Its time we stop vilifying our young people and start helping them | Belfast and Beyond | 21 Nov 2008 | Amnesty International UK

Its time we stop vilifying our young people and start helping them

In the week that readers of amnesty blogs were able to learn about how well informed and compassionate young people can be (care of the great selection of blogs from NI Youth), a number of publications have provided further evidence of a deficit between public perceptions of young people and reality.On Monday, we heard that more than half of those questioned in an extensive YouGov survey believed young people behave like animals; moreover, half of respondents also believed that young people were increasingly a danger to others. Then, on Thursday came the findings of the 2008 British Crime Survey which, paradoxically for some, highlighted the fact that young people actually perpetrate only a fraction of crime in England and Wales, yet the key group of men aged 16-24 are easily the most likely to be a victim of crime.One explanation for the fear and distrust that appears to be projected towards young people is that it is fuelled by the misrepresentation of youth by the media.  Innovative television presenter Garron Mitchell agrees with this view, and highlights the media fuelled moral panic surrounding the humble hooded top as an example.  In his documentary ‘Goodie Hoodies’, Mitchell sets out to change public perceptions of young people and their choice of fashion. Taking a historical perspective, he shows that every generation has had their folk devil with the hoodie being just the latest in a long line of negative social constructs. What is striking about his program is the difficulty his group of goodie hoodies have in changing public perceptions no matter how many positive activities they engage in.Of course Mitchell’s campaign may jar to a certain extent with those who have come into contact with a group of hooded young people and can attest to how uncomfortable it feels. Moreover, many point out that the hood often appears compulsory attire for the minority of young people that are out to commit anti-social behaviour and mischief in their communities. However, it appears to be clear that concentrating on the image of a group and labelling them as deviant in some way is an over simplistic manner in which to explain anti-social behaviour. For example, in a major study of the link between victimization and offending in young people, Victim Support found that associating with delinquent peers or in gangs was an effective explanation for young people getting involved in, or becoming a victim of crime. However, this only tended to be the product of a whole series of issues such as low school attendance, weak social networks, lack of recreational activities and poor self esteem.In Northern Ireland, almost thirty years of conflict has led to a lack of investment in community infrastructure which has in turn led to overpopulated housing estates, with many of these estates providing textbook examples of where not to raise a child. Addiction and family breakdown often ensure that troubled young people slip through the educational net, and a lack of youth clubs and recreational facilities result in young people who are bored and disenfranchised from main stream society.A multitude of groups and organizations are struggling to attend to these issues, however, their efforts are often restricted by a lack of funding. One success story is the midnight soccer project which provides cross-community recreation opportunities for 14-17 year olds in many of the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland. Another is the Lagan Valley Educational Project which has taken many of the lost causes of young person expelled from main stream schools, and has attended to their unique needs to ensure they get an effective education. The work of organizations like Lagan Valley appears all the more important when you consider over two thirds of prison inmates have serious deficiencies in numeracy and literacy.It is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that human beings have a right to education and to possess positive attitudes towards themselves including the objects of self-respect and self-esteem. Therefore, it is important to remember that many of the young people who are labelled as deviant have been denied these rights for one reason or another. In future rather than strengthening the stereotype, it would be great if we could all get involved in tackling the causes.

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