Rethinking how we view gang members

By Sarah Frisby-Osman and Jane L. Wood (2020) 

Youth Justice, 20(1-2) 93–112 

Summary of article by Nina Maxwell

What question does this study focus on? 

This article focuses on the question of whether young people involved with gangs have higher levels of affective, behavioural, and mental health needs than young people who are not involved with gangs. Both groups were compared in relation to their levels of (1) anxiety and depression, (2) emotional distress and proneness to guilt, (3) conduct problems, (4) exposure to violence as victims, and (5) socio-cognitive processes, including moral disengagement and rumination (where anger-provoking thoughts are constantly replayed).  

How did they study it? 

The authors used a cross-sectional, between-participants design. Young people were invited to take part from three coeducational schools in areas of England that have identified as having high levels of gang activity by the UK government. The schools included one mainstream secondary school, one further education college and one Pupil Referral Unit. Ninety-one young people took part in the study with a mean age of 14.93. Of these, 56 (62%) young people were identified as nongang-involved, 32 (35%) as gang-involved and 3 (3%) were unspecified based on findings from a robust screening tool.  Their affective, behavioural, and mental health needs were measured using a range of scales including the Beck Depression Inventory, the Moral Disengagement Scale and the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire.   

What did they find? 

Young people involved in gangs were more likely than those not involved with gangs to report anxiety and depression, conduct problems, exposure to violence as victims, moral disengagement and rumination. There was no difference between the two groups regarding emotional distress and proneness to guilt. To explore which level of need was more likely to be associated with gang involvement, discriminant function analysis were undertaken. This analysis found that conduct problems, moral disengagement and angry rumination were more likely to account for gang involvement followed by anxiety, depression and violence exposure. Emotional distress and guilt-proneness were not related to gang involvement.  

What are the implications? 

This study highlights the need to consider the psychological and socio-cognitive predictors of gang involvement within early intervention and prevention strategies. Specifically, findings highlighted the need to target antisocial and problem behaviours as these were the biggest predictor of gang membership. Early intervention and prevention strategies should also address youth anxiety and depression as feelings of low self-esteem or perceived lack of opportunity were associated with the perception that gang membership was a way of getting their basic needs met. Finally, early intervention and prevention strategies should address the emotional impact of exposure to violence and the socio-cognitive processes of moral disengagement and rumination.  


Review written by

Nina Maxwell

No two gangs are alike: The digital divide in street gangs’ differential adaptations to social media.

By Andrew Whittaker, James Densley and Karin S. Moser (2020)

Computers in Human Behaviour, 110.

Review written by Dr Nina Maxwell

What question does this study focus on?

This article focuses on the question of whether there were differences in gang member use of social media at the individual level (younger members versus older members), and the group level (less established gangs versus more established gangs) in Waltham Forest, London.

How did they study it?

This was a mixed methods study that included two stages of data collection. First 

qualitative, semi-structured interviews were conducted with ex-gang members, gang-affected young people, police officers, criminal justice workers, local authority workers, including community safety, education, early help and terrorism prevention, and voluntary sector grassroots workers. Second, preliminary findings were tested with two focus groups comprising stakeholders from local government agencies, criminal justice and grassroots workers. Due to ethical issues surrounding interviewee and researcher safety, the study did not include active gang members.

What did they find?

The article found that gangs differ in their use of social media. Broadly speaking, older members with established reputations tended to avoid social media to reduce the risk of detection by the police. Younger members, with less established reputations were more likely to embrace social media to build their reputation and status. Findings showed that gangs have moved away from open platforms that could be used for police surveillance such as Facebook and towards end-to-end encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp. Applications such as Snapchat are also being used to advertise and sell drugs as these tools automatically render photographs and messages inaccessible after a set time period. For those gangs that used social media, some were using apps with GPS tracking, such as Find MyiPhone or Find My Friends to increase their monitoring and control of younger members, for example by requesting photographic and video evidence of their activities. 

What are the implications?

While gangs may differ in the extent to which they use social media, even those gangs who shun its general use were aware that it could be weaponised against them or they could use it against their competitors. The authors conclude that where police and social workers monitor social media to identify the warning signs for conflict, this can be used to effectively de-escalate situations before serious violence occurs. This article highlights that service providers should be aware that younger gang members may be subject to constant monitoring and control by older gang members using social media. Such surveillance can limit young people’s opportunities to seek help.  


Review written by

Dr Nina Maxwell