Insular online communities make at-risk youth hard to reach

by | Feb 5, 2021 | News

Children and teenagers identity and association with groups have amplified with social media. However, that has dangers if not correctly monitored.

“The thing we start[ed] to see was a group that was really more ‘ethnocentric,'” said Stephen Duggan, a Criminal Justice professor at Humber College. “These were groups that really hung around together because they lived in the same area.”

But Duggan said some teenagers self-isolate themselves from friends and family, show signs of aggression and violence, have difficulties with school or their home lives, and even drop out of school entirely, some of the common symptoms of being a part of youth or street gangs.

“All gangs can be dangerous,” he said.

But even using the word gang can be a little bit overbearing.

”Gang is a word you have to be careful of,” said Irwin Waller, a Criminology professor at the University of Ottawa. “Some people talk about it as being a little bit more like their family. I think that’s a truer, stronger word.”

Doug Thomson, another Humber College Criminal Justice professor, agrees teenagers involved with these surrogate families are using modern technology and social media as a part of their recruiting process.

“It’s always difficult to work out whether the people doing stuff on social media, are doing it because they’re teenagers,” he said. “And that they want to seem more powerful than they are, or that they’re actually involved.”

Duggan also agrees.

“People are basically sheep,” he said, “They will follow the lead sheep, and go, ‘Okay, we’ll follow you.'”

But it might not be easy to uncover.

“It’s a coding system, where you can write certain things on [social media],” Duggan said. “You can write in a code, and only your peer group understands what you’re actually doing.”

Unless you were the police officer to read between the lines and figure out the post’s context, no one is going to be able to take proper action to stop these teenagers.

However, Waller, Thomson, and Duggan all said the only way to help these teenagers and their use of social media is to have police and social services be there to guide them, especially in and around middle and high schools.

“The only way you can [stop these youth gangs] is by front-end loading,” Duggan said. “Front-end loading means that you put all your resources to the front end.”

Duggan adds this especially applies to those that start out as victims — or the fuel — for gang activity in the future, the ignition.

“Just because you belong to a gang doesn’t mean you’re actually doing anything,” Thomson said.