A UK study that compares teenagers' perceptions of what constitutes antisocial behavior with those of adults - the first to do so - finds they differ significantly.
Dr. Susie Hulley, currently at the Institute of Criminology of the University of Cambridge, is the author of the study, which is published in the Journal of Crime Prevention and Community Safety. She conducted the research while studying at University College London.
She found adults were more likely than teenagers to regard public behavior as antisocial, particularly when displayed by young people.
Dr. Hulley believes perceptions of risk may influence older people's views of young people, suggesting that "the information that adults have about young people, for example from their negative portrayal in the media, often defines them in terms of the threat that they allegedly pose to adults."
For the study, which collected data in 2006, Dr. Hulley compared the views of 185 Greater London schoolchildren aged between 11 and 15 with those of over 200 adults living in the same area.
All participants completed questionnaires that asked them to consider vignettes of situations portraying 18 different public behaviors, ranging from "assaulting a police officer" to "young people hanging around in streets/parks," and give their views about what constituted antisocial behavior.
Wide generation gap about what constitutes antisocial behavior
The results showed that:
- Over 80% of the adult participants were of the view that swearing in public was antisocial, compared with under 43% of the teenagers.
- More than 60% of the adults listed skateboarding or cycling on the street as antisocial, compared with under 8% of the youngsters.
- 40% of the adults considered young people hanging around as antisocial behavior, compared with only 9% of the teenagers.
- However, with respect to criminal behavior, a considerable majority (at least 93%) of both adults and teenagers agreed that murder, assault, burglary and shoplifting were antisocial.
When it came to the non-criminal end of the spectrum, the gulf between the generations widened considerably in terms of what they viewed as antisocial behavior.
There were large differences, for example, in views about dropping litter, chewing gum, scratching names on bus windows, illegal parking and spray painting on walls.
The study is thought to be the first of its kind - with both age groups filling in the same questionnaire - and Dr. Hulley suggests the findings offer some valuable insights for policymakers looking to engender more cohesive communities."It is notable, and worrying," Dr. Hulley says, "that young people's presence in public places, regardless of their behavior, was considered to be an ASB [antisocial behavior] by 4 in 10 adults."
As the generation gap widens, we should be "improving social connectedness by bringing adults and young people together so that adults can get a better understanding of young people and their behavior," she says, adding:
"For example, previous research shows that young people gather in public places, which adults use, to feel safe and that adults often don't know the local young people, whose behavior they are interpreting and who they perceive as a risk."
Age of victims and perpetrators also affected perception of antisocial behavior
The results also showed that not only did the age of the person defining the behavior affect interpretation, but also the age of the assumed victims and perpetrators in the vignettes.
For instance, both adults and teenagers were more likely to describe a group of youths blocking the sidewalk as antisocial than a group of middle-aged women with buggies blocking the sidewalk.
And in the responses to another vignette where a group of girls shouts insults at an elderly lady, all the adults and all but five of the teenagers said this was antisocial behavior. But in another scenario, where an elderly man shouts abuse at a group of teenage boys, only 60% of adults saw this as antisocial compared with 76% of the teenage participants.
When they talked about the scenarios, the adults said they assumed the boys must have provoked the elderly man, and some commented he must have been "brave" to confront them.
Dr. Hulley says:
"The results of the study show that, in practice, the identification of behavior as antisocial involved an interpretative process that is not based simply on the behavior itself but on the age of those involved."
She says the findings show that young people are more likely to be seen as perpetrators of antisocial behavior - especially by adults - and less likely to be recognized as victims of it.
Meanwhile, another UK study published in 2013 found that watching TV is linked to antisocial behavior in small children.
Written by Catharine Paddock PhD