Debating the rise in violent crime

The puzzlement regarding the causes of nationwide increase in homicides discussed in your lively article suggests how little is understood regarding the causes on increases or declines in violent crime, despite huge amounts of data and sophisticated data analyzes. If criminologists had a good understanding of why homicide rates in U.S. cities declined by large percentages over almost three decades, they would have a plausible hypothesis for why murder rates increased during the pandemic. It is worth mentioning that many other socially toxic phenomena declined during the same years that homicide rates declined, e.g., teenage pregnancy, physical abuse and sexual abuse of children, domestic violence to name a few. All of these declines were associated with persistent community collaborations that strengthened partnerships among public and private agencies, as well as strengthening social norms against violence in affected neighborhoods and communities. Enter the pandemic: community bonds and collaborations were undermined by the need for families to function in isolation. Collective efficacy at achieving any and all common goals - not a US strength in recent years --  declined precipitously. 

 

In an individualistic society armed to the teeth, it is only the power of community that can inhibit violence and lots of other bad behavior.  The lesson of the pandemic is that maintaining collective bonds requires the daily personal contact and social interaction we took for granted, until COVID stopped these interactions with stay in place orders. It will be a slow hard process to rebuild the fragile community institutions that are necessary to create and maintain a decent society. There are good operational measures of collective efficacy and social capital that have been outlined in numerous books and articles, including ( famously) Bowling Alone. 

 

One other comment: youth suicide rates began to increase in 2007 just about the time when smart phones began to have an influence on the social life of adolescents. A recently published study in JAMA found that increases in use of social media and TV watching increased depression among children and adolescents in a dose related way,  while increased time spent playing videogames did not have a measurable negative effect on children's mental health. Arguably, skill building neutralizes the effects of smart phone technology on social life, while dependence on social media to maintain social relationships increases youths' mental health problems.  Main point: it is not just homicide rates that have increased; there has been a steady increase in suicide rates, and for the same underlying reasons -- lack of in- person social interactions, fraying of community institutions and of social norms against violence that require social interaction to function adequately.   

-- Dee Wilson