Deviant peer groups and street gangs

May 01, 2006

Montreal, May 1, 2006 - A Université de Montréal study published today in the Archives of General Psychiatry journal has identified the principal risk factors that predispose boys to become involved in deviant peer groups during adolescence. Being involved with deviant peer groups or its more extreme form street gangs puts a young person at risk for substance use, conduct problems, violent behavior, incarceration and even early death.

The study entitled "Prediction of Early Onset Deviant Peer Group Affiliation: A 12-year Longitudinal Study", was conducted among 1,037 boys from low socioeconomic neighborhoods in Montreal. The researchers discovered that boys who at age six are identified by their teachers as hyperactive (e.g., restless, can not keep still), fearless (e.g., does not cry easily, does not worry) and not prosocial (e.g., did not try to help others, did not show sympathy) are 6 times more likely to join a deviant peer group in early adolescence.

Family adversity, characterized by divorce, low education and early parenthood, increases the risk of boys joining a deviant peer group. They are 4 times more likely to join such a group at the onset of adolescence compared to boys with the same profile who were raised in a more favourable family context. "However, the good news that emerges from this study is that families in low socioeconomic neighborhoods have no reason to fear that their boys will automatically join a gang of young delinquents," explains Éric Lacourse, principal researcher and sociology professor at Université de Montréal. What's more, none of the three sorts of behaviours, or the family environment, can predict engagement in a deviant peer group in late adolescence. Future research should investigate factors related to late affiliation.

Using 15 questions submitted to teachers and 6 to parents, the researchers were able to identify which boys were at risk. Teachers identified 13% of boys as hyperactive, fearless and not prosocial. Out of this subgroup, 30% joined a deviant peer group in early adolescence. "These younger boys should be targeted to take part in prevention programs when they enter kindergarten or the early primary grades, in order to provide socialization alternatives to involvement in deviant peer groups," Professor Lacourse suggests.

Hyperactivity, fearlessness and infrequent prosocial behavior are also the three core dimensions of the concept of psychopathic disorder. Impulsiveness, rashness and lack of empathy for others could predispose boys to become more violent offenders within their peer group. This hypothesis will require more in-depth attention in subsequent studies.

Despite the fact that this study demonstrates the importance of behavioral profiles related to an adverse family situation in early childhood, it cannot conclusively rule out other contributing factors. It is generally understood in this area of research that factors such as ethnicity, parental practices, school climate and neighborhood characteristics may add to the risk of affiliation with a deviant peer group.
This study was part of a series of longitudinal studies conducted by the Groupe de recherche sur l'inadaptation psychosociale chez l'enfant (GRIP), a research group on psychosocial maladjustment in childhood, based at the University of Montreal and the Saint Justine Children's Hospital (CHU Sainte-Justine). The group's research program has three goals: (1) to describe the prevalence and development of maladjustment in children, and to examine the influence of environmental variables such as the family, the school, and peers; (2) to identify risk factors that interfere with childhood development as well as factors that increase the child's resilience; and (3) to evaluate the impact of prevention programs for children in high-risk populations.

Researchers: Daniel S. Nagin, Professor at the H. John Heinz School III of Public Policy and Management of the Canergie Mellon University, Pittsburg, USA; Frank Vitaro, Professor at the Université de Montréal École de psychoéducation; Sylvana Côté, Professor at the Université de Montréal École de psychoéducation; Louise Arsenault, Professor at the Institute of Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre (MRC), King's College, London, UK; Richard Tremblay, Professor of psychology at the Université de Montréal and Director of the Groupe de recherche sur l'inadaptation psychosociale chez l'enfant (GRIP).

University of Montreal

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