Drugs, gaming and gang culture: to understand young people, recognise the world they inhabit

Sadly the news is as predictable as it is desperately tragic. In the past couple of weeks more young men have been stabbed in Southeast London.

One of them was a promising young rapper, Leoandro Osemeke, just 16, while the other was known as a 19-year-old gentle giant to his family and friends – Andrew Oteng-Owusu.

More needless lives lost in a part of London that is blighted by this violence, and which is happening almost weekly.

And you have to remember that these boys should not just be statistics; they were bright young men who were eager to make something special of their lives. Everyone who knew Leoandro – whose rapper name was Showkey – said he was heading for a glittering career in music. Family, friends and teachers saw he had a great talent; one which has now been brutally snuffed out.

Leoandro’s death also comes shortly after the brutal killing of his best friend, Myron Yarde, just 17. Leoandro was the the sixth teenager to be killed in London this year and recently released a tribute to Myron, referring to his gangland lifestyle with the lyrics: “Is it really worth it?”

So why are these awful deaths happening and what can we do to stop them?

As we’ve stated elsewhere in our blogs, a lot of this can be blamed on the rising gang cultures in London, accompanied by the huge consumption of designer drugs and the rise of the gamification culture. Many of these young men spend most of their lives on violent – mainly killing – games. While gaming, they smoke a cocktail of high strength designer skunk weed mixed with crack cocaine, and other manufactured products such as fibre glass.

Combine this state of intense hyper reality with the peer-pressure of ever present gang culture, which so many of these young men are surrounded by, and you have a pressure cooker of incipient violence and total loss of what we would term normal reality. They take their online violence onto the streets – and that’s when people die.

Ironically, many of these teenagers and young men are not necessarily out to kill their rivals. But they need to show off their steely toughness to their peers, so stabbing is often the way to prove themselves. Many fatal stabbings start as nothing more than sharp pricks to the neck and legs. These are meant to harm rather than seriously hurt people, but victims often die after an artery has been slashed by mistake.

Like baying wolves, these young men live in a hyper real bubble operating as a pack. Stabbing someone is a form of blood lust. The more people they stab the more infamous they become. But they’re still youngsters and often fail to comprehend fully what they’re doing.

To highlight this, one gang member who fatally stabbed a victim recently actually took his victim home and urged his family to call the paramedics. Once the ambulance and police arrived, he directed them to the victim’s home.

The lesson is that hyper real lives focused on drugs, gaming and gangs often fail to appreciate that real people are getting hurt and killed – until it’s too late.

It’s also important to understand that there tends to be a spike in stabbings in the summer when teenagers and young people are either on their long summer holiday or have just left school.

Parents are relieved they can no longer be prosecuted for failing to send their children to school, happy to leave them to play games in their bedrooms. Many parents often fail to realise what’s happening to their sons until it’s far too late.

Furthermore, a lot of these teenagers and young men have been diagnosed with ASD and ADHD from an early age. From primary school they’re told they’re disruptive, and largely useless at school and in society; for parents, the only place they fit in is with their other friends who have special needs.

They’re also often excluded from much of school activity or worse placed in pupil referral units (PRU – essentially mini prisons). So it’s reinforced daily that you either fit in or become an outlaw and be sent to the PRU. Some 90% of these children have never been properly diagnosed by an evaluating psychiatrist and once a young person turns 18 years old, the ADHD label will not protect them from antisocial behaviour. Neither college nor work place will tolerate the label as an excuse for being disruptive.

If we check the statistics of young people entering the criminal justice system as murderers, it’s the same young people being recycled again and again. And the murderers often become the murdered – eventually. Some 85% of them tend to be young black men.

Most teachers are culturally disconnected to the students and panic at the first incident, and use exclusion as a weapon. It is a school teaching system championed by the Victorians, still used today and hopelessly outdated. Most young people live public-private lives, often on their mobile phones, all day and evening. Their world is totally disconnected from their daily lives at school and, instead of being encouraged to use them for the benefit of education and socialisation, teachers ban phones and gadgets and punish those who use them.

That is clearly not an answer to the problem. Mobile phones, social networks and games are never – EVER – going to disappear now. They’re an intrinsic part of a young person’s life, from dawn till dusk.

The real issue has to be – by consistently punishing young people who live lives which are about as different as night and day from their parents and teachers, society is producing a disconnected underclass of youngsters – far far worse than anything previously seen. This alienation and severe detachment is only going to increase unless parents, teachers and society as a whole start to understand – really understand – how these young people live their lives.

But to understand them, you have to recognise and appreciate the world they inhabit.

Gwenton Solely spoke to Andrew Chilvers

The University of Westminster in collaboration with Shared Vision and children and care-leavers charity and theatre company Chickenshed presents a crucial debate: Children lost in a fractured system: “A Courageous Conversation

A keynote speech from Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, will open the event followed by a panel discussion proposing that major change is needed for children and young people in how they are safeguarded and how they access services in England and Wales.