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How changes to childhood have contributed to the crime drop in Scotland

Professor Susan McVie

The latest findings from the Growing Up in Scotland study were published last week.  The study found that most 12-year olds were sociable children who made friends easily in their transition to secondary school, were enthusiastic about staying on in education beyond the age of 16 and were positive about their general sense of life satisfaction.  However, there were also some negative findings in the report. For example, around a quarter of 12-year olds reported spending three hours or more on internet-related activities on an average school day, and the majority said they had experienced some form of bullying - most commonly in an online forum.  The study also found that three in every ten 12-year olds had at some time in their life engaged in at least one of nine different types of ‘anti-social behaviour’, ranging from being rowdy or rude in a public place through to carrying a weapon. 

These findings on the extent to which young people had committed an anti-social or criminal act by the tender age of 12 may be shocking to some.  However, they are a far cry from the levels of anti-social behaviour found amongst 12-year-olds in another Scottish study conducted exactly 20 years ago.  In 1998/9, The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime found that seven out of ten people of the same age had committed at least one of the same nine offending items included in the Growing Up in Scotland study.  Indeed, the chart below shows the extent of the reduction in the likelihood of offending amongst boys and, especially, girls between the two studies.  There are important differences between the two studies which places some limitations on how comparable they are - one is based on responses from across Scotland while the other was based only in the Scottish capital city.  Nevertheless, comparing the results of the two studies provides a valuable historical perspective on the changing nature of childhood behaviour. 

Bar chart showing percentage of 12 year olds who reported involvement in anti-social behaviour

The backdrop to this historical perspective is a major drop in crime over recent decades in Scotland.  Since the early 1990s, the number of crimes and offences recorded by the police has halved, from just over a million to around 500,000 per year.  Similarly, the number of people convicted in our Scottish courts has declined by just over half, falling from around 200,000 to just under 100,000 per year. Research conducted by Dr Ben Matthews (2018) at the University of Edinburgh found that the biggest decline in offending, as measured by Scottish court convictions, was amongst young people, and especially young men.

Furthermore, Dr Sara Skott (2019), also formerly based at the University of Edinburgh, conducted a detailed analysis of changes in violence and homicide recorded by the police in Scotland and found that this was also explained by a major reduction in violent behaviour and knife crime amongst young men.  However, these studies were based on data collected by the police and the courts rather than the reports from individuals themselves, which is a major gap in our knowledge about how crime has changed in Scotland.

This new evidence from the Growing Up in Scotland study about the involvement of pre-teens in anti-social behaviour is of vital importance to the study of childhood in Scotland.  It will contribute to a major programme of work being undertaken by the Understanding Inequalities project. The Understanding Inequalities team, led by Professor Susan McVie, aims to conduct a more in-depth analysis of the differences between young people growing up now compared to those who were growing up two decades ago.  It is hoped that this will lead to an even greater understanding of exactly how offending behaviour has changed amongst young people and, importantly, whether there is more we can learn about how to further reduce youth offending in Scotland in the future. 


Matthews, B. and Minton, J. (2018) Rethinking one of criminology’s ‘brute facts’: The age–crime curve and the crime drop in Scotland. European Journal of Criminology, 15(3), pp. 296-320. DOI:10.1177/1477370817731706

Skott, S. (2019) Disaggregating Homicide: Changing Trends in Subtypes over Time. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 46(11), pp. 1650–1668. DOI: 10.1177/0093854819858648.

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