Youth violence can manifest in different forms, including forming or joining a gang. Although there are varying definitions of a youth gang, there are certain baseline features associated with youth gangs that differentiate them from other groups or organizations. The members of a youth street gang are typically between twelve and twenty-five years old (Higginson et al., 2018). Another feature of youth gangs is that members derive group identity from involvement in unlawful or criminal activity. Finally, the group usually has some degree of permanence and often claims a name, symbol, and physical territory. The risk factors for joining youth gangs can broadly be classified as individual, family, school, and community factors.
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Individual risk factors for joining a youth gang are those related to a person’s character and behavior. For instance, impulsivity, aggression, hostility, and defiance are linked to a higher likelihood of youth gang membership (Macfarlane, 2019). Aside from personal traits, there are also behaviors that increase a young person’s possibility of joining a gang, such as the use of alcohol and drugs and practicing risky sexual behaviors. Alcohol and drug use is usually recorded in most cases of violence. In youth violence, alcohol and soft drug use triple the odds of gang membership (Higginson et al., 2018). Prior delinquency is also a factor that increases the odds of a young person joining a youth gang. For instance, if a teenager has ever been arrested or incarcerated, they are more likely to join a gang than another teenager who has never committed an offence. It is critical to note that some of these factors are caused by circumstances outside an individual’s control, and it would be unconstructive to solely blame youths for being part of a gang.
Besides individual factors, certain family or home dynamics may also predispose a person to gang membership. Youths that experience a difficult home life are more likely to join a gang than those who are sheltered from this life (Macfarlane, 2019). For instance, a teenager witnessing violence at home, such as intimate partner abuse, becomes inclined to violence. Additionally, youths are more likely to join gangs if their family members also belong to gangs. This is especially true for males where manliness and sense of pride are linked to gang membership. In some cases, young males from low-income families believe that it is their responsibility to provide for their families (Bishop et al., 2017). In addition to home life, the family environment also encompasses parenting styles. Low parental supervision is a risk factor for gang membership. This means that youths from households where parents do not actively monitor their whereabouts and activities are at a higher risk of joining gangs. Low parental monitoring may also result in a youth running away from home, which is another risk factor for gang membership.
The third category of factors that explains why youths join gangs involves school. School-related behaviors associated with gang membership include low school attachment and commitment, dropping out, and expulsion. Students who attend school irregularly or completely stop attending are at a greater risk of joining youth gangs. Truancy makes it difficult for teachers to notice deviant behaviors in youths. It also provides individuals with sufficient time to engage in activities, such as alcohol and substance abuse, which are associated with gang membership. In addition to skipping or dropping out of school, trouble at school is a risk factor for youth joining gangs (Carson & Esbensen, 2019). Trouble at school means that a student is regularly reprimanded, corrected, or punished for rogue behavior, such as bullying and vandalism. School-related factors encompass the school setting, student’s behavior, and peer influence.
The characteristics of a person’s community also contribute to the likelihood of joining a gang. Exposure to violence within a neighborhood increases the odds of gang membership. Similar to witnessing violence within the family, high levels of community violence is a strong factor that is related to joining youth gangs. Neighborhoods where guns are readily and easily accessible encourage development of youth gangs. However, it is difficult to establish whether guns cause proliferation of youth gangs or vice versa (Howell & Griffiths, 2019). Easy access to alcohol and drugs is another risk factor. Aside from these social factors, there are also economic factors that contribute to gang membership. For instance, gangs are more prominent in poorer communities, which makes it easier for youths from such communities to join them. Overall, community or neighborhood factors can predict gang membership in youths.
In conclusion, youth violence is a big problem in many parts of the world, including America. When the youths form gangs, the challenge becomes even bigger and harder to solve. The first step in addressing this issue is by understanding the factors that cause teenagers to join youths. Although these factors can be grouped into various categories, taking a multidimensional viewpoint is a better approach. A single category of factors cannot explain why a youth could join a gang, which is why it is important to look at the factors as a whole.
Bishop, A. S., Hill, K. G., Gilman, A. B., Howell, J. C., Catalano, R. F., & Hawkins, J. D. (2017). Developmental pathways of youth gang membership: A structural test of the social development model. Journal of Crime and Justice, 40(3), 275-296. Web.
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Carson, D. C., & Esbensen, F. A. (2019). Gangs in school: Exploring the experiences of gang-involved youth. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 17(1), 3-23. Web.
Higginson, A., Benier, K., Shenderovich, Y., Bedford, L., Mazerolle, L., & Murray, J. (2018). Factors associated with youth gang membership in low‐and middle‐income countries: A systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 14(1), 1-128. Web.
Howell, J. C., & Griffiths, E. (2019). Gangs in America’s communities (3rd Ed.). Sage Publications.
Macfarlane, A. (2019). Gangs and adolescent mental health: A narrative review. Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, 12(3), 411-420. Web.