This Village Is Raising Some Violent Kids

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A couple of weeks ago, SBS television’s Insight program hosted a forum on violent youth. There were plenty of good ideas presented by the youth workers and the academics, and if these people were actually resourced properly (that’s a big "if") you’d be pretty sure of some change for the better, for both the victims and the violent teens themselves.

Where the program fell short, from my point of view, was in addressing the causes of the violence. But it’s not an easy question.

The program was no doubt provoked in part by the outrage a lot of people have felt recently over graphic video of youth violence — recorded by the participants — that has been shown on sites like YouTube.

But how much does the existence of YouTube and other changes really alter the nature of youth and adolescence? When there’s an outbreak of anxiety over youth violence or other behaviours, concerns are often expressed about shifts in society and the effects of entertainment and new technologies on the behaviour of young people today. New things always seem to be the problem. But I think there is a lot more that is the same about youth and adolescence today than that which is new or different.

Firstly, it’s important to remember that when adolescents go too far they’re fulfilling one of the most important tasks that they have at that age: to explore what they are capable of physically and emotionally. Obviously the early application of boundaries helps a child or teenager know the limits of acceptability.

In my work I have seen what results from a shortfall in boundary setting and have thanked my parents for what had seemed to me at the time to be a pretty conservative and restrained upbringing. Predictably, parenting was a hot topic on Insight, and it was generally agreed that parents have a pivotal role in teaching young people about the negative effects of violence. But the program did not go so far as to suggest why some parents are doing so poorly, instead moving on to other causes.

Secondly, I think we need to treat the relationship between YouTube and violence very carefully. Without diminishing the seriousness of the problem it must be acknowledged that there is plenty of hype around it. The fiction of youth going wild is as old as written history, and plays as well today as ever. The majority of our youth are doing relatively well and are in no greater danger than we were as children. Most deal extremely well with new technologies and use them to develop their sense of connectedness. That’s why I find it difficult to blame technology for the violence. As one young lady pointed out on the show, the young person still has to want to have the fight.

Anyone who’s seen the rush of students to a schoolyard fight before this technology became common can imagine the same kids recording the event if they had the ability to do so. I find it hard to accept that young people today are elementally different to those from previous generations.

If we are really looking for a cause for violence, for bad parenting, for misuse of technology, we must look away from the adolescents and turn our gaze onto the society that created these phenomena. After all, teenagers are just learning the system that we created.

We are much more accustomed to treating adolescents as some sort of alien "other" than viewing them as components of our broader society. The question is not "What is wrong with our youth?" but "What’s wrong with our society that our youth think it’s okay to bash someone and put it on the internet?"

If we want our young people to ignore the nasty thrill of violence then we need to foster values of non-violence in our own communities. Again the problem is not the existence of violent movies or video games but that these are the main amusements that we choose to provide our youth with. As well, the fact that we are perpetually at war must have an effect on the young people’s understanding of violence as a means to resolve conflict.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the sense of entitlement that our young people have toward expensive items and activities. If we want this to stop we must convince (or oblige) corporations to stop treating them as superconsumers.

Despite their role in driving consumption, young people are given few opportunities for real decision making, responsibility and genuine risk taking. This is producing young people with fewer skills and less confidence.

The urge to avoid tackling the big problems youth face is visible everywhere. Everyone sounded concerned recently about sexual images of young people, yet here again blame is applied liberally but as far from home as possible. I have watched the Henson debate with interest but whatever his contribution to this process of "sexing up" young people, it pales in comparison to the influence of mainstream fashion and media.

As members of Australian society we tolerate all sorts of aberrant, wasteful and self harming behavior in ourselves. But when young people reflect these values back at us, or go beyond our already loose and ill-defined boundaries, we vilify and persecute them.

Of course it was easier to provide an environment of well defined expectations back when Australia was pretty much monocultural. But we live in an age of multiple lifestyles and great individualism and many feel rewarded by the freedom this allows. For a young person growing up today it is very difficult to see clearly what’s expected.

When young people do play up we reward them by putting them on the television. Last year I watched cringing as Anna Coren shrieked at Corey Worthington for his insistence on wearing sunglasses. The whole circus was a sickening example of total corruption in a system where nobody is free of blame, including me for being sucked into the embarrassing spectacle.

This is a corruption with very real victims. Coordinating a youth service I get to see and hear about many good news stories featuring young people who are caring, decent and active within their communities. But the media have great difficulty reporting these positive stories about youth. If they did it would undermine the fear they play on to grab audiences and sell newspapers. Television has overused the phrase "a show every parent must see" to the point where it is meaningless. The consequences are hysteria and the continued misunderstanding and victimisation of our young people.

The real problems of our youth are deeply ingrained in the way we live. It may seem that we just have to accept that young people are going to be violent, but that’s not the case. There is in fact a lot we can do to help young people understand what is expected and tie them into our social structures.

As with many societal issues the answer lies close to home. The way we act in our own families and communities has a powerful impact on young people. As always, example is the means by which we can show young people how to live without physical conflict.

From time to time I am cornered by a shopkeeper or local resident demanding to know "what can be done about the kids". My first question is to ask if they know the names or any details about the young people in question. I am often rewarded with a blank stare when I encourage them to greet these kids by name every time they see them.

I would make a similar appeal to anyone concerned about youth violence. Get to know a young person and treat them with respect and interest. Mentor a young person from your workplace or family. Assist at a sporting, religious or other organisation where young people congregate. If you are a parent, abandon the television twice a week and spend meaningful time with your children.

There is an old and well-worn saying that’s as true today as it ever was: it takes a village to raise a child. The happy side-effect is that these activities will not only help our youth but will leave you feeling more connected with your neighbours of all ages.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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