The real reason crime is falling so fast

How social media obsession, smartphone addiction, and even violent video games are, surprisingly, making us safer
BR2MK8 Teenager play on his Xbox 360 games console. Image shot 2010. (Gavin Rodgers/Alamy)
(Gavin Rodgers/Alamy)
(Gavin Rodgers/Alamy)

Jeremy Cook was just 18 when he was murdered, a crime that made national headlines. Last month, while on a trip to London, Ont., the Brampton teen forgot his iPhone in a taxi. Using the phone’s built-in tracking feature, he later traced the device to a parking lot, where he confronted three men in a car. When he tried to stop the vehicle from driving away by grabbing the driver’s side door, it’s alleged that one of the occupants of the car gunned Cook down. His body was found behind a strip mall. The phone was found abandoned, along with the car. One suspect, a 23-year-old Calgary man, later drowned in Ottawa after being pursued by police, while a second suspect, 24, turned himself in after being named in a Canada-wide arrest warrant for the charge of second-degree murder. A third suspect has been identified but is not co-operating with police.

The crime, which became known as the “cellphone slaying,” left the nation stunned. A group of young men had allegedly killed another young man over a mobile phone. For those who believe that crime is out of control in this country, who harbour suspicions that growing numbers of youth are prone to violence, and who are upset by what they see as society’s dangerous addiction to technology, Cook’s tragic death confirmed their worst fears. “A cellphone!” one man exclaimed in the London Free Press. “Society is changing.” The warnings from police at the time that phone robberies were rampant, and could lead to tragedy, only served to heighten the panic.

But away from the headlines and breaking-news hits, it turns out there’s another side to the story of youth and crime and technology, and it’s one that’s becoming increasingly apparent to some who study the world of crime. It’s already well-established that the story of crime in Canada does not align with our darkest fears. Indeed, since 1991, both violent and non-violent Criminal Code offences have been falling. Just last week, Statistics Canada released figures showing that crime rates continued their decades-long decline. Last year, the overall crime rate, as measured by the number of incidents reported to police per 100,000 people, hit a low not seen since 1969.

Most of the focus is on the top line number. But it’s only when the statistics are broken down by age group that the most powerful and dramatic underlying trend becomes apparent: Canada is fast becoming a safer place, largely because huge numbers of those aged 18 to 24, the slice of the population historically responsible for the largest share of crimes in the country, are staying on the right side of the law.

Consider the following, drawn from data that StatsCan provided to Maclean’s about police charges for a selection of criminal violations. Over the five-year period between 2009 and 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available, charges laid for robbery, motor vehicle theft, aggravated assault and breaking and entering among those aged 18 to 24 dropped by between 23 and 31 per cent, while the charges stemming from the most serious crime, homicide, were down 29 per cent. (Because charges are more specific than incidents and reflect varying response rates across the country, only the last five years of StatsCan data is comparable.) There were declines among other demographic groups, as well as some increases (see sidebar) but consistently, the biggest drop in crime was among 18- to 24-year-olds—which, as the group that commits the most crimes in Canada, goes a long way to explaining why the country’s overall crime rate is falling so precipitously.

Related: The outlier to these declining crime stats? The elderly.

The overall crime drop has been described as the most important criminological phenomenon of modern times and, in North America, Europe, Australia and other developed countries, many common street crimes have fallen by half since the early 1990s. What’s behind the phenomenon? Theories abound, including better security—from improved locks, closed-circuit television and the widespread adoption of home alarm systems—as well as the sheer number of police on the street and bodies in prison. But a growing number of criminologists are also considering another factor they argue has not been given its due—namely, our obsession with technology. “Frankly, there are more interesting things to do indoors now than going out and nicking things,” says leading British criminologist Ken Pease.

Pease, a visiting professor at several British universities who has published hundreds of academic papers on crime and was once head of the police research group at the U.K. government’s Home Office, is a firm believer that improved security has helped to drive down crime levels. But he argues that the staggering reach of the online world—whether through video games, social media, access to instant and unlimited video and texting, always within arm’s reach on our smartphones—is reshaping the modern world to such an extent that it may even be affecting crime rates. “Cyberspace becomes more interesting than meatspace,” he says, referring to a term for the physical world first coined by American-Canadian science-fiction author William Gibson. “As our lives move from meatspace to cyberspace, the opportunity for violent crime and acquisitive crime change and reduce in the aggregate, and that’s what I think has happened.”

Pease is not alone. Other researchers, as well as those working in law enforcement, including the president of the Canadian Police Association and those on the front lines with at-risk youth, are observing fundamental changes taking place among the most digitally connected generation the world has ever known. It’s a realm of criminology research that may only be in its infancy, but in future, it may show that our chronic technology habit, long criticized for its corroding influence on society, is actually keeping us safe.

(Julie Denesha for The Washington Post)
(Julie Denesha for The Washington Post)

The harmful effects of technology have been well-catalogued: It’s been blamed for obesity, dwindling attention spans and sedentary lifestyles. Texting and walking is hazardous, while texting and driving can be fatal. Meanwhile, medical experts regularly warn us that Internet addiction is breaking up families, that the glowing screens of our devices are making us sleep-deprived, and that social media are making us depressed. And that’s just the cat-loving Internet. Anxieties about video games are even more entrenched, with the horrors of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado—when two students, avid players of the violent video game Doom, killed 13 teachers and classmates—still echoing in the debate over whether virtual violence can spill over into the real world.

Yet for all the warnings, headlines and medical advice, our infatuation with technology continues to grow, particularly among the young. One survey of 5,000 Canadian students found 99 per cent have access to the Internet outside of school, while 45 per cent use a smartphone to go online. It’s a similar story among young adults. Another study, by the Pew Research Center, found a quarter of American teens reported that they’re online “almost constantly,” with the typical teen sending 30 texts a day. And when people aren’t updating their Facebook status, they’re playing games. According to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, nearly two-thirds of adults aged 18 to 34 play video games, while among children and teens, that figure reaches 80 per cent.

This digital preoccupation has been the focus of a multitude of studies, by neurologists, sociologists and psychologists. A few years ago in the U.K., criminologist Mike Sutton and psychologist Mark Griffiths, who studies gaming and addiction, first realized the extent to which their fields overlap. So together, they came up with what they call the crime substitution hypothesis, which suggests that the overwhelming preoccupation with our devices may have contributed to the crime drop.

Like many British ideas, this one turned up at the pub. Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, was having a pint with his friend Sutton, who teaches at the same school. Griffiths had noted the rising obsession with gaming and social media among young people; Sutton had often mentioned the inexplicable drop in crime over roughly the same period. That conversation resulted in a research paper proposing the crime substitution hypothesis.

The theory goes like this: Crime requires an offender with the motivation and ability to act—to go out and “nick” things—as well as a suitable victim, and the absence of someone who can prevent the crime from happening. This means that if substantial numbers of young people are inside and not on the streets, they are less likely to become either offenders or victims. These incremental changes in lifestyle from moment to moment can add up to significant shifts in society.

Though Griffiths admits their theory is “speculative and correlational,” and still requires much research to confirm, it does have what he calls “good faith validity”—it rings true. People his age and his children’s age have an almost pathological need to look at their phones when the devices buzz with an incoming text, Facebook message or email. “The bottom line is, if teenagers are so engaged in social networking or playing their computer games, they can’t physically do two activities at one time,” Griffiths says. “If you’ve got great millions of children in whatever jurisdiction playing online, particularly during their leisure time, this is a time they can’t possibly be engaged in crime, as well.”

There is growing support for this idea. Harvard economist Lawrence Katz has suggested that “video games and websites” may have provided such an effective distraction during the 2008 financial collapse that the crime wave predicted by conventional wisdom during hard economic times did not materialize. Meanwhile, a 2013 study published by the American Psychological Association found that violent crime actually went down, even as video game sales went up. The authors chalk this up to either catharsis through simulated violence, or the simple fact that if violent people are drawn to violent video games, they keep the streets safer by staying—and playing—at home.

And it’s not only crime; rising rates of technology use also correlate with a drop in other undesirable behaviours. Research has suggested that the same forces have helped to discourage young people from risky sex, drug use and aggression. The post-Millennial demographic known as Generation Z, defined loosely as those born after 1995, is known to be better-behaved than their older peers. As they enter their late teens, the most likely age of criminal inclination, Gen Z youths are smoking less, graduating more, having fewer pregnancies, and committing fewer robberies, car thefts and murders.

(Photograph by Cole Garside)
Corick Henlin, 16, admits that abundant screen time can cause laziness, but he also sees it as a useful distraction. (Photograph by Cole Garside)

Sixteen-year-old Corick Henlin grew up in a tough part of west Toronto that has a steady undercurrent of violence. He and his friends can spot gangs by their crews or their cars. But they have no interest in that lifestyle. They spend most of their time playing video games, chatting to their thousands of Facebook friends and texting girls—Henlin especially, his friends tease. He plays the odd game of basketball, which saves his phone battery, he says. It’s the one time when he’s not using it.

As a digital native, or “screenager” (someone who can’t recall a time before the Internet), Henlin says, “Technology is ruling our lives.” Although he admits all that screen time can breed laziness, he sees it as a useful diversion. “Before electronics, people were forced to go outside to have fun, but that’s why there were more problems on the streets,” he says. “Nowadays, with electronics, you can play, like, a fighting game on PS3. When you play games, you can cause trouble on that. You can cause trouble and not actually get in trouble.”

Ottawa police patrol the streets during the Ottawa Marathon, in Ottawa, Sunday May 26, 2013. (Fred Chartrand/CP)
Ottawa police patrol the streets during the Ottawa Marathon, in Ottawa, Sunday May 26, 2013. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

One might assume that the president of the Canadian Police Association would attribute the drop in crime to, above all, ace policing. But when Tom Stamatakis, a former police constable in Vancouver for 19 years, is asked for his theory, one of the first things he talks about is technology. “Perhaps, generations ago, when [young people] weren’t as engaged with technology as they are now, you’d have to go out to find entertainment, as opposed to staying in your home and getting into Xbox or being engaged with your friends through social media,” he says. “Technology definitely plays some role in influencing youth and the kind of activities they’re involved in. If you go back to a time before cellphones and social media and game consoles, there would be boredom and you would leave your home, be out and about in the community with friends, looking for activities to engage in.”

Those “activities” might have included common crimes of youth, such as shoplifting or vandalism. And while those are petty crimes, they can still serve as a gateway to more serious crimes later in life. Researchers have found that involvement in petty crimes at a young age increases the likelihood a person will be involved in crime as an adult. Likewise, if an individual has not participated in criminal activity by early adulthood, he’s less likely to start later on. Given the fact that the rate of youths accused of crimes under the Youth Criminal Justice Act dropped by almost two-thirds between 2004 and 2014, that means the pool of potential criminals in the future is also shrinking, and the crime rate is likely to decline exponentially faster.

Stamatakis believes that measures to divert young people from entering the criminal justice system and changing demographics have also played a role. He points out that technology has also created brand-new problems for police, such as cyberbullying and the relatively new problem of smartphone thefts, which some police have described as reaching “epidemic” levels. But even here, technology is helping to turn that around. The introduction of so-called “kill switches” on smartphones, which allow owners to remotely disable their devices, contributed to a 30 per cent drop in the number of phone thefts last year, according to a recent Consumer Reports study.

The pervasive nature of devices such as camera phones may also serve to deter crime. A 2013 research paper from the University of Pennsylvania Law School argued that mobile phones have played a role in discouraging violent crime and, to a lesser extent, property crime, because of the increased risk of being caught. It’s easier than ever for a victim or bystander to phone 911 or record a video of an attack, the authors note in “Mobile phones and crime deterrence: an underappreciated link,” which they claim is the first study to test mobile phones’ link to the crime drop in the U.S.

Not everyone is convinced that chronic use of technology is helping to bring down crime. The crime substitution theory put forth by Griffiths and Sutton, for one, has faced detractors. University of Toronto criminologist Anthony Doob considers such theories “a dime a dozen,” because there have been countless changes to society since 1991. Likewise, Simon Fraser University criminology professor Graham Farrell isn’t convinced. He’s a former graduate student of Pease’s in the U.K. and a childhood friend of Sutton’s. Farrell attributes most of the crime drop to an increase in security. Since “debut crimes” such as car thefts and shoplifting have become more difficult, young people may be less likely to start a criminal career in the first place, he says. “That might be the stepping stone to why some violent crimes have gone down,” Farrell says. He’s also skeptical that video games, social media and smartphones contributed to the crime drop, which began in 1991, before Google and texting and before Gen Z was even born. But while he’s quick to point out that correlation is not causation, he’s not totally against further investigation to finally prove or disprove the hypothesis. “Mike [Sutton]’s been talking about it for years,” Farrell says from Vancouver. “I say, ‘This is interesting. Where is the evidence?’ ”

His former professor Pease is considering that challenge right now. Pease has proposed that one of his current post-doc students at the University College London take a more rigorous look at crime and technology to see if a causal link can be identified.

In the meantime, those on the front lines working with at-risk youth are already realizing the power of keeping youth digitally connected.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Even if the proof isn’t absolute, investment in technology has worked its way into social programs in Canada and the U.S. In June, the Federal Communications Commission expanded its Lifeline program, or the so-called “Obamaphone,” which provides low-income Americans with subsidized phone plans. The agency plans to extend the program to broadband Internet in recognition of the fact that web access is essential to being a fully functioning part of society.

Meanwhile, programs providing at-risk youths with access to mobile phones have popped up in Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto, funded by phone companies. Taylor-Rae Foster, a program coordinator at the Youth Restorative Action Project in Edmonton, which has distributed phones to 30 teens aged 17 and under, acknowledges that the devices could facilitate drug deals or gang activity. Instead, she says they’ve been used by youth to find safe places to sleep and to keep in touch with friends.

The Internet, especially Facebook, is often the only way at-risk youths can stay in touch with their families, says Kelly Holmes, executive director of Resource Assistance for Youth in Winnipeg, an agency that deals with street-involved youth up to age 29. The agency’s 15 computers are used by roughly 20 young people a day. “The demand is so much more, and there’s so much more for them to do in making contact, Facebooking, applying for jobs and checking out vacancies for housing,” she says. “It’s a pretty important tool.”

In the same city, emergency physician Dr. Carolyn Snider is steering a pilot project that tries to reduce the number of hospital visits by victims of violence, some of whom she would see repeatedly, by connecting her patients with a support worker through technology. The youths, typically between 14 and 24 years old and often with ties to gangs, might come in having been beaten, stabbed or shot. They are now given a basic mobile phone they can use to text their support workers, who can then check on their work or housing situations, as well as their health and recovery. Connecting by mobile phone “has been very successful for us, and really an integral part of our intervention, in a sense,” Snider says, “because keeping in contact with youth who are so vulnerable and so transient at times is a real challenge.” Snider says it can be tough convincing “higher-ups” it’s worthwhile handing out phones. “As you can imagine, some of the people are like, ‘You’re giving phones to these high-risk youth? What are you thinking?’ But it’s a big part of (the project).”

Although official measures of the program’s success won’t be available until next year, Snider says she expects to see a drop in return visits to the hospital, an increase in school enrolment, and a decrease in involvement with the criminal justice system.

Calvin Cheng, 25, grew up in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, an inner-city public housing complex in Toronto once notorious for dangerous gangs like the Asian Assassinz. He and a handful of friends were well aware of the gang’s coming and goings. Now a paramedic, Cheng credits his success to programs such as Pathways to Education, a national non-profit that works to ensure high school students in low-income neighbourhoods don’t drop out. And he’s equally effusive about the support of his parents, who, even though they worked for minimum wage, sank their savings into buying Cheng a fancy computer. And that, he says, was where he and his friends spent “pretty much all day, every day,” battling it out on games like World of Warcraft and Counter-Strike, which features a “deathmatch” mode as an option. “I guess it was good, because they knew I wasn’t getting involved in other things I shouldn’t be—because I was at home playing video games every day,” he says.

Matthew Johnson, director of education for the Ottawa-based digital media literacy non-profit MediaSmarts, says we are witnessing a bundle of social changes that do include crime reduction, as well as an increase in sedentary behaviour, and the general sense that it’s safer to be indoors.

But while it’s easy to worry about kids these days being attached to their devices, and the hand-wringing about video games and Facebook is likely to continue, it’s clear the digital revolution has brought enormous positive changes, often in unexpected ways. Society will continue to grapple with social ills such as crime and addiction, but, with access to new information, ideas and distractions, it’s possible our very dependence on technology has actually made the world a little safer.