From the Streets to Cyberspace: What are the Links Between Gang Membership and Internet Use?

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Gang members may be using the Internet to commit crimes – more so than non-gang members – according to a study published in October by JRSA Forum, the official newsletter of the Justice Research and Statistics Association. The study examined the crossover between gang-associated activities and Internet use.

Gang Offending and Online Behavior,” written by Arizona State University’s Scott H. Decker and Sam Houston State University’s David Pyrooz, involved 585 interviews with current and former gang members in five cities, including Cleveland, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

According to the researchers, the average age of the subjects ranged from 25 for current gang members to 28 for ex-gang members, while young people that did not self-identify as gang members reported an average age of 23. Males made up 80 percent of the interviewees, with Hispanics representing the predominant ethnic group evaluated.

Regarding non-criminal online activity, approximately 80 percent of all three groups (current gang members, ex-gang members and non-gang members) reported regular Internet use. Researchers said that the primary function of Internet applications for the population was social networking, with about 90 percent of interviewees reporting that they frequently watched videos on YouTube while 80 percent of respondents reported using sites like Facebook. About 21 percent of non-gang members reported using Twitter, while 15 percent of current gang members and 11 percent of former gang members reported using the service.

The researchers listed eight types of illegal online activity, which ran the gamut from selling stolen goods on online auction sites to conducting web searches to pinpoint potential robbery sites. The study found that 43 percent of current gang members had committed an online crime over the last six months, with the three most prevalent activities consisting of illegally downloading movies or music, uploading “deviant” videos - primarily, footage of street fights - and participating in assaults precipitated by online communication.

Only about one third of non-gang members and former gang-members reported engaging in such online behaviors - a discrepancy the researchers consider to be statistically significant.

“In comparing gang members to non-gang members and former gang members, it is clear that the impact of gang membership on crime also holds for online criminal activities,” the authors conclude. “It is clear that offenders and the groups they offend in are using the Internet to further criminal activities.”

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