2002) found that fear of rejection intensifies at 15 but declines rapidly thereafter. Peer explanations also remove blame from the individual committing the violence. It seems to have been forgotten that adolescents may actively choose to adopt a violent lifestyle (Emler & Reicher, 1995). The individual does not need negative peer environments to commit violent acts. Clearly, peers may have an influence in increasing the likelihood of violent offending, but they are by no means a full explanation.

The home environment also seems to be important in explaining violent offending in adolescents. Observing violence between members of the family has been seen as enough to adopt violent offending. However, Wilson et al.'s (2009) meta-analyses revealed that being a witness of violence is negligible in predicting subsequent violent offending; one had to be a victim of violence for the predictor to remain of any real importance. This contradicted social learning theory which proposes that the use of violence is a learnt way of resolving disputes and thus witnessing violence between significant others is enough to lead to violent offending (Bandura, 1973). Parents who implement punishment which is inconsistent and harsh are at an increased risk of having delinquent youths (Patterson, Forgatch, Yoerger, & Stoolmiller, 1998). In support of Wilson et al.'s findings the base rate of those committing violent acts is very small in comparison to those who observe violence in the home, for instance Straus and Gelles (cited in Wilson et al.) approximated that 10 million American children observe violence within the home, whereas only 581,765 were arrested for violent offences committed in the USA in 2009 (U. S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2010). Therefore, the initiation of violence is linked to having directly experienced violence.

A problem with the research so far is that it is solely based on risk factors. Risk factors do not give any indication about how violent offending develops or why that particular risk factor is important in producing violent youths (Farrell & Flannery, 2006). This issue is important because not all of those who are violent during childhood go on to be violent as adolescents (Lispey & Derzon, 1999). Moreover, the larger number of predisposing factors a youth has does not equal a higher risk of committing violent acts (Farrell & Flannery). The research so far has neglected the importance of maintaining factors in violent offending (Elliott, cited in Van der Merwe & Dawes, 2007). For instance Elliott notes that poverty makes delinquent lifestyles more difficult to escape, crime can be financially rewarding for some individuals, more rewarding than legal employment. Research to date has also failed to effectively account for the protective factors involved in preventing delinquency (Farrell & Flannery). Farrell and Flannery argue that this is particularly important in providing insights into violent offending since the combination of particular risk and protective factors can produce violent behaviour. More research is needed to emphasise the interdependent nature of the relationships between socio-cultural factors and violent behaviour (Tolan, Gorman-Smith, & Henry, 2003).

Tolan et al. (2003) argue in support of a developmental ecological model which proposes that microsystems (e.g. parenting techniques), macrosystems (e.g. community characteristics) and individual differences all interact to produce violent offending in youths. The researchers' argue that it is unrealistic to assume a simple linear relationship between two factors can explain violent offending (Tolan et al.; Brezina et al., 2004). Tolan et al.'s longitudinal study found that parenting practices did not directly lead adolescents to violently offend; poor parenting practices predicted gang membership which in turn predicted violent offending. Tolan et al. also noted that there was no direct relationship between neighbourhood features and gang membership, instead parenting style impacted on this relationship, meaning that living in a high poverty, high crime area affected gang membership only when parenting practices were poor. Violent offending only seems to occur when there is an interaction between the home and peer environment. However, a problem with this study is that parenting practices were not monitored longitudinally; parenting practices were measured at one point in time via a questionnaire leading to the suggestion that the influence of parenting style may have been underestimated. The accuracy of the parenting practice measure may also have been improved via observation. This study also ignored other familial factors; parenting may have been very positive but problems within the wider family can still persist (Tolan et al.). Nevertheless, the relationships outlined by Tolan et al. were complicated with various factors mediating the relationships; it is likely that these factors are further complicated by particular biological factors.

Hormonal factors may be important in driving violent offending. The evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory (Ellis, 2004) proposes that genes on the Y-chromosome have evolved to produce testosterone (Carlier, Roubertoux, Kottler, & Degrelle cited in Ellis) which has been implicated in aggression. Since levels of testosterone rapidly increase during puberty this could explain the increase in the prevalence of violent offending amongst adolescents. Ellis hypothesises that moderate to extreme levels of testosterone produce violent offending. Hormonal factors can therefore account for the larger number of violent male offenders than female since it is typically males who produce higher levels of testosterone. However, research is not conclusive in supporting a direct relationship between testosterone and aggression. Moore (2001) found that castrated hamsters reduced the number of physical attacks in comparison to non-castrated hamsters; however this was dependent on their social environment. This relationship is likely to be further complicated in humans where individual differences are likely to have a profound impact. This explanation also does not account for a period of limited violent offending since it is not until the middle-ages of adult life (age 40) that testosterone level decline commences (Sternbach, 1998). A meta-analysis, focusing on 45 studies, found that only 14% of the variance could be attributed to the relationship between testosterone and aggression (Book, Starzyk, & Quinsey, 2001), yet eighty-three percent of studies in Book et al.'s meta-analysis demonstrated a positive relationship between the two variables, thus testosterone may have some influence even if this influence is small in magnitude. The interaction between social environments and biological factors may be more important than biology alone in explaining violent offending.

It has been found that traumatic experiences (such as being the victim of physical abuse) can affect neurological development of the brain (DeBellis et al., 1999) which may make violent responses more likely. The mid-sagittal section of the corpus callosum was significantly smaller in maltreated children than healthy controls and the lateral ventricles were abnormally larger in maltreated children than healthy controls (DeBellis et al.). Wilson et al. (2009) also noted that the hippocampus, amygdala and frontal cortex can be damaged by an inflated level of cortisol (this hormone is produced in response to stress). The structures cited by Wilson et al. are vital in inhibiting behaviour and enabling coping. This implies that the individual will be more likely to behave impulsively, will be unable to cognitively deal with stressful life events and thus be more likely to initiate violence. Therefore, it is clear that the social environment has a significant effect on the development of internal structures, suggesting the interaction between one's social environment and biology is important in explaining violent offending.

In contrast, evolutionary theories propose the reason why violent offending is particularly common in adolescence is because males are competing for access to the same resources, namely females (Charles & Egan, 2005; Wilson & Daly, 1985). Natural selection has created females who seek mates who are socially dominant (Ellis, 2004). Females adopt choosy strategies when selecting a mate since the burden of pregnancy means that they want a mate to provide for them and their offspring. This helps them to be able to produce more offspring in future and to enable their genes to survive (Ellis). Charles and Egan found that those scoring highly in 'mating effort' had higher delinquency scores. Mating effort being the resources spent in relation to the courting of and meeting with females (Lalumiere & Quinsey, 1996), hence this theory predicts that delinquent behaviour will develop when males want to gain access to females. The theory asserts that violent offending becomes more common during adolescence because this is the time at which mates begin to be sought (Ellis). Ellis argues that violent offending is a relatively brief period because adolescents' quickly learn more positive forms of social behaviour which proves to be more successful in obtaining a mate.

In support of this Wilson and Daly (1985) found that shockingly young men provided petty excuses, such as simple embarrassment or taunting by another male as explanations for murder. The researchers' argued this was because females select males on the basis of social standing, thus social embarrassment could be detrimental to ones social ranking. Interestingly, these murder cases involved offenders and victims who possessed very similar characteristics. They were usually both male, young, unemployed, unmarried and had a criminal record. Males were competing with other males of similar social ranking. The disputes were often characterised by the escalation of violence in order to try and 'save face'. This demonstrates an attempt by a male to eliminate competition; the male's ultimate fear is reproductive failure (Wilson & Daly).

Furthermore in support of evolutionary theories, Ellis (cited in Charles & Egan, 2005) found that the crimes committed by young males tended to harm the opponent's reproductive ability and enhanced the offenders' likelihood of reproduction. Also, it is interesting to note that once a mate had been found (e.g. marriage) offending significantly reduced (Sampson & Laub, 2005), perhaps because the initiation of violence can destroy the males' chances of reproduction (Marcus, 2009). Nevertheless, young offenders scoring high in mating effort were not just limited to crimes affecting the reproductive ability of another male. Mating effort also correlated with other forms of anti-social behaviour (Hunter, Figueredo, Malamuth, & Becker, 2003) and fascination with weapons and self-defence awareness (Weiss, Egan, & Figueredo, 2004). Acts of deviance and overly masculine interests reflect a strategic attempt to obtain status and dominance over other young males (Weiss et al.). Therefore, Rowe et al. (cited in Charles & Egan) argue that delinquent behaviour can be an adaptive strategy which increases an individual's likelihood of reproductive success. Since adolescence is a time where seeking a mate becomes important, violent acts becomes more likely because this offence can increase ranking in society.

However, this research can be criticised. A problem with Charles and Egan's (2005), Weiss et al.'s (2004) and Hunter et al.'s (2003) research is that it has only measured the correlation between two variables; it has not focused on cause and effect. The finding that mating effort correlates with delinquent behaviour does not mean mating effort causes violent behaviour. Furthermore, Charles and Egan's sample ranged in age from 12 to 15 years; therefore it is questionable whether it is valid to ask 12-15 year olds questions about their dating experiences since sexual intercourse is illegal under the age of 16. Also the questionnaire by Charles and Egan was administered to participants in a group meaning that there is a problem of social desirable responses because of the presence of others. Furthermore, the validity of the evolutionary theory principles can be questioned (Gannon, 2002). It is doubtful that humans actually think in evolutionary terms. Perhaps humans commit violence as a result of a violation of social norms (e.g. extramarital affairs) rather than an individual believing another male has prevented them from reproducing, Gannon has therefore argued that the principles of evolutionary theory are not easily falsifiable. The evolutionary approach also adopts the simplistic approach that seeking a mate is always about reproduction; this seems incredibly outdated at time when reproduction is being purposely delayed. As Marcus (2009) notes it may be that violent offending declines once an individual marries because a loving relationship has formed rather than the behaviour ceasing as a consequence of a fear of reproductive failure.

The explanations stated all give valuable insights into explaining violent offending. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether violent offending is as common as it has been suggested. The research may represent stereotypes present in the media which depict youths as violent criminals (Farrell & Flannery, 2006). As FBI Uniform Crime Reports indicate although the prevalence of violent crime declined by 6% between 1990 and 1995, the media's reporting of such events increased by 240%, giving the impression that violent crime is on the rise (Sleath, 2010). As Baron, Forde and Kennedy argue (2007) youths have been characterised as a population of violent offenders, forgetting that they are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime. Furthermore, although violent offending may appear common in adolescence in comparison to other life stages, the percentage of those actually committing violent crimes in adolescence remains a very small minority (Lipsey & Derzon, 1999), the behaviours remain atypical despite their increase in prevalence (Tolan, et al., 2003). The idea that violent offending is more common in adolescence brings with it the suggestion that violent offenders cannot be specifically predicted, for instance Moffitt (1993) argues that offending is a product of age and social context. Nevertheless at ages 6 to 11 subsequent violent offending can be predicted on the basis of offending in childhood and the abuse of substances (Lipsey & Derzon). Therefore, those who commit violent offences during adolescence seem to have elements of problem behaviour in childhood (Elliott, cited in Van der Merwe & Dawes, 2007). Hence, the generality of violent offending in youths can be questioned.

Furthermore although it is assumed that violent offending increases in adolescence relative to other life stages, this may be because the type of crime has not been deconstructed. Steffensmeier, Allan, Harer, and Streifel (1989) note that there are no significant changes to the number of 'crimes against a person' committed in adolescence in comparison to adulthood. Instead public order, burglary, vandalism, substance abuse and property crimes have been found to increase. Thus, perhaps adolescent-limited offenders do not tend to be violent offenders. Also the definition of violence influences who is classified as the most violent group. It should not be forgotten that murder rates are at their highest in young adulthood (Marcus, 2009). Marcus notes that 1,391 murders were committed by those between the ages of 12 and 18 in comparison to 4,524 murders committed by those between the ages of 19 and 25; the murder rate is typically 3.3 times higher in young adults. Archer's (2004) meta-analysis also found that the highest rate of aggression is found in those between the ages of 20 and 30. Thus, adolescents are perhaps not the most dangerous age group.

In conclusion, the assumption that violent offending appears more common in adolescence points towards the existence of "an age-bounded ghetto" (Schwendinger & Schwendinger, cited in Moffitt, 1993, p.691); however this is clearly not the case with more horrific forms of offending being more prevalent in young adulthood. Undoubtedly, the reasons which lead adolescents to commit violent offences cannot be explained in a simplistic linear fashion, there are many interacting factors (Van der Merwe & Dawes, 2007) which are drawn over long periods of time and with few or no protective factors present (Farrell & Flannery, 2006). All of the factors described above make offending more likely but still do not exclusively define the factors which lead an offender to commit an act of violence. Perhaps, evolutionary explanations are the strongest in explaining violent offending in young people because violent offending (including homicide) continues to peak in young adulthood where mates remain to be sought. Typically by this age peers have less an influence, the individual is socially treated as an adult (e.g. by the age of 18), the home environment has been escaped and hormonal production has stabilised.