Public enemies

An 11-year-old served with an Asbo. A 12-year-old charged with GBH. Slap-happy teens on the rampage. Kids today are worse than ever. Or are they? Malcolm Macalister Hall reports
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The Independent Online

Gangs of "feral youths" roaming the streets in hooded tops or baseball caps, with no fear of the the police or the law; a teenage girl beaten up and filmed on mobile phones in the "happy slapping" craze; a hooded teenager (already with an ASBO) pleading guilty last week to the manslaughter of a "Good Samaritan" who had tried to stop a fight; an 11-year-old with a penchant for Calpol and rampaging through her neighbour's gardens; a five-year-old boy found with "ligature marks" around his neck; and files marked "yob culture" at the top of the pile on government desks after Tony Blair promised to restore "respect" in society. It's time for action - again, much like it was years ago in John Major's Back to Basics campaign.

Gangs of "feral youths" roaming the streets in hooded tops or baseball caps, with no fear of the the police or the law; a teenage girl beaten up and filmed on mobile phones in the "happy slapping" craze; a hooded teenager (already with an ASBO) pleading guilty last week to the manslaughter of a "Good Samaritan" who had tried to stop a fight; an 11-year-old with a penchant for Calpol and rampaging through her neighbour's gardens; a five-year-old boy found with "ligature marks" around his neck; and files marked "yob culture" at the top of the pile on government desks after Tony Blair promised to restore "respect" in society. It's time for action - again, much like it was years ago in John Major's Back to Basics campaign.

In all the current soul-searching over "what's gone wrong with Britain's youth" all sorts of reasons, theories and red herrings have been dragged out of the cupboard into the spotlight: binge-drinking, junk diets of crisps and cola, gangsta rap, prank TV, too much money, too little money, poor education, lax parenting, over-protective parenting, Ecstasy, the demise of youth clubs, cannabis, violent video games - and hooded sweatshirts. But in the necessary process of asserting their identity while growing up, young people have always scandalised and alarmed adult society - or at least tried to.

Binge drinking and football hooliganism are hardly new. "Violence among youth cultures is very, very old. There is absolutely nothing new about it," says Prof George Rousseau, co-director, with Prof Laurence Brockliss, of the recently-established Centre for the History of Childhood at Oxford University. "Examples go all the way from moments in ancient Greece and the Roman provinces through to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the seventeenth Century and beyond."

But perhaps the first hint of modern "youth culture" came in the late Victorian period, with gangs known as Scuttlers forming in and around Manchester, and the Peaky Blinders in Birmingham and the Midlands. "In the late Victorian period there was a panic, not dissimilar to the current one, about yobbery and hooliganism - and these terms come from that period," says Bill Osgerby, reader in Media, Culture & Communications at London Metropolitan University, and author of several books on youth culture.

"The fears about the Scuttlers and the Peaky Blinders were fairly vague and nebulous, just like the whole hooded-top thing," he says. "It's a bit unclear what these kids were actually doing, but they were perceived as roughneck tearaways, really.

"Distinctive forms of dress are traditionally a way of kids waving two fingers at parents and authority figures. It's a means of asserting your identity, and cocking a snook at authority at the same time." He adds that young people have endlessly been blamed for society's perceived ills. "I'm always wary of these sudden outbreaks of hand-wringing concern about society's descent into unparalleled moral turpitude - they're a perennial thing that comes round every few years," he says.

Society's usual target for complaint are "teenagers", a word coined by a US market research company in the mid 1940s. At first, they were just another newly-affluent sub-group of consumers. Then, in the early 1950s, two things happened which indelibly linked teenagers with rebellion. The first was the release of The Wild One, in 1954, which starred Marlon Brando as Johnny, a nihilistic outlaw bike gang leader. The second came the following year with Bill Haleys' "Rock around the Clock". The single jumpstarted rock'n'roll when it featured on the soundtrack of The Blackboard Jungle, a strangely familiar tale about a teacher struggling to win the respect of his class of young hooligans in an inner-city sink school.

In Britain, the Clacton and Brighton clashes between Mods (or 'modernists') and Rockers in 1964 left the nation traumatised and in shock, and brought society's big guns to bear. Headlines screamed "Day of Terror by Scooter Groups", and "Wild Ones Invade Seaside".

Researching that summer's mayhem, sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the term "moral panic" to describe society's reaction. He defined "moral panic" using subtly ironic phrases. At it's core, "a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests... its nature presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media ... manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people."

From the first stirrings of modern youth culture the press were on the case, whipping up the first of countless "moral panics" about juvenile delinquents and dissolute youth whom they then - as now - depicted as living proof that society was heading straight down the plug-hole. And so it went on, from pot-smoking beatniks, to mods, rockers, skinheads, hippies, punks, rude boys; to football-hooligan Casuals, Goths, New Age Travellers, Acid House ravers, to alienated Generation X-ers, and on. The outrage, all faithfully logged by the media.

"You don't need to search hard to find negative representations of youth in post-war Britain," says Osgerby. "Crime, violence and sexual licence have been recurring themes in the media's treatment of youth culture, with the 'degeneracy' of the young depicted as indicative of a steady disintegration of the country's social fabric. Yet representations of young people have never been entirely pessimistic."

"It's late capitalism which enables these groups to thrive," says George Rousseau, adding that they require a level of wealth and leisure time - and media - to flourish. "In the 17th or 18th centuries it wasn't so easy to find out everything - now these kids are on the internet by the age of 14, and they know what's in, what's out, which brand to wear. The technology is serving them, and heightening peer pressure. I think that peer pressure is a crucial aspect, [and is] linked to violence."

So where are we at now? A pilled-up club culture, an ill-defined 'yob culture', and chavs - based around the core values of assembling a garish wardrobe of bootleg designer-label kit. Some observers argue that teenagers are now just rapacious consumers, like the rest of us.

"Young people now find themselves in a really tricky position, because they've been so pulled into the dominant ideology of consumption that they've actually not got anything to rebel against," says Dr Steven Miles, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Liverpool University. "They're at the forefront of consumption, and so they are actually in agreement with the dominant structures that surround them. They're left in a no-man's-land, not knowing where they fit in."

Have things got 'worse'? Some sociologists say no - but it seems naive to suggest that society never changes. Older people will overwhelmingly say yes - but then they would, wouldn't they? However, they were around in previous decades, and even allowing for rose-tinted nostalgia, society was clearly more deferential and respectful towards authority in, for example, the 1950s when modern "youth culture" really had its beginnings. Most schools were run with iron discipline, making children genuinely frightened of displeasing teachers.

Five decades of increasing liberalisation have, rightly, encouraged children to question authority. However, law and order enthusiasts would argue that this has simply given the wayward a licence to misbehave with impunity.

But Camila Batmanghelidjh says she's furious about all the talk of a "crackdown" on Britain's "badly-behaved" youth. A psychotherapist, Batmanghelidjh founded the much-praised Kids Company 10 years ago in south London, and works with some of Britain's most brutalised urban children.

"There are children being born into households that are completely dysfunctional as a result of violence and extreme poverty," she says. "These toddlers are terrorised for much of their childhood. They experience a prolonged and relentless release of adrenalin - the fright hormone." She describes them as "chemically-distressed", and says that this appears to have a permanent effect. Later, as teenagers, the children have told her they are physically incapable of calming themselves down.

"When a young child sees that its pleading and begging is having no effect on its circumstances, an emotional change takes place; these children shut down their capacities to feel, so that they are numb to the traumatic experiences around them. And in that numb state, during these key developmental years, they forget what it feels like to feel. They don't have a "feeling thermostat" to regulate their behaviour; and when they grow up in very violent neighbourhoods where the currency of survival is violence, you get a pretty serious cocktail."

On the south London streets where these children carve out their identity, shootings, she says, are "quite normal".

"Shootings, being stabbed, being bottled, a lot of girls being sexually attacked - these are the conditions that these children grow up in. In their experience, these are norms. There is a level of permission for violence - and that is initially created by adults.

"My difficulty with the current 'anti-social agenda' is that adults invariably fail to take responsibility for childhood, and they blame the children. That's why this whole discourse is so unjust. What these children want is not snazzy sports centres and computer courses. They need loving human beings that they can come into contact with. Nobody is prepared to pay for or invest in that, but this is what these children are starved of. They're starved of gentle, kind, thoughtful human contact."

Bill Osgerby, Youth Media (£14.99, Routledge)

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