Jason Steen isn't an obvious target for muggers. The 40-year-old heads his own company advising on mergers and acquisitions, and usually strides through life like a Master of the Universe. This evening, though, he looks shaken. Two days earlier, he was accosted outside his central London home by eight kids the youngest was 11 who punched him to the ground, hustled him to the nearest cash machine and forced him to reveal his PIN number. After a series of attacks in the area, local residents have gathered in Steen's apartment to talk to the policeman handling the case. His advice: "Don't go out unless you have to."
Staying home in the face of danger isn't the British way. After suicide bombings in July 2005, Londoners continued working and socializing. Yet a survey by kids' charity TS Rebel found that last year more than a fifth of Britons avoided going out at night rather than risk encounters with a different form of terror: groups of children. Britons are frightened of their own young.
On any given Saturday night, in any town center across Britain, it's easy to see why. "It usually starts outside McDonald's that's the hot spot," explains one London youth. "You might go with one mate, then you get a phone call. Give it an hour, there'll be 10 people there, with nothing to do. Intimidating people is something to do, a way of getting kicks. Like, 'Oh my God, did you see how they ran?' "
The boys and girls who casually pick fights, have sex and keep the emergency services fully occupied are often fueled by cheap booze. British youngsters drink their Continental European counterparts under the table: in 2003, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), 27% of British 15-year-olds had been drunk 20 times or more, compared to 12% of young Germans, 6% of Netherlands youth and only 3% of young French. British kids were also involved more frequently in fights (44% in the U.K. to 28% in Germany). They are more likely to try drugs or start smoking young. English girls are the most sexually active in Europe. More of them are having sex aged 15 or younger, and more than 15% fail to use contraception when they do which means that Britain has high rates of both teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Small wonder, then, that a 2007 UNICEF study of child wellbeing in 21 industrialized countries placed Britain firmly at the bottom of the table.
None of those indicators are good, but it's the increase in nasty teenage crime that really has Britain spooked. Violent offenses by British under-18s rose 37% in the three years to 2006. Last September, 29-year-old Gavin Waterhouse died from an assault by two boys. It was recorded on a cell phone by a 15-year-old girl. In January, three teenagers from northwestern England were convicted of kicking to death 47-year-old Garry Newlove after he tried to stop them vandalizing his car. In the wake of their trial, the Sun newspaper declared "the most important issue now facing Britain" to be "the scourge of feral youngsters." That isn't just tabloid talk. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, at his first press conference of 2008, said: "Kids are out of control ... They're roaming the streets. They're out late at night. There's an issue about gangs in Britain and an issue about gun crime as well as knife crime."
It should go without saying that tens of thousands successfully navigate the dangerous waters of a British childhood. And that children from all shades of the social spectrum feel they are being demonized. ("People believe we're all yobs carrying knives," says Tilly Webb, 14, from Suffolk in eastern England.) And that the British have a long propensity to recoil in horror from their children whether they be Teddy boys in the 1950s, mods and rockers in the '60s, skinheads in the '70s or just a bunch of boisterous teens making a lot of noise but little real mischief. And that the world's most competitive media market loves a good story, and that wayward children can always be relied on to produce one.
All that is true. But it is also true that for what Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Children's Society, calls a "significant minority" of British children, unhappiness and the criminality, excessive drinking and drug-taking and promiscuity that is its expression really have created a crisis. Says Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company, an organization working with some of London's poorest young: "If I was sitting in government, I'd be really worried not about terrorist bombs but about this."
All over the world, teenagers give their parents headaches. Why are the migraines induced by British kids felt across a whole society? Part of the reason may be that parents aren't always around to help socialize their children or even just to show them affection. Compared to other cultures, British kids are less integrated into the adult world and spend more time with peers. Add to the mix a class structure that impedes social mobility and an education system that rewards the advantaged, and some children are bound to be left in the cold.
Meet Danny Mullins, 21, from London now training to be a plumber and dreaming of starting a family. Mullins wasn't just born poor; he was born into a living hell. His mother, a heavy drug user, died aged 40, leaving her son emotionally scarred and destitute. "Many people I know need to go out and thieve just to survive," says Mullins, whose friend Chris Abnett is trying to find a way out of a vicious circle of prison and unemployment. Abnett says he has a qualification in painting and decorating but can't get work because of his criminal record. Both Mullins and Abnett are being helped by Kids Company.