Nordic Youths’ Involvement in Street Gangs

By Per Jørgen Ystehede

Policy brief: “Street Gang Involvement Among Nordic Youth: A comparative study on prevalence and risk factors in Nordic countries”

Photo of a yellow football lying on wet asphalt behind a fence.
Photo by Bruno Kelzer on Unsplash

A new study shows that preventive measures should be targeted especially at criminally active young people as early as possible. The low importance of social marginalization may indicate that the gang-like behavior patterns of young people in the Nordic countries have spread beyond the original disadvantaged communities and areas.

Markus Kaakinen from University of Helsinki (Finland) has been heading a research team from all the Nordic countries studying youth street gang connections. The project analyzed gang involvement and pro-criminal attitudes among adolescents between the age of 13 to 17 years in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden using representative school samples. More than 9 000 young people from Stockholm (SE), Gävle (SE), Oslo (NO), Helsinki (FI), Turku (FI), Randers (DK), Næstved (DK), Reykjavik (IS) and other Icelandic areas than Reykjavík took part in the project.

Sweden stands out, but other Nordic countries not far behind

― What do you think was your most important discovery?

Perhaps our most important finding was Stockholm’s clear separation from other Nordic cities when it comes to young people’s connections to street gangs – but on the other hand, the relatively similar situation of other Nordic cities in this matter, says Kaakinen. This suggests that there are gangs of young people everywhere, but in cities like Stockholm the challenges are on a different scale.

― Why did you find it important to do a comparative study of street gangs in the Nordic countries?

It has been some time since the last similar comparative Nordic study in 2014, and current information on crime is needed. Gang crime is often followed through more visible issues like gun violence. This comparative survey shows criminal activities in the Nordic countries that do not appear in crime statistics. It also shows the adolescents’ connections to street gangs, which was the subject of this study.

― Was there a finding that surprised you?

It was perhaps surprising that social marginalization was only weekly associated with street gang involvement. This does not mean that marginalization and disadvantage do not play any role in the formation of street gangs. Our research suggests rather that belonging to street gangs is a risk especially for young people and peer groups who are criminally active and have a positive attitude towards criminal behavior. The street gang issue is still location dependent as well. For example, in Stockholm, young people are more likely to form connections with street gangs than in other studied Nordic cities.

Challenges when doing research on crime among youths

The project was undertaken sometimes under challenging conditions. Kaakinen would like to thank his partners for still pushing through with the project. It was also at times difficult to recruit schools to take part in the study. They received rejections both from local councils and school leaders. For instance, it was not possible to include schools from the largest Danish cities such as Copenhagen or Aalborg, which would have been preferable for the comparative study.

This is understandable as schools get many requests, says Kaakinen, but if one wants more information about youth crime and what can be the best ways to stop this, Nordic governments may be well served by clearer signaling what type of projects cities and schools should make a priority to get involved in.

Part of international study on youth crime

The Nordic team ended up collecting data not only on gang involvement but data on youth crime more generally. It is based on the global comparative International Self-Reported Delinquency study (ISRD4) and utilized a widely used Eurogang measurement for analyzing gang involvement and gang characteristics. This research aims to inform prevention and intervention policies to reduce the negative consequences of these increasingly socially excluded and violent youth groups. Besides research already published, more papers are expected to come soon.

On the importance of NSfK funding

Kaakinen received a joint Nordic grant from NSfK in 2021.

You can read more about the project, its findings and recommendations in this policy brief.

News article on the University of Helsinki webpage: ‘Tukholmassa noin joka kuudes nuori kuuluu jengiin, kun Helsingissä ja Turussa vastaava osuus on alle kymmenesosa

English-language article in the Helsinki Times: Helsinki and Turku report lower youth gang membership compared to Nordic peers

Logo of ISRD4, International Self-Report Delinquency Study

International Self-Report Delinquency Study is an ongoing international self-report crime survey aiming to describe and explain adolescents’ experiences with crime and victimization, to test criminological theories, and to develop crime prevention. The Nordic gang study was conducted in the context of ISRD-4 sweep (2021–2023) with over 50 countries participating worldwide.