Did Social Media Kill Juvenile Delinquency?

(Image: Dreamstime)
Lower crime rates are a good thing, but there is a cost to growing up in a brightly lit and surveillance-saturated world.

YouTube killed the juvenile delinquent.

That’s the conclusion I came to recently when I got together with some of my high-school friends from the early 1980s. Reliving our glory days, we found ourselves thankful that there was no social media to capture our antics.

It’s only based on a hunch, but I’m convinced that the way in which the Internet has come to dominate our lives has resulted in a steep drop in juvenile delinquency. Unlike in my high-school and college years, kids these days are terrified that if they do something bold — or stupid — it will wind up on Facebook, YouTube, or Snapchat. Last year, Ariana Grande, a 22-year-old pop singer, licked a doughnut and it wound up on the Today show.

The statistics correlate with my theory. A 2015 article available on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange highlighted the steep drop in juvenile crime over the last 30 years. The JJIE noted that “juvenile arrests for violent crime have dropped to a 30-year low, and fewer teens are being locked up than at any time in nearly 20 years, the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) found in its latest periodic national report on offenders and victims.”

“Rather than in years when the story was ‘Oh my God, look at how high the numbers are,’ now it’s the reverse — ‘Oh my Lord, look at how far they’ve dropped,’” Juvenile Justice Center director Melissa Sickmund said. Sickmund went on to ask not only why delinquency fell, “but why was there that blip where it went up in the first place?” She added, “I think it’s returning to a normal state and something weird went on between the mid-’80s to 2000-something.”

I was in high school and college in the 1980s and so lived right through the middle of that “something weird.” The reason it was so different during that period of time is that we didn’t live in fear of our every action’s being caught on a cell phone or security camera and posted on social media. An all-seeing eye is a great deterrent to crime. Looking at the charts from the National Center for Juvenile Justice, it’s fascinating how juvenile crime drops as Internet availability and use rises. In 1982, or even 1992, you could go out on a Saturday night, drink beer, see a band, take a long walk by yourself, hit on a girl, toilet-paper a neighbor’s house, and speed on the way home. You could do all of these things while remaining almost completely anonymous. By 2002 that became more difficult, and by 2012, it was damn near impossible. In 2016, whenever anything slightly unusual happens, an army of cell phones are produced, ready to capture ever second of the action.

When my high-school buddies and I got together and exchanged memories of that time, we found ourselves genuinely shocked at the stuff we got away with. There was the annual week at the beach where we not only had no cell phones, but the house itself had no phone, making us unreachable — at 16 years old. The parties where 300 people would show up, but not the cops. The drag races (one of which involved actually outrunning a police officer), the movie make-out sessions, the punk clubs where something genuinely odd could be seen, the pool-hopping through the neighborhood on hot summer nights, the illegal skateboarding. And the only record of any of it would be between our ears.

In many ways we have it better in 2016. Parents concerned about the whereabouts of their teen can simply send a text. Police have digital cameras that make sure that dangerous drivers get caught. Security cameras can prevent predators and crazies from getting too comfortable wandering through a neighborhood. And the juvenile crime rate continues to drop. Yet as I was with my old friends and remembering those times when we were at the beach or a concert or on a long road trip and it was just us and the analog world, I realized that while it is a very good thing that the young are committing fewer crimes, it’s also important for adolescents to have moments of complete, anonymous freedom. It’s in that space, away from the glow of the iPhone, where kids can cultivate the darker part of their soul — that shadow part of us that is the seat of some danger, yes, but also of creativity. I can’t help but wonder if, in our brightly lit and surveillance-saturated modern world, we’ve driven out an important element of what makes us human.

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