Holding the line

Recently a 14-year-old boy contested that Richmond-upon-Thames Council was infringing his human rights by imposing a 9pm curfew on him. The order imposed on local teenagers has effectively meant that young people found out on the London borough’s streets after this time are escorted home by the police.

According to the UK civil rights group Liberty this approach is far from peculiar, with up to three-quarters of local authorities throughout England and Wales imposing similarly draconian measures against ‘anti-social’ behaviour. When Brent Council, with the Metropolitan Police, distributed photographs of three teenagers to local residents and posted their details on the internet, the young people also cited the European Convention on Human Rights in their defence.

As journalist Zoe Williams pointed out in the Guardian recently, why are we so keen to outlaw behaviour that might irritate or even feel threatening, but is not actually criminal? These young people are guilty of little more than being ‘drunk and noisy’, she says. It is just a thinly disguised prejudice against working-class youth having a good time.

Fear of crime is enough to bring out populist gestures by otherwise anonymous local councillors. Such initiatives are typically defended on the grounds that certain sections of the community feel intimidated by the very presence of groups of young people in their neighbourhoods. The Howard League for Penal Reform, unconvinced by such claims, has called for the abolition of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) and accused authorities of political opportunism. But perhaps there is more to the popularity of these ASBOs than an underlying class-ism or a nervous nimbyism.

For instance, an initiative has been launched in London’s West End of all places. According to the Metropolitan Police it is not only a preventative policing measure to avoid trouble, but also motivated by a concern for the safety of youngsters out late. Similarly, while worried that the bright lights of the big city shouldn’t become a no-go area to its liveliest visitors, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) felt unable to wholeheartedly oppose the measure, citing the potential risks that the metropolis holds for our vulnerable offspring.

So as well as being accused of causing trouble enough to merit criminal proceedings, our youth are themselves, we are told, ever more troubled. And it’s not only the NSPCC that pulls the vulnerability card out of the pack at every opportunity.

Young people’s mental health is in freefall, while ‘lying, stealing and being disobedient’ have soared over the past quarter century. Or so say researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London and the University of Manchester in a recently published study, ‘Time Trends in Adolescent Mental Health’. Putting aside the fact that these are arguably typical behaviours for a lot of young people – whether or not they happen to be growing up in an increasingly anxious and intolerant society such as ours – no evidence was found of an upward trend in aggressive behaviour among the nation’s youth. This fact was less widely reported. In fact, the study’s authors concluded that their findings point to a ‘widespread malaise’.

But are adolescents really any more troubled or troubling than before? Arguably, both the crackdowns and the claims of the study are symptomatic of a society that lacks a moral compass, particularly when it comes to bringing up children in its own image. And the instinct to exploit the fears and anxieties that typify our individuated society – allegedly under siege by these young hooligans – comes more and more to the fore.

This not only promises to curtail the ability of young people to develop resilience, necessary to become robust individuals able to weather the storms of adulthood. It also renders adults impotent to reprimand those unruly youth who do, at times, overstep the line.

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