One in four young adults admitted breaking the law in the past year, research by the Home Office found.
Most committed minor offences, such as vandalism or shoplifting, but one in eight confessed to serious crime including robbery, burglary and grievous bodily harm. About one in four owned up to antisocial behaviour.
The extent of youth crime and unruly behaviour emerged from interviews with 5,000 people aged between 10 and 25 in England and Wales.
It found that 26 per cent - equivalent to some two million teenagers and young adults - had been involved in crime during 2004. However, just 3 per cent had been arrested.
The research discovered that 8 per cent were frequent offenders, committing at least six offences over the year. A total of 12 per cent said they had committed a serious offence, including assault, theft, stealing cars and selling class A drugs.
The study found that some tried illegal drugs for the first time when they were only eight years old. Twenty-two per cent of those questioned admitted using drugs in the previous year. Some 8 per cent had taken class A substances and 10 per cent were classed as frequent users.
It also found that antisocial behaviour was widespread, with 16 per cent saying people had complained they were being noisy or rude and 12 per cent saying neighbours had protested about their behaviour. Daubing graffiti (3 per cent) and uttering racist abuse (2 per cent) were rare.
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "This demonstrates the extent of the problem there now exists with crime amongst young people." He accused the Government of "paying lip service" to the issue and demanded fundamental reform of policing to combat youth crime.Reuse content