The newest pandemic: Teen street violence is more frightening than Covid, for parents
The rise in attacks by teen gangs has been linked to the pandemic, but is Covid really to blame?
As Covid restrictions ease, we're starting to see a rise in case numbers again.
But there's a rise of something else that's causing parents major concern: anti-social behaviour.
We're not talking loudly drinking in a park or field, or spraying graffiti tags in an alleyway. We're talking a scary amount of intimidation and violence – the type that leaves people traumatised, if not hospitalised.
Over the past few months, we've seen a rise in reports of kids, teens and young adults being violently attacked by groups of teen boys and young men. The attacks vary in motivation; some to mug the victim of possessions like phones or bikes, others with no clear aim but to throw weight around and intimidate in displays of what's apparently considered "lad" behaviour.
Back in May, leaked CCTV footage from Howth Junction train station showed an assault on a 17-year-old girl and sent shockwaves through the media and internet.
The footage showed a group of lads hurling abuse at teen girls running to catch the stopped Dart on the tracks. After shouting at, throwing at, kicking and swiping at the girls, one of the boys lunged at a sole girl while another thrusted the wheel of his bike. This caused her to fall headfirst in the gap between the platform and the train.
Some of the group looked shocked and alarmed by what they caused. Others made a run for it in a shocking lack of empathy as the other girls rushed to her aid and a security guard went to alert the driver.
— Michelle Traynor (@minnyshell) May 7, 2021
The girl was thankfully pulled free before the train began moving again, but what could have happened if the driver didn't catch the attempts to raise the alarm doesn't bear thinking about.
I don't have a daughter, but I have a teen sister. I was scared by the footage, as were many people with teen girls in the family. Sometimes I wonder how my mam ever let either of us out of the house.
HerFamily readers shared similar concerns. When we did a poll on the issue, 96% of those of you who responded said the footage and other reports of anti-social behaviour left you concerned for your kids' safety when out and about.
"I'm worried kids just don't care anymore, a life is nothing," one respondent wrote.
"Concerned for both son and daughters as they may get targeted for protecting friends," wrote another.
Another responded: "I have a 13-year-old boy and am genuinely worried every time he goes out with friends... awful."
91% of you admitted to making your kids call or text you when getting on or off a bus, train or Luas alone, though one respondent said she doesn't allow her son to use his phone on public transport in case it makes him more of a target. Another 96% said hearing such reports has you scared to let your kids and teens travel on public transport without you at all and that you'd be tempted to look at alternative transport options to get your kids to school.
Interestingly, 84% of you said you worried peer pressure could lead your kids to engage in such behaviour:
"I would hope my teens would not let me down when they are out with their friends," one respondent wrote. "But you never know for sure. But they also know I would have zero tolerance for that kind of behaviour."
"I worry about the peer pressure and have spoken to my child about this video," wrote another.
"Very open with my 12-year-old son about responsibility and my expectations of his behaviour," said another.
A lot of you also rightfully pointed out the role toxic masculinity plays in incidents like these, as young lads prey on or try to dominate those more vulnerable than them. One respondent summarised the above incident as "utter misogynistic and hateful treatment by young guys of women they didn't know," while many of you emphasised the need to raise empathetic boys as toxic masculinity is "rife and so ingrained in our culture."
Those outraged by the Howth Junction video, both on social media and in the responses to our poll, pointed out how the girls dodged the boys instinctively as they carried on trying to catch the Dart. They avoided them without confrontation and didn't stop, slow or turn around because they couldn't afford to miss the train.
This is a scenario women and girls are often met with: push through unease and face potential danger, or let that unease and potential danger put a stop to your day. And the reality is that we almost always choose option one, because if we were to choose option two, we'd never go anywhere or do anything.
Option two isn't practical, especially at the frequency with which we face potential danger. We have jobs, schools and homes to get to and responsibilities to take care of. We can't abandoned those just because somebody else decided to be a monster. Those girls shouldn't have been expected to do a 180 at the station that day in the same way that Sarah Everard shouldn't have been expected to not walk home the night she was murdered.
But while women and girls are frequent targets of the violence of young men, it's not exclusive to them. And so worrying about your child making it home safely isn't exclusive to mothers of daughters.
Just yesterday, RTÉ news presenter Ray Kennedy confirmed his 19-year-old son was the victim of a brutal assault that landed him in Beaumont Hospital.
His son, Ciaran, had been cycling home from work at Dublin Airport when a group of five attacked him in what is believed to have been an attempt to steal his bike. The assault left him with black eyes, bruises, cuts and a broken nose he now needs surgery for.
The attack was interrupted by passersby rushing to the teen's aid. "Without them, who knows?" Kennedy wrote in a tweet, adding that Ciaran is "on the mend." Needless to say, he'll no longer be cycling home from work.
According to an investigation by Noteworthy, there was a 65% increase in violent bike and scooter thefts in 2020. The increase in attacks is blamed on a rise in anti-social behaviour linked to the pandemic.
The rise in violent anti-social behaviour coinciding with the pandemic is noticeable, though the reasons behind it are unclear. It's possible that the intensity of lockdowns and the shut-down of extra-curricular activities has left many youths without an outlet to blow off steam.
But boiling such behaviour all down to Covid-19 does a massive disservice to the kids of all genders from all communities who've been engaging in non-harmful activities to keep boredom at bay. There's wider issues at play here, and if they're not looked at soon, we're going to be dealing with large-scale violence from young men long after the pandemic. And that won't be something that can be stopped by a vaccine.