Young people's anti-social behaviour (ASB) is a policy priority [1
]. A recent literature review has illustrated the growing interest amongst researchers in perceptions of ASB (PASB), as distinct from the direct experience of ASB or crime [2
]. Some researchers have also theorised that concerns and fears associated with crime and ASB may be associated with poorer health and social inequalities in health [4
]: in this way, PASB is considered to be a public health issue.
Definitions of ASB vary but examples include malicious behaviour aimed at individuals and groups, acts of vandalism or carelessness that degrade the local environment, and threatening or physically obstructive behaviours that deter other people from using/accessing public spaces[2
]. Many of these behaviours are also crimes and indeed the UK 1998 Crime and Disorder Act explicitly criminalised ASB, defining it as "acting in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress" [16
]. This definition is not age-specific but policy documents [1
], newspaper reports [18
] and household survey findings [15
] show that ASB is frequently linked to young people, particularly in disadvantaged areas. Furthermore, crime statistics consistently show that a disproportionately high percentage of crimes associated with ASB are committed by people (especially males) aged in their mid to late teens and early 20 s [22
Due to difficulties in objectively measuring anti-social incidents, there is little evidence on the relationship between perceived and 'actual' ASB [2
]. However, a US study concluded that observed environmental disorder such as vandalism is spatially associated with perceived disorder, but contextual factors (in that study, particularly the neighbourhoods' ethnic composition) had stronger associations [24
]. Findings on the importance of contextual factors have been incorporated into arguments that PASB is a symptom of poor social cohesion and negative stereotyping, rather than a purely rational response to actual ASB [2
This theorized link between PASB and negative stereotypes means that focusing on young people's ASB can be controversial. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed concern that public perceptions of young people's ASB are part of a "general climate of intolerance and negative public attitudes towards children, especially adolescents" in the UK [26
] (p.6). On the other hand, a recent report on Scottish attitudes towards ASB concluded that "given evidence from elsewhere that much ASB is indeed committed by young people (but not that most young people commit ASB), it is difficult to say whether this... perception reflects a stereotypical or a realistic view of young people" [27
PASB and health
Irrespective of whether one leans towards the 'realistic' or 'stereotypical' interpretation of PASB, there is evidence to show that concern about ASB and crime may have an adverse impact on people's quality of life [11
]. People who worry about ASB and crime may become constrained in their use of public spaces [28
], or may withdraw from social life and avoid going out, especially at night [30
Several studies also suggest that residents living in disadvantaged or deprived neighbourhoods, or neighbourhoods perceived by residents to have poor reputations, are particularly likely to be concerned about crime, ASB and neighbourhood safety [19
]. However, some studies have found that the association between deprivation and PASB prevalence appears to vary between and within disadvantaged populations: i.e. some disadvantaged neighbourhoods appear to be more resilient (i.e. have a relatively low prevalence of concerns about ASB) than others, and some residents of such neighbourhoods appear more resilient then their neighbours [2
The evidence linking health with PASB also provides some mixed messages. With regards to mental health, a US study of Black and Hispanic women and children found associations between perceived crime and mental health to be weak and inconsistent [35
]. Weich et al. found that associations between depression and neighbourhood graffiti were not statistically significant after adjusting for individual and household-level risk factors [36
]. However, a study of adults residing in tower blocks found that fear of crime was associated with low mental health scores derived from the SF-36 (Short Form 36 questionnaire)[7
]. A Scottish study found evidence that residents who perceived high levels of neighbourhood incivilities (e.g. litter and graffiti) were particularly likely to report frequent feelings of anxiety and depression [37
]. Furthermore, longitudinal analysis of UK civil servants found that fear of crime was associated with poorer mental health, along with reduced physical functioning, lower social engagement and lower quality of life [38
With regard to physical health, a literature review identified some evidence that worrying about crime and/or ASB is associated with reduced physical activity but the reviewers also identified evidence that was inconsistent with this finding [39
]. Miles et al. found that neighbourhood disorder was associated with women's (but not men's) infrequent involvement in sports, whilst perceived safety was not associated with physical activity for either men or women [40
]. Mason et al. found that physical activity (walking around the neighbourhood) had inconsistent associations with perceptions of poor neighbourhood safety at individual and neighbourhood levels [41
]. Analysis of British Crime Survey data has found PASB to be associated with longstanding illness [20
], whereas the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found no significant association between these variables [27
A key issue for this paper is that relatively few studies have focused particularly on associations between health and perceptions of young people's ASB. One study of walking habits amongst older people used an unflattering composite measure of 'nuisance' that combined young people hanging around with unattended dogs and dog-fouling, and found that low nuisance was associated with more walking [42
]. The British Crime Survey found that self-reported long standing illness was associated with a greater likelihood of perceiving teenagers hanging around to be a neighbourhood problem (as was living in a relatively deprived area) after controlling for potential confounding variables [20
Testing associations between PASB and health can help us better understand the extent to which concern about young people's behaviour in deprived neighbourhoods should be treated as a public health issue. Improving our understanding of who thinks teenagers are a problem is also a useful first step for planning targeted interventions for supporting people from deprived neighbourhoods who are particularly vulnerable to fear of crime and disorder. For example, an association between poor physical or mental health and PASB could potentially be used as evidence to support the feasibility of using health care settings in deprived areas for targeted interventions addressing PASB (of course, evaluations would then be required to measure the effectiveness of any intervention).
In this study we used cross-sectional data from a survey of residents living in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods to ask (question 1) are adults with poor health more likely to think young people's ASB is a problem in disadvantage neighbourhoods? We also invert that question and ask (question 2) do adult residents who perceive young people's ASB to be a problem in disadvantaged neighbourhoods have worse health then people who are less concerned about young people's ASB.
The findings have been adjusted to take into account demographic characteristics of residents. As PASB has also been associated in the literature with psychosocial factors such as poor neighbourhood reputation and poor social cohesion [28
] we have conducted further analysis to explore whether individual-level psychosocial characteristics can help explain why PASB varies within disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
A key strength of this study is that it focuses specifically on perceptions of young people's ASB in disadvantaged neighbourhoods: i.e. it focuses on the social group most frequently linked to ASB, in the kinds of neighbourhoods where previous studies have found residents are most likely to view young people's behaviour as problematic. We have measured physical and mental health using a short well-validated questionnaire (SF-12v2). We are aware of no other quantitative study that looks at both physical and mental health in relation to perceptions of young people's ASB, or that focuses on perceptions of young people's ASB in disadvantaged urban areas.