Youth crime in the Australian state of New South Wales has been slashed in the last two decades. Seemingly out of nowhere, there's been an unprecedented drop in youths being arrested for drug offenses, violent crimes, drink-driving, burglaries, you name it.
According to a government report, this isn’t just because of new policies or surveillance technology, it's because the teenagers are all at home watching Netflix and scrolling through Instagram.
New research from the Australian National University (ANU) has taken a look at crime rates of people between 10 to 21 years old who were born in 1984 compared to those born in 1994. Over this decade, they found that violent offenses declined by 32 percent, property offenses declined by 56 percent, and drug offenses declined by 22 percent. On top of that, there were significant decreases in vehicle theft (-59 percent), property theft (-59 percent), and drink-driving (-49 percent).
So, in the words of the report, “Where have all the young offenders gone?”
The report didn’t explicitly look at the youths' media use, so this remains largely speculative until it's confirmed by further research. However, drawing on previous studies, the criminologists on the case argue that the trend is most likely explained by the huge cultural shift brought by the Internet and social media.
The researchers also argue that increased CCTV, better policing, and improved awareness about security could also explain the declines. However, since drops in offending were seen across the board encompassing all social backgrounds and genders, they claim it points to this wider cultural shift.
"Young people are spending less time in unsupervised environments where opportunistic offending may be more attractive, such as 'hanging out' on the streets," Dr Jason Payne of the ANU Research School of Social Sciences said in a statement.
"An increased use of home entertainment and social media is also reducing opportunities for traditional forms of crime."
Nevertheless, Dr Payne notes it might not be as simple as saying Facebook means kids get into less trouble. While digital culture might reduce some aspects of traditional crime, youthful rebelliousness could manifest in a way that’s currently hidden by official statistics.
"Those native to social media may explore antisocial and criminal behaviors online which at present attract far less scrutiny from parents and authorities," Dr Payne said.
The effect of new media and crime hasn’t yet been widely studied by scientists. On the few occasions it is researched, criminologists appear to be split on the issue. In March this year, experts claimed the online world fuels violence and gang culture among young people. On the other hand, another study found that video game-playing kids stay out of trouble. In fact, it found that for every 10 percent increase in the number of violent games sold, the crime rate dropped by 1 percent.
As the old cliché goes, further research needs to be done before any conclusions are settled on.