My holiday reading this year was abruptly interrupted when I picked up a copy of The Scotsman and was confronted with a stark headline: "Scotland's blade-wielding offenders, aged just eight and nine". The article went on to report that "children under 10 in Scotland commit almost 100 crimes a month" and that police are regularly called to incidents where "young tearaways" are involved in "breach of the peace", "vandalism" and "assault". However, the journalist makes no attempt to describe to the reader exactly what type of behaviour has led to some of these charges. For instance, "breach of the peace" could be used to describe anything from standing around on the street talking loudly to your pals to throwing a brick at someone.
The article is yet another example of the persistent attempts by certain facets of the media to demonise young people. The fact that it appeared in the paper just two days after the national television news had reported that crime levels are at their lowest level in Scotland for 37 years makes it all the more ludicrous.
Frank Furedi has talked about the "culture of fear" that is often generated by the media and that leads to growing feelings of distrust within communities. More recently, Stuart Waiton has discussed the way in which an increasing number of young people's social pastimes have been redefined as criminal, leading to hostility and alienation between generations of adults and youth. This rings true for me - during the long hot summer of 1976 when I was eight years old, I remember carving my name on the melting tarmac pavement outside my house with a penknife. In `76, it was seen as a bit of fun - now, it would most likely be seen as vandalism (or breach of the peace?) and would probably lead to the neighbours phoning the police.
The increasingly widening definitions associated with "youth crime" and the impact the stigma has on communities was brought home to me during a recent series of workshops I ran in Drumchapel, on the outskirts of Glasgow. Young people, local residents and police officers were brought together to look at ways in which we could build more trust within the local community.
The young people talked about how local residents regularly called the police when they saw them standing in groups on the street, even although they weren't doing anything other than socialising. One police officer talked about local people who "phone the police for the purpose of phoning the police . (they) exaggerate to get that quicker response which kind of just detracts and reflects from the other work that we could be doing". One other senior officer admitted that his biggest problem wasn't the young people, but the "local residents" who phone up about young people. "Jumpers for goalposts? Forget it, no more," he declared. "Young men or young women playing football in the street is a call to the police - it's seen as a disturbance."
As the conversations continued, each of the participants began to reflect more on the way that attitudes have changed, and more and more youth pastimes have become criminalised as a result of political and media obsessions.
During the workshops, the participants engaged in role play, where police officers took on the roles of young people and local residents while youngsters took on the police and local resident roles, and local residents played the police and the young people. In role, they each put forward potential arguments about controversial issues such as police "stop and search" strategies and youth crime. The local community inspector, local residents and youth workers shared their perspectives about how local youngsters could contribute towards community empowerment through establishing a local youth forum.
At a time when we often hear negative stories about our youth, it was particularly encouraging to see the exemplary way in which the local Drumchapel youngsters participated in these workshops and engaged in mature, reflective conversation with local police officers, youth workers and local residents.
The formal evaluation of the programme suggests that the youngsters left the workshops feeling that their voices had been heard and that they had a greater sense of respect for the work of the police and empathy towards the views of local residents. Further, police officers felt more empathy towards local youngsters' plight, while local residents felt a greater sense of respect for young people's views and for the local priorities for community policing.
The project has illustrated that the building of trust, empathy and respect among local community groups is an essential first step in being able to challenge some of the stigma that exists about groups of youths in local communities. By working together in inter-agency teams and building inter-generational reciprocity, perhaps we can replace the "culture of fear" that currently exists within so many local communities with a "culture of trust". In so doing, maybe we can dispel some of the myths about young people and crime that are projected by the media.
The next time I go on holiday, I think I might avoid looking at the Scottish newspapers. And I can safely say that carving my initials in the tarmac is definitely off the agenda.
Ross Deuchar is professor of youth and community studies at the University of the West of Scotland.