Peer influences have grown into a major predictor of violence among youths, while gangs have grown in prevalence from large inner cities to smaller cities and even suburban communities. Since acceptance, identity, and safety requirements, along with poor social and family relationships, constitute the leading risk factors and “attractions” of peer group and gang violence, there are needs for competent community-based intervention strategies to control these problems. Three strategies are essential in this context: intervention at the individual level for at risk children especially those who display disruptive behavior, family-based prevention, and intervention at the school and community levels. Intervention ought to combine prevention, intercession, and suppression methods, targeting essential protective factors such as positive social interaction, warm supportive parental relationships, academic development, membership to positive peer groups, and positive contributions to the society. Communities have responsibilities to strengthen social institutions such as families and schools, enhance community-based supervision, and train instructors, counselors, and parents in effective management of disruptive youths.
Peer Group and Gang Violence
The rise in violent crimes in which young people are the offenders has heightened concern in the modern society. The focuses of such concern the tendency of youths to engage in violence and the persistently high rates of youth violence in contrast with declining overall rates of arrests for serious violent offences. Peer influences have grown into a major predictor of violence among youths. Research studies have identified involvement with deviant peers as one of the biggest influences in the onset and continued engagement in delinquent and violent behavior. Of essential concern is the observation that initiation and participation in violent activity often serves as a tool for the acquisition of identity and membership within a group, especially in terms of obtaining peer group members’ respect and attention, or as a means of establishing personal independence. By nature, gangs are groups of individuals that sponsor and encourage violent behaviors among members and peers (Howell, 2010; Shader, 2003). Gangs, which represent a growing threat to the safety of society members, have grown in prevalence from large inner metropolitan areas to smaller cities and even suburban communities.
The following assessment establishes that to prevent peer group and gang violence effectively, communities have responsibilities to strengthen social institutions such as families and schools, enhance community-based supervision, and train instructors, counselors, and parents in effective management of disruptive youths. This is possible through employment of effective counseling and intervention methods and enhancing essential protective factors in the lives of at-risk children and youths (Howell, 2010).
Critical Factors and Processes influencing Peer Group and Gang Violence
As individuals develop from childhood into teenage and youth, various risk factors for violence assume progressively greater significance. This is especially considering that such development involves typical struggle to acquire freedom from parental control and dependence in all spheres of life. The influence of the family in the individual’s life begins to lessen, with peer-related risk factors assuming growing influence. As the individual reaches teenage, communities and peers become more significant than the family in influencing the attitudes and values that the person adopts. Equally, the individual becomes more conscious of culture and his/her personal significance among peers and social groups, influencing the rise of a growing requirement to achieve identity and a feeling of belonging. In the course of activities and institutional processes in schools, social groups, and peer groups, the individual experiences a significant need to identify with a group that he/she finds convenient and suitable according to personality and value appeals (Taylor, 2013; Dahlberg et al, 2005). Such desire to obtain identity and acceptance within a group of peers forms a strong basis for violence and delinquency.
Researchers studying the influences of youths’ tendencies to join gangs have identified a close relationship between the reasons and risk factors for gang membership and those for participation in violence among youths. The lure of gangs and deviant peer groups is typically stronger for youths who are vulnerable, such as those with low self-esteem, poor school connections, troubled family and social group relationships, or siblings and close friends in gangs (Howell, 2010; Fitch, 2009).Generally, youths and individuals who feel dissatisfied with their lives and identity relative to the community and groups of friends are vulnerable to the lure of deviant peer groups and gangs.
Shader (2003) classifies the risk factors for gang and peer group violence into five levels or scopes – individual, family, school, peer group, and community. The author also identifies early onset (age 6-11) and late onset (age 12-14) variations in the risk factors, listing low IQ, substance abuse, being male, hyperactivity, exposure to portrayals of violence on television, and antisocial beliefs and attitudes as essential factors at the individual level. At the family level, neglect of children, abusive parents, family conflicts (separation and divorce of parents), poor parent-child relationships, and low socioeconomic status/poverty are vital factors, while poor attitudes and performance are the essential factors at the school level. Weak social ties and antisocial peers are vital risk factors for gang and peer group violence at the peer group level, while neighborhood crime, drugs use, and disorder or disorganization in the neighborhood are essential factors at the community level (Shader, 2003; Hawkins et al, 2000; Taylor, 2013).
Howell (2010) observes that gang problems in the U.S. showed an increasing prevalence during a 25-year period preceding the mid-1990s, before a significant decline prior to 2002. Nevertheless, after 2002, the problem escalated again, reflecting an overall 15% increase by 2008 across different areas of measurement such as rural counties, suburban counties, small cities, and big cities. In terms of the prevalence of peer group and gang violence, Howell notes the findings of a national longitudinal survey of 9,000 adolescent respondents in the U.S. that established that 8% of youth had been members of gangs at one point between 12 and 17 years of age. In terms of demographic characteristics, geographic factors have a significant influence on the composition of gangs and deviant peer groups, with memberships often reflecting the particular demographic make-ups of youth populations in specific areas (Howell, 2010). A survey in 2008 established that half of gang members across the U.S. are Latino/Hispanic, while 32% and 11% are black and Caucasian respectively. In terms of gender, a report in 1997 identified a 2:1 male: female ratio of gang members in the country, while a more recent report in the 2000s established a closer gender balance in gang membership (8.8% and 7.8% for boys and girls respectively) (Howell, 2010).
In considering the theories and concepts of gang formation and the transition from peer groups to gangs, research has established a link between delinquency and membership to gangs. While delinquency is a unique influential factor in membership to gangs and deviant peer groups, researchers have observed that multiple environmental and personal factors have essential roles in influencing youths’ conscious choices to join gangs, especially during adolescence. In some cases, youths engage with less delinquent peer groups, termed “starter gangs”, rather than joining serious and violent gangs immediately, before “graduating” to them (Howell, 2010). Often, established gangs associate with or create cliques to initiate adolescents and kids (“juniors” and “wannabes”) to gang culture, teaching them rituals, codes, and unique attitudes (Howell, 2010). Apart from the risk factors discussed earlier, “attractions” to gangs and deviant peer groups include financial assistance, fun, excitement, respect, and protection (Howell, 2010; Lachman, Roman, & Cahill, 2013). Media representations of gangs, such as in movies, also contribute to the appeal of gangs, with children, especially susceptible youth, conceptualizing membership to the gangs as sensational. Romantic relationships and friendships are also vital influences in gang membership, as female adolescents feel attracted to gangs owing to the memberships of their friends and boyfriends (Howell, 2010; De Matos et al, 2012).
The assessments of risk factors, critical factors, and processes that influence peer group and gang violence as a trend in the modern society above imply the need for community-based prevention mechanisms that employ competent strategies among susceptible and delinquent children. Three strategies are essential in this context: intervention at the individual level for at-risk children, especially those who display disruptive behavior, family-based prevention, and intervention at the school and community levels. These strategies are likely to be most effective when intervention to address the risk factors starts punctually – prior to the developmental points at which the factors and risks start to predict problem behaviors and gang involvement (Howell, 2010). In this context, intervention ought to combine prevention, intercession, and suppression methods, targeting essential protective factors such as positive social interaction, warm supportive parental relationships, academic development, membership to positive peer groups, and positive contributions to the society.
Gangs and peer groups represent two important influences in the tendency of youths to engage in violence in the modern society. As individuals grow from childhood into teenage and youth, requirements to obtain identity, develop senses of belonging, and break away from parental and family influences yield susceptibility to deviant peer groups and gangs. Such groups’ offers of important benefits at the youth stage of life, such as identity, safety, and acceptance, enhance their appeal.This means that for effective prevention of peer group and gang violence, communities have responsibilities to strengthen social institutions such as families and schools, enhance community-based supervision, and train instructors, counselors, and parents in effective management of disruptive youths. This ought to involve employment of effective counseling and intervention methods and enhancement of essential protective factors in the lives of at-risk children and youths.
Dahlberg, L., Toal, S., Swahn, M., & Behrens, C. (2005). Measuring Violence-related Attitudes, Behaviors, and Influences among Youths: a Compendium of Assessment Tools, Second Edition. Atlanta, Georgia: CDC.
De Matos, M., Celeste, S., Camacho, I., &AlvesDiniz, J. (2012). How can Peer Group influence the Behavior of Adolescents: Explanatory Model? Global Journal of Health Science 4(2).
Fitch, K. (2009). The safeguarding needs of Young People in Gangs and Violent Peer Groups. NSPCC Inform Resource.
Hawkins, J., Herrenkohl, T., Farrington, D., Brewer, D., Catalano, R., Harachi, T., &Cothern, L. (2000). Predictors of Youth Violence. Juvenile Justice Bulletin.
Howell, J. (2010). Gang Prevention: an Overview of Research and Programs. Juvenile Justice Bulletin.
Lachman, P., Roman, C., & Cahill, M. (2013). Assessing Youth Motivations for joining a Peer Group as Risk Factors for Delinquent and Gang Behavior. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 11(3): 212-229.
Shader, M. (2003). Risk Factors for Delinquency: an Overview. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Article.