Since 2015, juvenile delinquency and juvenile violence have steadily increased, after declining in previous years. Such a development cannot simply be accepted by society but requires united action from all of us. We cannot be indifferent to the future of the upcoming generation and of the society.
Why this language?
Some time ago, I happened to witness a conversation between two young people. Marc was telling his friend Mario about a relationship with a girl that had ended. She broke up with him via WhatsApp. Marc had apparently met her that way too, as a female colleague of a colleague of a female colleague. Naturally, he was very affected, as experiences during the first attempts at a love relationship weigh particularly heavily, and the emotional life of adolescents is especially sensitive in during this age. Fortunately, in Mario he had a friend to whom he could confide his distress. I felt sorry for Marc and hoped that he could soon get over his heartbreak and regain confidence and a clearer view. I knew the two young people personally and appreciated their affable and often humorous manner. I was all the more surprised by their use of words. They talked about “bitch”, “loser”, “piss off”, “hang out” etc. At least the majority of the language used was German …
An increasingly rough atmosphere
I shivered as I listened, because for some time now I have been concerned about the rough atmosphere in interpersonal relationships, which is also reflected in the language of young people. For some of them, the youth slang described above has become “normal”. Not meant maliciously, rather expressing a helplessness and lack of care in dealing with each other. but also not demanded otherwise by their adult caregivers. Of course, I know that every generation has “its” language, which changes again and again... Do you remember when we were young how we used the word “läss”? The adults didn’t understand us either. Since then, replaced by “mega”, “cool” and “super”! Nevertheless: “The climate among young people has become rougher again”, the Youth Ombudsman’s Office of the Canton of Zurich also stated in a media release in 2020.1 And that must give us something to think about.
Renewed increase in juvenile delinquency and juvenile violence
In April 2021, the Youth Ombudsman’s Office of the Canton of Zurich again reached the public with its report on juvenile delinquency and juvenile violence and reported that the 5,208 criminal proceedings opened against juveniles represented an increase of 3.6 % compared to the previous year. For the fifth time in a row, an increase in recorded juvenile violence was reported. Every twentieth conviction was a violent offense. Since 2015, juvenile violence in the canton of Zurich has increased continuously, most strikingly in 2019 with a shocking 35.6 %.
The accused of all reported violent crimes were mostly male perpetrators (91.3 %), who were on average 15.7 years old. Most of them had never committed a criminal offence before. There was also an increase in the number of young people who were reported for several violent offences. It was also noticeable that group offences had again increased slightly – markedly in the previous year – especially among the older youths who were out at night or in the evening far from parental control and often under the influence of alcohol, increasingly committed delinquent acts in public spaces. The victims were mostly other young people, whereby victim and perpetrator did not necessarily know each other.2 In addition to media consumption, which has been proven to be linked to violent behaviour, the figures on abusive media consumption among young people have also been gathered since 2016 with the aim of raising awareness among parents and young people about the possibilities and dangers of the internet. “Because thoughtless online behaviour can hardly be reversed and can result not only in criminal consequences, but also in massive personal harm.”3
No room for youth violence
A large proportion of young people never come into conflict with the law. Of those aged 10 to 17, only about one in five did so in 2020. Often these are minor to moderate offences such as fare evasion, shoplifting or damage to property. And fortunately, for most of them, the “yellow card” of a reprimand is enough, and the offence against the law remains unique. “However, regardless of the severity of the offence, any form of youth violence has no place in our society and will not be tolerated”4, the criminal authorities state. Often, the motivation for delinquent behaviour is pure boredom, as Alexandra Ott Müller, the head youth lawyer of the Winterthur Youth Prosecutor’s Office, notes. Most of the accused have a daily structure, but little structure in their leisure time behaviour. “They have no hobbies, hang around and commit a crime out of boredom.” As an example, she tells of a 15-year-old student who got into a problematic environment and punched a youth in the face with his fist during an argument. Despite being punished, he was involved in a robbery a short time later. Now he also has to answer for this in court.
It is not Corona
In the Corona year, it was obvious to look for the causes of the renewed increase in youth violence in the restrictive measures. However, this is contradicted by the fact that the increase has already been taking place for five years and even skyrocketed in 2019, the year before the pandemic. It is also by no means the case that difficult living conditions lead to delinquent behaviour, as is repeatedly claimed. In the canton of Zurich, most young people from such backgrounds did not commit any offences. It may be that risk factors such as family stress, financial problems and lack of day structures have increased during the pandemic, the report further notes.5 But it is not the main cause of the increase in violent acts.
Prevention needs solid scientific foundations
The issue of youth violence is not new. Various branches of science have dealt with the causes of aggression and violence and have conclusively clarified the questions that are still open. Even if these scientific findings have not yet been consistently disseminated among the population and also among those responsible in politics and society, there is agreement at the scientific level.6 Violence is not an inherent human behaviour but is learned. Albert Bandura’s social learning theory provides decisive insights into this. The knowledge of these connections must underlie sustainable prevention efforts, which – today even more so – are necessary on different levels.
“I have to let out my anger …”
Despite everything, outdated theories persist and are quickly at hand when rioting and violence are to be explained or even excused. I noticed this in the argumentation of a young person who desperately wanted to sign up for boxing or kickboxing training. Alex was annoyed about his bad grades, a mate who had stolen his girlfriend and that his parents required him to be home by ten o’clock at the latest during the week. Alex had heard somewhere that punching a punching bag would help him to be more relaxed in life, and that he needed it for self-defence nowadays. He was unwittingly advocating a theory of aggression that had its origins in Freud’s theory of the instincts. This idea of the “naturalness” of human aggression was continued in the 1940s with the frustration-aggression theory. Every aggression is the result of frustration, and every frustration in turn leads to aggression. Therefore: Do not frustrate children under any circumstances! In a similar way, the behavioural scientist Konrad Lorenz explained aggressive and violent behaviour when he formulated his instinct theory in the second half of the last century. Aggression and violence, he said, were the discharge of energy that had accumulated in human emotional life and needed an outlet.7 It was amazing how stubbornly outdated theories persist, I thought, as I listened to the young man argue. – Incidentally, his argument of self-defence was just as wrong. Any security expert would tell him that it is best to get away from dangerous situations as quickly as possible, or even better, not to stay in such places at all. Young people today also need to know this, because many are increasingly looking for risk, orienting themselves towards their peers and setting themselves apart from adults to a certain extent. So, the young person and I had an exciting discussion together, and I hope that my arguments will somehow stick with him.
Positive and negative behaviour is learned
Today it is clear: Aggressive and violent behaviour is learned just as much as communal interaction in interpersonal relationships! This finding by the American research team Bandura and Walters has not been refuted to this day. It is not only about behaviour in the narrower sense, but also about attitudes and certain norms of action. Just like socially positive behaviour, also aggressive behaviour is learned, if children have corresponding role models. Models for this come from the immediate environment - parents, educators and peers. Increasingly, however, role models from the media, the music and the computer game scene also play an important role, as do drugs and alcohol. But these issues have been clarified today. “That is clear, the role models from the media. We know from violence research that there are clear connections between media and violence. One has clear facts. Who wants to deny that?” says the renowned violence and bullying researcher Françoise Alsaker.8
Prevention needs a common foundation
Aggressive and violent behaviour must be prevented through sustainable prevention. This includes agreement on the values on which our social coexistence should be based. Our culture and our national and international legal systems have developed over a long period of time, based on the Christian occidental culture. The human being as a person and their dignity are at the centre, and from their social nature, the feeling of being dependent on one another necessarily arises. This also means having responsibility for living together, showing consideration and standing by each other in emergency situations. Every generation is faced with new tasks for which it has to find suitable solutions and pass on the knowledge it has acquired to the next generation. In this way, children and young people can grow into this way of thinking and this view of life and gain the confidence to be able to cope with upcoming tasks in their social environment. The legal framework for living together is provided by national legal systems and international agreements. The state must safeguard this foundation of human coexistence, which has evolved over centuries, and punish the violations.9
Crumbling foundation, but …
In a creeping process, these basics of our society have been questioned from various sides for quite some time and have led to a decline in values and value relativism. Without including this change in values, the question of the causes of increasing youth violence cannot be clarified, because it has opened up a gap between the generations. Therefore, the transmission of fundamental values has become weak and interpersonal relationships are fragile.10
Despite this crumbling foundation, it is shown time and again that the feeling of community and human sympathy is still alive in many people today. This was well observed at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, when people helped and supported each other and were grateful for the work and commitment of fellow human beings working in specially exposed professions – including many young people. They were happy to be involved or actively developed ideas on how they could contribute to overcoming the difficult situation.
“What it needs, is concerted action …”
“… and a common attitude of those actors who deal with young people. Schools are just as much in demand as parents’ homes and youth social work. They have to do it together», demanded criminologist Dirk Baier in a recent television interview.11</sup Violent behaviour must not be trivialised and must be taken very seriously in any case and at any age level. This requires children and young people to build up internal and external protection against violence in all areas of their lives. This begins in the parental home, where the family can build the emotional foundation for their children to treat their fellow human beings with respect and dignity, to demand this for themselves and to be prepared to make a meaningful contribution to society. Children need the emotional security of having their parents by their side as they take their first steps into life. If this is to succeed, educators must not fall prey to the error of sparing their children from the demands of life and always being anxious to fulfil their wishes and needs. In this way, they weaken their children without meaning to; the children do not develop a natural respect for them, and the natural process of adopting values is severely disrupted or even prevented. Mutual help, human responsibility, sympathy and other values cannot develop in this way. – This build-up work in the family environment must be continued in kindergarten and school. There is a broad field for counteracting the origin of violence.
The children must learn to treat each other with respect and care, to deal with differences of opinion, rivalries and conflicts and to deal with them fairly. This requires the attentiveness and determination of everyone involved, otherwise an aggressive school climate can quickly spread. It is not enough to implement violence prevention programmes over a certain period of time, and when they peter out, complain that everything is of no use. Nor can this task be handed over to specially trained children and young people.12 Instead, everyone needs to stand together and stand shoulder to shoulder, with the involvement of parents, in order to put a quick and decisive stop to situations of violence and conflict.13 – A consensus is also required at the level of society. If there is no clear agreement on violence and aggression, a conflagration can quickly develop. Because an absent or doubtful opinion means affirmation and acceptance for young people. This social consensus must be restored today. It includes preparing the children and young people for the tasks of living together and involving them in solving issues that arise. For example, there are still many youth organisations that offer children and young people excellent opportunities to be active and get involved with others, be it in the youth fire brigade, the youth SAC, the Swiss Lifesaving Society and many more. It is striking that those who are so committed are more mature than their peers. Because not only do they discover a new hobby (and they no longer have to complain about being bored!), but they also learn about the demands they will face later in their profession, in their responsibilities as parents and in society. In this way, they learn to think ahead and prepare for their future in social skills as well. Such skills can already be developed by a young child, but it is also never too late to catch up.14 And there is a sphere of action for each of us! •
I have taken important thoughts and facts from the following sources (see footnotes for further details):
Alsaker, Françoise (2012). Mutig gegen Mobbing in Kindergarten und Schule (Courageous against bullying in kindergarten and school) Bern: Verlag Hans Huber, Hogrefe AG Bern. ISBN 978-3-456-84913-3
Burger, Alfred/Gautschi, Eliane (2011). Jugend und Gewalt. Unsere Kinder und Jugendlichen brauchen Erziehung. (Youth and Violence. Our children and young people need education) Zürich: Verlag Zeit-Fragen. ISBN 978–3-909234-13-4
Ivanov, Petra (2015). Geballte Wut. (Concentrated fury) Zürich: Unions-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-293-20701-1
Killias, Martin; Kuhn, André; Aebi, Marcelo F. (2011). Grundriss der Kriminologie. Eine europäische Perspektive. (Basic outline of criminology. A European perspective) Bern: Stämpfli-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7272-8662-9
Olweus, D. (2016). Gewalt in der Schule: Was Lehrer und Eltern wissen sollten – und tun können. (Violence at school: what teachers and parents should know – and can do) Bern: Verlag Hans Huber. ISBN: 3-456-84390-9
Walser Kessel, Caroline; Valär, Martina; Hug, Christoph N. (2019). Was ist verboten und warum? Über Sinn, Zweck und Art der Strafe für Kinder, Jugendliche und Erwachsene. (What is prohibited and why? On the meaning, purpose and nature of punishment for children, adolescents and adults)
www.weblaw.ch/dam/weblaw_ag/ce/buecher/kesr/strafrecht_fuer_kinder. (retrieved 13.6.2021)
Walser Kessel, Caroline (2011). Kennst du das Recht? Ein Sachbuch für Kinder und Jugendliche. (Do you know the law? A non-fiction book for children and young adults) Editions Weblaw
1 Canton of Zurich. Directorate of Justice and Home Affairs. Youth Ombudsman’s Office. “Renewed increase in juvenile delinquency and juvenile violence”. Media release of 22 April 2020. p. 1
2 “Renewed increases in juvenile delinquency – significant rise in juvenile violence”. Media release of 22 April 2021, p. 3
3 Canton of Zurich. “Facts & figures on juvenile law”. p. 8, www.zh.ch/de/sicherheit-justiz/jugendstrafrecht/zahlen-fakten.html (retrieved 6 June 2021)
4 Canton of Zurich. “Facts & figures on juvenile law”, www.zh.ch/de/sicherheit-justiz/jugendstrafrecht/zahlen-fakten.html (retrieved 6 June 2021)
5 “Renewed increases in juvenile delinquency – significant rise in juvenile violence”. Media release of 22 April 2021, p. 4
6 see UNESCO (1986). Seville Declaration. https://wayback.archive-it.org/all/20050928235336/http://portal.unesco.org/education/en/ev.php-URL_ID=3247&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html
7 cf. Burger, Alfred/Gautschi, Eliane. p. 10ff.
8 “Ensuring the well-being of all – with all together. An interview with Professor Dr Françoise D. Alsaker, University of Bern”. In: Zeit-Fragen No. 3 from 17 January 2012. https://www.zeit-fragen.ch/archiv/2012/nr3-vom-1712012/das-wohlergehen-aller-sicherstellen-mit-allen-zusammen.html (retrieved 13 June 2021)
9 cf. Burger, Alfred/Gautschi, Eliane. p. 8
10 cf. Burger, Alfred/Gautschi, Eliane. p. 9
11 Baier, Dirk. “Eine Kultur der Wertschätzung von Gewalt hat sich durchgesetzt” (A culture of appreciation of violence has gained ground.) SRF. 10 vor 10. 29 June 2020. https://www.srf.ch/news/schweiz/anstieg-der-jugendgewalt-eine-kultur-der-wertschaetzung-von-gewalt-hat-sich-durchgesetzt (retrieved 7 June 2021)
12 cf. Killias et al. p. 251
13 Dan Olweus, the Norwegian pioneer of violence research, has written an excellent basic work on the subject. In addition to a careful analysis of the problem, it offers a wealth of suggestions on how to achieve a violence-free school climate. It should be required reading for school principals, teachers and youth representatives.
14 cf. Burger, Alfred/Gautschi, Eliane. p. 52f.
cc. In April 2021, on the 35th anniversary of the Seville Declaration, J. Martín Ramírez, Professor for Psychobiology, wrote that “we are not condemned to war and violence because of our biology. Instead, it is possible for us to end war and the suffering it causes. We cannot do it by working alone, but only by working together. However, it makes a big difference whether or not each one of us believes that we can do it. In the same way, war was invented in ancient times, and we can invent peace in our time. It is up to each of us to do our part.”
The General Conference of UNESCO at its twenty-fifth session in Paris on 16 November 1989 decided (resolution 25C/Res.7.1) to disseminate the Seville Statement on Violence, agreed upon on 16 May 1986 by 20 scientists. The Statement was meant as a contribution to the International Year of Peace 1986 and as a basis for further expert meetings of the UNESCO. The statement vigorously opposes the fatalistic adherence to the opinion that violence and aggression are a kind of “natural law” and that no matter how well-intentioned actions are, nothing can change this. Even today, 35 years later, we would do well to remember this principal document.
Believing that it is our responsibility to address from our particular disciplines the most dangerous and destructive activities of our species, violence and war; recognising that science is a human cultural product which cannot be definitive or all encompassing; and gratefully acknowledging the support of the authorities of Seville and representatives of the Spanish UNESCO, we, the undersigned scholars from around the world and from relevant sciences, have met and arrived at the following “Statement on Violence”.
In it, we challenge a number of alleged biological findings that have been used, even by some in our disciplines, to justify violence and war. Because the alleged findings have contributed to an atmosphere of pessimism in our time, we submit that the open, considered rejection of these misstatements can contribute significantly to the International Year of Peace.
Misuse of scientific theories and data to justify violence and war is not new but has been made since the advent of modern science. For example, the theory of evolution has been used to justify not only war, but also genocide, colonialism, and suppression of the weak.
We state our position in the form of five propositions. We are aware that there are many other issues about violence and war that could be fruitfully addressed from the standpoint of our disciplines, but we restrict ourselves here to what we consider a most important first step.
It is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors.
Although fighting occurs widely throughout animal species, only a few cases of destructive intraspecies fighting between organised groups have ever been reported among naturally living species, and none of these involve the use of tools designed to be weapons. Normal predatory feeding upon other species cannot be equated with intraspecies violence. Warfare is a peculiarly human phenomenon and does not occur in other animals.
The fact that warfare has changed so radically over time indicates that it is a product of culture. Its biological connection is primarily through language which makes possible the co-ordination of groups, the transmission of technology, and the use of tools. War is biologically possible, but it is not inevitable, as evidenced by its variation in occurrence and nature over time and space. There are cultures which have not engaged in war for centuries, and there are cultures which have engaged in war frequently at some times and not at others.
It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behaviour is genetically programmed into our human nature.
While genes are involved at all levels of nervous system function, they provide a developmental potential that can be actualised only in conjunction with the ecological and social environment. While individuals vary in their predispositions to be affected by their experience, it is the interaction between their genetic endowment and conditions of nurturance that determines their personalities. Except for rare pathologies, the genes do not produce individuals necessarily predisposed to violence. Neither do they determine the opposite. While genes are co-involved in establishing our behavioural capacities, they do not by themselves specify the outcome.
It is scientifically incorrect to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behaviour more than for other kinds of behaviour.
In all well-studied species, status within the group is achieved by the ability to co-operate and to fulfil social functions relevant to the structure of that group. “Dominance” involves social bondings and affiliations; it is not simply a matter of the possession and use of superior physical power, although it does involve aggressive behaviours. Where genetic selection for aggressive behaviour has been artificially instituted in animals, it has rapidly succeeded in producing hyper-aggressive individuals; this indicates that aggression was not maximally selected under natural conditions. When such experimentally-created hyperaggressive animals are present in a social group, they either disrupt its social structure or are driven out. Violence is neither in our evolutionary legacy nor in our genes.
It is scientifically incorrect to say that humans have a “violent brain.”
While we do have the neural apparatus to act violently, it is not automatically activated by internal or external stimuli. Like higher primates and unlike other animals, our higher neural processes filter such stimuli before they can be acted upon. How we act is shaped by how we have been conditioned and socialised. There is nothing in our neurophysiology that compels us to react violently.
It is scientifically incorrect to say that war is caused by “instinct” or any single motivation.
The emergence of modern warfare has been a journey from the primacy of emotional and motivational factors, sometimes called “instincts”, to the primacy of cognitive factors.
Modern war involves institutional use of personal characteristics such as obedience, suggestibility, and idealism, social skills such as language, and rational considerations such as cost-calculation, planning, and information processing. The technology of modern war has exaggerated traits associated with violence both in the training of actual combatants and in the preparation of support for war in the general population. As a result of this exaggeration, such traits are often mistaken to be the causes rather than the consequences of the process.
We conclude that biology does not condemn humanity to war, and that humanity can be freed from the bondage of biological pessimism and empowered with confidence to undertake the transformative tasks needed in this ”International Year of Peace“ and in the years to come. Although these tasks are mainly institutional and collective, they also rest upon the consciousness of individual participants for whom pessimism and optimism are crucial factors.
Just as “wars begin in the minds of men”, peace also begins in our minds. The same species who invented war is capable of inventing peace.
The responsibility lies with each of us.
Seville, 16 May 1986
List of signatories
David Adams, Psychology, USA – S.A. Barnett, Ethology, Australia – N.P. Bechtereva, Neurophysiology, USSR – Bonnie Frank Carter, Psychology, USA – José M. Rodriguez Delgado, Neurophysiology, Spain – José Luis Díaz, Ethology, Mexico – Andrzej Eliasz, Individual Differences Psychology, Poland – Santiago Genovés, Biological Anthropology, Mexico – Benson E. Ginsburg, Behavior Genetics, USA – Jo Groebel, Social Psychology, Germany – Samir-Kumar Ghosh, Sociology, India – Robert Hinde, Animal Behaviour, UK – Richard E. Leakey, Physical Anthropology, Kenya – Taha H. Malasi, Psychiatry, Kuwait – J. Martín Ramírez, Psychobiology, Spain – Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Biochemistry, Spain – Diana L. Mendoza, Ethology, Spain – Ashis Nandy, Political Psychology, India – John Paul Scott, geneticist, Animal Behaviour, USA – Riitta Wahlstrom, Psychology, Finland
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