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Juvenile delinquency is a term that is used to denote the criminal behavior of underage individuals. More precisely, a juvenile delinquent is an underage individual that repeatedly commits crimes (whether it be ‘true’ criminal behavior, such as stealing, or other activities prohibited to children, such as truancy). Dealing with juvenile delinquents requires specific procedures, such as juvenile detention centers. Juvenile delinquency is a serious problem all over the world and there is evidence of a worldwide increase.
But what causes this behavior? What is the connection between juvenile delinquency and nature versus nurture? Is the delinquent attitude a result of the child’s upbringing or is it in his or her genes?
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Several genes are hypothesized to have an influence on the development of antisocial behaviors and conduct disorders. There has been slow progress in identifying these genes. Now, it seems that certain serotonin pathway genes may be associated with impulsive antisocial, aggressive and violent behavior.
Furthermore, adoption studies have shown that children from parents with a genetic disposition to antisocial behavior have an increased risk in developing conduct disorders, even when they are raised in a completely different environment than the one their biological parents would provide.
So, it seems that the genetic influence on the development of antisocial behavior and conduct disorders should not be underestimated.
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Much time and energy has been spent on trying to understand the causes of delinquency. These studies have noted that the presence of certain risk factors often increases a youth’s chance of performing criminal actions.
Three main groups of factors have been identified.
- Individual factors: prenatal and perinatal factors are found to have an influence. For example, 80% of violent offenders rated high in delivery complications. Furthermore, also psychological, behavioral and mental characteristics are linked to delinquency. For example, low verbal IQ and delayed language development both have been linked to delinquency.
- Social factors: family factors and peer influence are important factors in the development of delinquent behavior. Children that are maltreated and/or have delinquent friends run a greater risk of developing delinquent behavior themselves.
- Community factors: Both school policies that attach a lot of importance to suspension and expulsion and residing in disorganized, adverse neighborhoods increase the risk of participating in criminal acts.
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Or a Combination?
Juvenile delinquency and nature versus nurture. Is it one of the two or both? A meta-analysis of behavioral genetic studies, conducted in 2002, produced an estimate that about 41% of the variance on antisocial behavior was due to genetic factors, 16% to shared environmental factors and 43% to non-shared environmental factors.
So, whether or not a teenager will develop into a juvenile delinquent depends on both nature and nurture. There are some genes that increase the risk, but the environment also has the ability to increase the risk. That’s probably the reason why some maltreated children develop delinquent behavior and some do not. The genetic predisposition seems to be mediated through environmental influences.
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- Brennan, P.A., Mednick, S.A. & Jacobson, B. (1996). Assessing the role of genetics in crime using adoption cohorts. In G.R. Bock & J.A. Goode, Genetics of Criminal and Antisocial Behaviour.
- Rhee, S.H. & Waldman, I.D. (2002). Genetic an environmental influences on antisocial behavior: a meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies. Psychol. Bull. 128, 490 – 529.
- Shader, M. (2001). Risk Factors for Delinquency: An Overview. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
- Vidding, E. (2004). On the Nature and Nurture of Antisocial Behavior and Violence. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1036, 267 – 277.
- Youth and the United Nations: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unyin/wpayjuvenile.htm