A SURVEY of more than 4,000 Scottish youngsters has reached the startling conclusion that joining the Scouts, Guides, youth clubs or churches "made no difference" to whether children offended.
Less surprisingly, those who spent time hanging about the street, going to amusement arcades, raves, discos or football matches, or had a part-time job, were more likely to be offenders.
The preliminary findings of the study on 12-year-olds in Edinburgh were presented to a meeting of the Howard League for Penal Reform by David Smith, professor of criminology at Edinburgh University.
The children, who filled in a questionnaire, demonstrated clear links between the company they kept and anti-social behaviour. The correlation between young people who said they committed offences and those saying their friends also offended was "extraordinarily strong", Professor Smith said.
He added: "People select their own social environment to a very substantial extent and will tend to find friends who have the same levels of achievements - or of aggressiveness - as themselves. If they themselves are very difficult, or are hostile and aggressive, others who are not will not play with them."
Offending by young people is also closely linked to whether parents know what they are up to in their spare time. Not surprisingly, those who read and who do their homework are less likely to commit crimes - even though this included comics as well as magazines and books.
Professor Smith said the link to parental awareness of children's behaviour was "stunning". Those who did their homework were "more likely to have a measure of control of both themselves and their environment".
The survey, conducted last year as part of a three-year pound;375,000 project funded by the Economic and Social Science Research Council, stated: "Young people tend to commit offences in groups of two or more. If their friends offend, they may be influenced as they adopt their way of life and attitudes. This is also how young people learn ways of committing a crime, if there is anything complicated or if it involves a skill."
Many children who committed offences were themselves victims. "This does indicate there are social circles of victims and offenders who interact with each other, with those who have low self-esteem being more likely to find themselves a victim."