There is no shortage of crimes committed by children. Every year, we have to deal with children making mistakes that often leave them in jail. In 2013, 15-year-old Nehemiah Griego gunned down his family in Albuquerque. Reports showed that the child was upset with his mother, so he shot her in the head.
In another case, a 7-year-old was shot and killed with a high-powered hunting rifle in 1989. He was shot by 9-year-old Cameron Kocher. It’s said that the pair had an argument so Kocher took his father’s hunting rifle, loaded the weapon, and fired at his playmate from the window of his home.
Cases like these are alarming and disturbing. Children, who are considered innocent, kind, and vulnerable, but can also commit criminal acts just like the adults—sometimes worse. Previous research has found some factors that are likely to increase the chances of children and young people becoming involved in offending. Regardless of these factors, these criminal acts stand in direct contrast to social perceptions of young people, resulting in a reality that’s difficult to reconcile.
Finding the Root Causes
No one is born a criminal. There are always some factors that lead people to commit a crime: peer pressure, poor education, poor socioeconomic status, substance abuse, and neglectful parents. All of these strongly influence teen criminal behavior.
Lack of education is one of the major contributing factors to juvenile crime. According to Secure Teen, an online site that helps parents to protect kids from dangers of digital age, children who don’t pay attention to their studies and spend time in leisure activities tend to remain ignorant of important aspects of life. It’s important that they learn the downside and consequences of committing mistakes as well as to take accountability for them. Meanwhile, some young people tend to succumb to peer pressure, often leading them to dangerous situations.
Previous surveys on teen crimes revealed that teens who are friends with criminals are more likely to end up becoming criminals themselves. It was also proven that many teens cite peer pressure as one of the major reasons for engaging in risky behaviors such as reckless driving, substance abuse, alcohol, teen sex, teen gang, and criminal activity. Influenced by their peers’ behavior, most teens get involved in a risky activity and end up having huge problems.
Neglected teens are more prone to becoming criminals because they lack love and affection, making them feel less deserving of a family, and this makes them angry and violent. They channel their negative energy into committing crimes. When parents do not pay attention to the personal and social development of their teens, they think they have become independent and take up the most important decisions of their lives on their own. Poor socioeconomic status can also become a contributing factor to juvenile crime, urging teens for burglary.
Desire for Excitement
Dr. Claire Nee, Reader in Forensic Psychology, said that it’s important that we understand the situations young people are into that made them decide to commit a crime. A recent study published in the British Journal of Criminology discovered a pattern that shows that young people’s initiation into a crime is linked originally to the desire for excitement and the thrill of committing the offense.
According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, the researchers completed a ‘virtual burglary’ where participants use a simulated environment to burgle a property. The participants involved young people (average age 20) and experienced burglars (average age 39). They were asked about the days and hours before the burglary to try and establish the processes that led them to be involved in the first place.
“The role of emotion in driving the desire to commit a crime is a much-neglected area and our research indicates it could be key to stopping it in its tracks. The excitement drives the initial spate of offending, but skill and financial reward quickly take over resulting in habitual offending,” Dr. Nee said.
In one simulation, the offenders were found to become motivated by the experience of making quick, easy money. One participant said, "I just had so much money and I was thinking, wow, is this what 10 minutes of work is."
"It is fascinating to explore the stages of a criminal's career, so we can see what motivates them at the start, what continues to motivate them, and how we might be able to intervene,” Dr. Nee added.
Crime and Morality
At the heart of the criminal justice system are two concepts: “right” and “wrong.” Often, young people are not able to grasp the essence of these two concepts that end up committing a crime. A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge examined how moral education can help young people make the right decisions. The team carried out in-depth interviews with 50 young and prolific violent offenders, looking at the role of moral emotions in the decision to commit violence.
The findings revealed that young people are more likely to carry out violent acts if they have weak empathy, shame, and guilt as well as if they don’t feel violence is wrong. For instance, when asked "did you feel ashamed or guilty when others found out?" one person responded that "there's not much guilt involved in the whole situation, to be honest." It’s important that they are taught the significance of knowing what’s right and wrong to reduce the likelihood of them growing up to believe that criminal behavior could be seen as morally acceptable.
The research also found that spending time with people who provide examples of strong morals can lead to law-abiding behavior. However, channeling a person’s morality is much more complex than we thought. A 2019 study revealed that some people may rely on principles of both guilt and fairness and may switch their moral rule depending on the circumstances. Co-author Luke J. Chang, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Computational Social Affective Neuroscience Laboratory (Cosan Lab) at Dartmouth, said that moral behavior could change under new contexts.
“Our study demonstrates that with moral behavior, people may not in fact always stick to the golden rule. While most people tend to exhibit some concern for others, others may demonstrate what we have called 'moral opportunism,' where they still want to look moral but want to maximize their own benefit," said lead author Jeroen van Baar, a postdoctoral research associate in the department of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University.