There can be only a few doubts that juvenile delinquency does represent a socially pressing issue. As Nas, Orobio de Castro, and Koops (2005) suggested, “Juvenile delinquency is a major problem in Western societies as it causes major distress and damage to victims, perpetrators, and society at large” (p. 363). As of today, delinquent adolescents account for 7% of all prison population in the world.
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Therefore, there is nothing too odd about the fact that the concerned issue continues to be addressed by social scientists, biologists, and psychologists. After all, each of the corresponding scientific discipline has its own insights as to what causes adolescents to exhibit antisocial behavior, in the first place, and what are the most effective strategies for dealing with the problem in question. In this paper, I will outline the theoretical provisions of what can be referred to as the ‘socioemotional’, ‘cognitive’, and ‘biological’ paradigms of juvenile delinquency. I will also promote the idea that when it comes to identifying the factors that contribute to the development of delinquency in youth, one must be willing to consider the effects of the combination of both ‘internal’ and ‘external’ forces of influence in this respect.
The ‘biological’ outlook on the causes of antisocial behavior in adolescents is based on the assumption that they are innately predetermined – either genetically or neuro-morphologically (concerning the specifics of one’s ‘brain-wiring’). Even though the ‘biological’ model of juvenile delinquency is often regarded inconsistent with the canons of political correctness, there is more and more empirical evidence being gathered as to the full appropriateness of the above-mentioned assumption.
For example, according to the findings of the study by Hart and Marmorstein (2009), which aimed to identify the cause-effect relationship between the presence of the polymorphic gene MAOA in the participants’ (20000 adolescent males in the NLCAH, grades 7-10) DNA and their varying tendency to indulge in aggressive behavior, delinquency in youth indeed appears to be genetically ‘programmed’. One of the study’s conclusions is that polymorphisms in MAOA do affect the functioning of the person’s monoamine system, which in turn results in causing the shortage of ‘happiness-inducing’ neurotransmitters in his or her brain – hence, naturally prompting the concerned individual to exhibit delinquency.
As it was suggested in this study, “MAOA polymorphisms contribute to social sensitivity through neurological mechanisms in the limbic area of the brain… Adolescents with the short (MAOA) allele tend to experience high levels of distress culminating in aggression when they are not accepted socially” (p. 965). Therefore, when it comes to designing delinquency prevention strategies, it is important to keep in mind that alongside the social determinants of adolescent misbehavior there is also a number of the purely physiological ones.
The validity of this suggestion can be confirmed even further, regarding the fact that juvenile delinquency is normative to a significant extent. The reason for this is that the percentile ratio of antisocial individuals among adolescents is much higher than that of adults.
This, of course, can be taken as the implicit indication that there must be something about the morphological subtleties of a young person’s frontal cortex that increases the likelihood of him or her deriving much emotional pleasure from misbehaving as something that has the value of its own. As the article by Bessant (2008) points out, this is indeed the case, “MRI-based research shows that adolescent’s brains are still developing in regions like the frontal lobe and that they are structurally different in important ways from the brains of ‘fully developed adults’” (p. 350).
According to the author, the main difference in this regard has to do with the fact that as opposed to an ‘adult brain’, the one of a youth features the enlarged paleomammalian cortex (also referred to as the ‘limbic system’), which is in charge of controlling the instinctual drives of a person. In its turn, these drives are ultimately concerned with food, sex, and domination – just as it is being the case with all mammals. What this means is that adolescents are naturally predisposed towards acting in a manner deemed ‘inappropriate’ by the society, which nevertheless makes a perfect biological sense.
The logic behind this suggestion is rather straightforward – the basic laws of evolution presuppose that there is a positive correlation between one’s tendency to exhibit delinquent (domination-seeking) behavior, on one hand, and the person’s popularity with the representatives of the opposite gender, on the other (Bandura, 2006, p. 216). This explains why it is namely the pubescent males, known for the sheer strength of their libidinal urges, which tend to act delinquently.
Therefore, a young person’s behavioral ‘unruliness’ can be regarded developmental to an extent. Because the workings of a teenager’s psyche are rather atavistic, it is only natural for adolescents to experience a strong desire for domination and to choose in favor of the socially inappropriate (atavistic) tactics for achieving this objective. It is understood, of course, that this implies the sheer inappropriateness of correcting young delinquents within the methodological framework of retributive penology.
It must be noted that the ‘biological’ model of juvenile delinquency does not promote any racist agenda as some people wrongly assume to be the case. Rather, its affiliates argue that even though a young person’s genes do play a role in defining the varying measure of his or her predisposition towards misbehavior, it is namely the qualitative aspects of the surrounding social environment, which act as such predisposition’s actual triggers.
For example, it represents a well-established fact that African-Americans comprise the bulk of the first-time young offenders in the US. According Barrett and Katsiyannis (2015), “In 2010, the racial/ethnic composition for juvenile arrests (in the US) was 47% White, 51% Black, 1% Asian, and 1% American Indian” (p. 184). This, however, does not mean that African-American teens happened to be ‘innately wicked’ – presumably due to the sheer intensity of their limbic anxieties. The clue to this phenomenon is purely environmental. As Hart and Marmorstein (2009) showed in the earlier mentioned study, “Neighborhood urbanicity, child saturation, and racial heterogeneity are associated with adolescent aggression” (p. 969).
The reason why African-American adolescents enjoy the reputation of being susceptible to delinquency is that the socioeconomic and demographic qualities of the ‘ghetto’ environment presuppose that the social dynamics within it are strongly affected by the Darwinian principle of the ‘survival of the fittest’. Another contributing factor in this regard is that most ghetto-residents are being ‘horizontally’ rather than ‘vertically’ integrated into the neighborhood’s social fabric, which causes delinquent Black youths to be willing to break the law as something that is expected to help them to achieve self-actualization in the Eurocentric (hostile) society.
The ‘socioemotional’ theory of juvenile delinquency stresses out that a young person’s anti-social behavior cannot be discussed outside of what used to be the aspects of his or her early upbringing. The reason for this is that it is specifically through the early phases of one’s life that the concerned individual learns how to interact with the society – all done by the mean of a child forming a strong emotional bond with its parents and significant others. If a child was spared of an opportunity to form such a bond, he or she will be likely to choose in favor of a socially withdrawn lifestyle through adolescence – hence, becoming naturally inclined to indulge in antisocial behavior.
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As Ijzendoorn (2002) noted, “Insecure attachments between children and parents lead to fragile bonds with teachers and other authority gurus, and to a lack of identification with the social and moral order” (p. 707). Even though this point of view is far from being considered undisputed, it is nevertheless logically sound.
The advocates of the ‘socioemotional’ theory of juvenile delinquency also blame ineffective parenting for the fact that those adolescents who have been exposed to it tend to experience the lack of self-control, which in turn causes them to react impulsively to the externally applied stimuli. As Higgins and Ricketts (2005) pointed out, “With this poor parenting at an early age… the child is likely to develop low self-control, which brings a preference to make decisions impulsively” (p. 6). However, as many teachers are aware of, within the setting of a classroom the notion of ‘impulsiveness’ stands out synonymous with the notion of ‘delinquency’.
Another commonly voiced ‘socioemotional’ explanation, as to what causes delinquency in adolescents, has to do with the well observed phenomenon that it is not only the most violent kids who are being turned into social outcasts in schools, but also the brightest ones (the so-called ‘nerds’). What this implies is that one’s delinquent behavior can be seen reflective of the exhibiting individual’s lack of emotional comfort with being forced to act like everybody else.
This suggests that there may be a link between delinquency and extraordinariness. The modern society, however, does not tolerate those who stand out of the crowd (because it considers them a threat to its structural stability), while creating the preconditions for namely the conformist-minded adolescents to have a better chance of social advancement. Therefore, delinquency should not be deemed as a necessarily negative ‘thing in itself’ – the practice that continues to justify the application of harsh punishments to juvenile delinquents.
2.3. The ‘cognitive’ approach to discovering the determinants of delinquency in youths is concerned with seeing one’s offending behavior reflective of the affiliated person’s struggle with some kind of learning disability (LD), such as the attention-deficit disorder, for example. The logic behind the ‘cognitive’ conceptualization of delinquency is easy to grasp – a young person’s cognitive impairment is commonly suggestive of his or her inability to understand the dialectical nature of the relationship between causes and effects, which makes it rather difficult for this person to anticipate the would-be consequences of choosing to behave antisocially.
The empirically obtained findings of the study by McNamara, Vervaeke, and Willoughby (2008) support the validity of the ‘cognitive’ outlook on the causes of juvenile delinquency. For example, according to this study, the sampled Canadian secondary high students that have been diagnosed with LD are likely to consider indulging in risky behaviors – something that is potentially capable of causing them to end up being considered delinquent.
One of the study’s main implications is that it may prove rather challenging for educators to amend the delinquent behavior of those adolescents who suffer from LD – all due to the assumed neurological essence of this disability’s pathogenesis. As the authors observed, “A predominant position within the field of disabilities assumes a neurological basis for LD, and given this position, it may be difficult (if not impossible) to eliminate this inherent neurological risk factor” (p. 572). At the same time, however, a number of different educational strategies can be deployed to help the LD-affected youths to refrain from exhibiting behavioral delinquency. Probably the most effective of them is placing cognitively impaired adolescents in the student-centered learning environment.
Another insight into the discussed subject matter, provided by the ‘cognitive’ paradigm of juvenile delinquency, is that adolescent delinquents find it very perplexing trying to adapt to the ways of the world. This, in turn, is explained by the lack of ‘cognitive flexibility’ in them, which Borrani, Frías, Ortiz, García, and Valdez (2015) define as “the capacity to adjust behavior with changes in the environment” (p. 62).
Because one’s ability to respond adequately to the continually transformed demands of the surrounding social environment has been traditionally seen as a sign that he or she does have what it takes to excel in academia, there is nothing too surprising about the tendency of delinquent adolescents to be underachievers, in the academic sense of this word. This ‘cognitivist’ claim, however, does not seem very credible.
After all, according to some other studies many delinquent teenagers are more than capable of acting in accordance with the socially imposed code of behavioral ethics. The problem is that they willingly choose not to. Moreover, a fair number of delinquent students do not seem to experience much difficulty while coping with their academic assignments. Quite to the contrary – as practice shows, it is specifically the perceived ‘dullness’ of these assignments, which irritates such students to the point when they begin to misbehave.
In light of what has been said earlier, it will only be logical to conclude this paper by suggesting that there are strengths and weakness to each of the discussed approaches to explaining the causes of juvenile delinquency. Consequently, this implies that when it comes to addressing the issue of antisocial inclinations in young people, one must be willing to tackle the task in an interdisciplinary manner.
That is, all of the outlined ‘biological’, ‘socioemotional’, and ‘cognitive’ insights into the subject matter must be taken into consideration. Apparently, juvenile delinquency is too complex of a social issue to expect that it can be successfully dealt with within the narrow methodological framework of either of the earlier described theories. At the same time, however, it is likely the as time goes on, the ‘biological’ outlook on juvenile delinquency is going to be deemed ever more credible – the exponential pace of the ongoing progress in the field of biology/neuroscience predetermines such an eventual development. I believe that this concluding remark is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis.
Bandura, A. (2006). A murky portrait of human cruelty. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29(3), 211-257.
Barrett, D., & Katsiyannis, A. (2015). Juvenile delinquency recidivism: Are black and white youth vulnerable to the same risk factors? Behavioral Disorders, 40(3), 184-195.
Bessant, J. (2008). Hard wired for risk: Neurological science, “the adolescent brain” and developmental theory. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(3), 347-360.
Borrani, J., Frías, M., Ortiz, X., García, A., & Valdez, P. (2015). Analysis of cognitive inhibition and flexibility in juvenile delinquents. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 26(1), 60-77.
Hart, D., & Marmorstein, N. (2009). Neighborhoods and genes and everything in between: Understanding adolescent aggression in social and biological contexts. Development and Psychopathology, 21(3), 961-73.
Higgins, G., & Ricketts, M. (2005). Self-control theory, race, and delinquency. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 3(3), 5-22.
Ijzendoorn, M. (2002). Attachment, emergent morality, and aggression: Toward a developmental socioemotional model of antisocial behavior. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 21(4), 703-728.
McNamara, J., Vervaeke, S., & Willoughby, T. (2008). Learning disabilities and risk-taking behavior in adolescents: A comparison of those with and without comorbid attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 41(6), 561-574.
Nas, C., Orobio de Castro, B., & Koops, W. (2005). Social information processing in delinquent adolescents. Psychology, Crime & Law, 11(4), 363-375.