Jason Steen isn't an obvious target for muggers. The 40-year-old heads his own company advising on mergers and acquisitions, and usually strides through life like a Master of the Universe. This evening, though, he looks shaken. Two days earlier, he was accosted outside his central London home by eight kids — the youngest was 11 — who punched him to the ground, hustled him to the nearest cash machine and forced him to reveal his PIN number. After a series of attacks in the area, local residents have gathered in Steen's apartment to talk to the policeman handling the case. His advice: "Don't go out unless you have to."
Staying home in the face of danger isn't the British way. After suicide bombings in July 2005, Londoners continued working and socializing. Yet a survey by kids' charity TS Rebel found that last year more than a fifth of Britons avoided going out at night rather than risk encounters with a different form of terror: groups of children. Britons are frightened of their own young.
On any given Saturday night, in any town center across Britain, it's easy to see why.
"It usually starts outside McDonald's — that's the hot spot," explains one London youth. "You might go with one mate, then you get a phone call. Give it an hour, there'll be 10 people there, with nothing to do. Intimidating people is something to do, a way of getting kicks. Like, 'Oh my God, did you see how they ran?'"
The boys and girls who casually pick fights, have sex and keep the emergency services fully occupied are often fueled by cheap booze. British youngsters drink their Continental European counterparts under the table: in 2003, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), 27% of British 15-year-olds had been drunk 20 times or more, compared to 12% of young Germans, 6% of Netherlands youth and only 3% of young French. British kids were also involved more frequently in fights (44% in the U.K. to 28% in Germany). They are more likely to try drugs or start smoking young. English girls are the most sexually active in Europe. More of them are having sex aged 15 or younger, and more than 15% fail to use contraception when they do —which means that Britain has high rates of both teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Small wonder, then, that a 2007 UNICEF study of child wellbeing in 21 industrialized countries placed Britain firmly at the bottom of the table.
None of those indicators are good, but it's the increase in nasty teenage crime that really has Britain spooked. Violent offences by British under-18s rose 37% in the three years to 2006. Last September, 29-year-old Gavin Waterhouse died from an assault by two boys. It was recorded on a cell phone by a 15-year-old girl. In January, three teenagers from north-western England were convicted of kicking to death 47-year-old Garry Newlove after he tried to stop them vandalizing his car. In the wake of their trial, the Sun newspaper declared
"the most important issue now facing Britain" to be "the scourge of feral youngsters."
That isn't just tabloid talk. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, at his first press conference of 2008, said:
"Kids are out of control ... They're roaming the streets. They're out late at night. There's an issue about gangs in Britain and an issue about gun crime as well as knife crime."