Today’s teens form part of Gen Z, young people who were born and raised in the new technology era, who cannot envisage an offline world with no access to the Internet or social media. From an early age, they have juggled with computers, tablets and smartphones, accessories they use in their daily lives. In tandem, data also evidence that cybercrime is increasingly attracting and engaging with the teen population.
A study by the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the UK reveals that 61% of computer hackers identified in that country begin their activity before the age of 16. In 2015, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Crime Investigation reported that cyberfraud crimes committed by under-18s had risen by 26% in the previous two years and by 84% in the previous three. In a recent survey conducted by an online security firm, roughly 1 out of every 6 adolescents in the US and 1 out of every 4 in the UK disclosed that they had attempted some kind of Internet “hacking”.
In Spain, more than 300 young people under the age of 15 have been detained or investigated for cybercrimes every year for the past four.
Why are teens engaging in cybercrime activities?
Today, fewer skills than ever are required to commit a cybercrime, as you do not need to be a computer or programming expert to know how to hack. A variety of low-cost hackers’ tools are available for users online. There are hundreds of tutorials and digital manuals that explain step by step how to access computers or steal passwords and, all of the above, in environments, social media and websites linked to teen-oriented content.
One such example involves videogame-related environments where, coupled with tutorials offering tricks and tips for some videogames, they also show how to crack them or get hold of game licenses. It is in these contexts that many adolescents are injected with the cyberfraud virus, to obtain products and services free of charge via hacking techniques, which may lead many of them to go even further and upscale their cybercrime activity.
And if we bear in mind that the prefix cyber does not make the offence any less important, serious or dangerous for society, what we are finding is teenagers who are beginning to come into closer contact with crime. Whereas, in the past, the criminal underworld could be pinpointed and limited from a spatial and geographical point of view, nowadays this does not exist in cybercrime. As can be seen from the abovementioned data, you do not have to live or be brought up in the criminal underworld or in a poor neighborhood to witness or take part in the cybercrime business. This exposure to crime is also happening at an earlier age, which is going to impact these young people’s social value and belief learning processes. Some statistics bear out this fact: the average age of detainees for drug crimes in 2015 in the UK was 37 and that of people arrested for economic crimes stood at 39.
If you recall the figure we mentioned previously, that of cyberdelinquents plummets to 17. In an attempt to explain this reality, we are now going to share some knowledge with you that throws light on this specific phenomenon of cybercrime and helps us understand it.
What circumstances or determining factors drive some young people to get involved in criminal activities on the Internet?
To this end, we are going to begin by looking at a traditional criminology theory, A General Theory of Crime, by Gottfredson and Hirschi.
Having low self-control means that the person is unable to delay their rewards, that they have no patience and act impulsively to get whatever they want.
On most occasions, this means getting involved in criminal conduct. This low self-control is typical in teenagers who, at their age, do not have the necessary brain structures in place to generate self-control; they do not have the emotional maturity that enables them to control their impulses, withstand peer pressure and calculate the risks of any dangerous decisions.
This is echoed in countless studies that evidence how young people who score worse on self-control scales are, to a greater extent, usually related not only to criminal behaviors but also to cybercrime. Teenagers are at a developmental and identity building stage, for which they use different strategies, including peer comparison. This comparison has a materialistic bias, where the possession and purchase of material items and belongings are used as a measure of happiness, success and satisfaction in life.
This internal and external pressure for possessions, usually items of value, obviously represents an economic cost, which is not within everyone’s reach through “legal” channels. If this is coupled with low self-control, which is usually present at these ages, the outcome is that some teenagers try and obtain these possessions via unlawful means. One example of this may be the pressure that some young people feel to own the latest model of Smartphone, an item which nowadays not only represents a mere technological device, but it is also an “essential” element for interaction, communication and everyday relationships from a young person’s perspective.
This peer comparison leads us to another theory that also attempts to explain criminal behavior in adolescents, Akers’ Social Learning Theory, according to which criminal behavior is learnt like any other. A teenager, through the identity building we mentioned earlier, feels more influenced by their peers than by adults, using as a benchmark and imitating the behavior they see in their equals. If their group of equals carries out, justifies and reinforces criminal conduct, the adolescent will be more likely to imitate and develop these types of behaviors, especially if the results of these acts mean more benefits than punishment.
This peer pressure is also extremely powerful in adolescence, from which it is very difficult for someone in need of the approval of their companions to escape. Many criminal phenomena, such as gangs, mobs or juvenile organizations, can be explained from this perspective.
What is so special about the Internet? What specific characteristics can be identified in cybercrime that are not found in other types of crimes?
We already mentioned a bit about this previously when we said that new technologies and the Internet form part of teenagers’ everyday lives. They have grown up within a virtual context, where they upload their photos, where they communicate with their friends, learn, have fun and carry out many other routine activities.
This means that the Internet is seen as an inoffensive, everyday scenario, where it is more difficult to classify a behavior that we or others engage in as dangerous or illegal. Coupled with this, we can recognize a specific phenomenon that relates adolescent criminality to the Internet, the Impact of Low Online Self-Control, which explains why adolescents are more attracted to cybercrimes. This impact of low online self-control is based on 3 elements:
- Neutralization: This element is related to the over-tolerance on the Internet to carrying out specific behaviors, which, in the analog world, would not be viewed favorably. For example, sneaking into the cinema to watch a film without paying would be frowned upon, whereas downloading the same film illegally does not seem so serious. Teenagers are able to justify their criminal acts on the Internet, the damage is minimized and the responsibility is fuzzy.
- Anonymity: This element refers to a feature that clearly defines the virtual context, where we can interact without revealing our true identity. This means that adolescents believe they are invisible, unidentifiable, which makes them feel more at ease to indulge in criminal activities.
- Safety: This element is related to the above, as what the over-tolerance and anonymity offered by the Internet really lead to is a minimization of the risk of being punished for a criminal act. Although increasingly less so, it is still somewhat complicated to recognize the existence of a cybercrime and for the police to pursue it and prosecute it. Cybercrimes do not usually leave physical footprints as other types of offences do and they are committed in a borderless, multinational environment where managing them using laws and policies from the analog world is complex.
This impact of low online self-control leads to what we could call teens’ “attraction to cyber deviation”, rendering the virtual world a place where it is more tempting, effortless and easier to commit a crime than in the analog one.
As Criminology shows us, there are two basic strategies for fighting against not only crime but also cybercrime: increasing risk for the criminal and/or reducing the benefits of the crime. Both strategies have an effect on this attraction to crime and should be taken into account in any attempt to reduce cyberdelinquency in adolescents.