Media Representation of the Deviant Teenager: Analysis and Tools

Media Representation of the Deviant Teenager: Analysis and Tools

Records over the last two decades reveal that in Italy there is no doubt that there’s been a sharp incline in the media exposure of the deviant teenager.

Some incidents in the news, nothing short of unsettling, also contributed to this as the media gave them ample space. At the outset, the question to ask, however, is whether or not there exists a gap between the image media presents of the situation and reality itself .

In order to offer any response of scientific value, it is necessary to investigate juvenile delinquency considering Italian data in relation to the European context. The aim is to establish, in particular, two aspects: 1. If juvenile delinquency in Italy presents alarming qualitative or quantitative characteristics in respect to other European countries; 2. If media’s representation of juvenile delinquency in Italy is accurate, or rather, exaggerated.

The malaise of wellbeing

Beginning the investigation, it needs to be clarified that the recurring tendency is to link the concept of juvenile delinquency with the conduct of youth who have experienced some kind of distress, regardless of their criminal features. In qualitative terms, information drawn out from data shows an important development: in addition to social marginalization, which has its roots in disadvantaged conditions, affective-relational marginalization is rapidly increasing, and particularly within middle/upper class families. Thus, the Department for Juvenile Justice, Italian calls this new phenomenon “the malaise of wellbeing”. In addition to this, criminal activity of “deprived” youth also persists, that is, those who reside in the peripheries or ghetto zones. There’s also the situation of so called “juvenile mafia,”completely silenced or ignored, which includes non-liable boys (under the age of 14) used as laborers of organized crime.

Central and Northern European countries are in a worse situation

Recorded on good authority, Italy juvenile criminality has undergone a sharp incline, which is undeniably based as much on statistics of government bodies data as on the Attorney General’s report. And yet, Italy, in fact, ranks the second lowest among European countries for child crime rate. Certainly, it would be helpful if our analysis - comparing juvenile criminality in Europe - was systematically and constantly updated, but, as it was correctly pointed out, the comparison is difficult in view of the gaping differences between sources of national information. What is clear, in any case, is that juvenile delinquency regarding Central and Northern European countries arouses the greatest alarm (in the following order: Germany, France, England). Italy, on the other hand, fortunately occupies one of the last places within the embarrassing classification.

Bullying and cyberbullying in Europe

As concerns bullying and cyberbullying in Italy, the phenomenon has greatly increased: Telefono Azzurro data revealed that in just the last two years the percentage of this wrongdoing has doubled. According to “Observing Teenagers”, a survey carried out by Telefono Azzurro and DoxaKids on over 1500 Italian students between the ages of 11 and 19 (November, 2014), 35% of the kids admitted to having been involved in bullying, or having been a victim of it.

Other research reveals that among the most diffused practices of cyberbullying, the following stand out: violent and vulgar messages (so called flaming), vilification, identity theft, the exclusion of victims from online friend groups.

Now what happens if we turn our gaze to the larger European context? Yet again, results cause great consternation. According to the reports of OCSE (Organization For Economic Cooperation and Development), Italy is recorded to have the lowest number of juvenile bullying. In fact, as low as 5% of Italian teenagers complain about being victims of this type of abuse. Only one European country proves to have better statistics, namely, Switzerland at 4%. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Austria, where statistics regarding juvenile violence appear most concerning. In general, 11% is the average for juvenile violence in European and North American countries is also 11% (AA.VV. Skills for Social Progress. The Power of Social and Emotional Skills, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2015).

Juvenile delinquency is deflated in media, to what effect?

Having completed the discussion regarding the quantitative and qualitative aspects of juvenile delinquency in Italy, what remains to be examined is whether or not media coverage of the deviant teenager is accurate.

More than 30 years ago, De Leo e M.P. Cuomo, while investigating the relations between the deviant and average Italian teenager, identified 5 stereotypes of juvenile delinquency in mass media. It’s enough to flip through the pages of almost any Italian newspaper to confirm the fact that, in reality, little or nothing has changed. Despite an evolution in the forms of deviance, media coverage of adolescents living in distress situations continues to be plagued by stereotypical mechanisms which significantly alter real data, amplifying its proportions. Media coverage deals with developmental disorders only once in emergency situations, succumbing to the inevitable emotional burden of criminal activity. Journalistic investigations highlighting the apparent growth of young delinquents as protagonists are increasing. The stories cover: criminal activity of the baby-gang, gang rapes by the pack, baby prostitutes, stone-throwing from the overpass, stadium violence, vandalism, endless episodes of bullying and cyberbullying. This, in short, is the picture painted in daily newspapers and in TV programs.

The media’s tam tam pushes to the point even of a sort of obsession with the social deviant. Proposed remedies weigh, almost always, on a repressive illusion and reinforcing the punitive response of the State, ignoring or downplaying any operation that proposes addressing the endless causes that trigger youth aggression.

If, as we have seen, the real data is that juvenile criminal activity and the practices of bullying has not reached the high thresholds of social alarm, as compared to the rest of the European context, then it goes without saying that the magnifying lens media has imposed slightly enlarges the real dimensions of this reality. Speaking of media exaggeration, regarding juvenile delinquency in Italy, it is thus not out of place, given the endemic emphasizing the gravity of the facts from which the communications system is affected. The social image of the deviant teenager, conveyed by means of communication, thus appears artificial. What are the consequences of a such an anomaly?

It is without doubt that media alterations produce damaging effects, and that is not only in relation to probable emulative phenomena in place by the same teenagers, whose personality is evolving, but also and above all with reference to the content of juvenile criminal policies, which need preventive social tools and non-criminal sanctions rather than moral panic and the unduly emotional alarm generated by the media.

(*) Luca Muglia is a lawyer, expert in child crime.

Former President of the National Union of Juvenile Chambers