Think you don’t know any thieves? Well, you probably do — and they’re younger than you’re imagining. According to a new study tracking teens and young adults, nearly 1 in 6 admit to having stolen something within the past year.
For the research, Transylvania University economist Geoffrey Fain Williams analyzed self-reported thefts from The Ohio State University National Longitudinal Study of Youth. This included over 8,000 participants, who were between the ages of 12 and 16 years old when the study began back in 1996.
For 15 years, the teens and young adults were frequently asked a bunch of questions about their habits. This included the topic of theft, if they’d stolen within a year’s time and, if so, how much their theft was worth.
Stealing wasn’t an anomaly.
Roughly 16 percent said they’d committed the crime in the past year. This broke down to around 1 in 5 men and around 1 in 10 women. That said, theft seemed to be mostly just a phase; very few stole for more than a year (just five percent stole for more than three years), interest declined steadily in the late teen years, and the vast majority of offenders were under the age of 24.
Other interesting stats? The average price of the items stolen was $34.50, and these young Americans weren’t doing it to make money. They were generally on similar financial ground as their non-stealing counterparts.
Why is stealing appealing?
According to Karla Ivankovich, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Springfield, it’s rooted in the young brain. “Adolescents are egocentric by nature,” she tells Yahoo Health. “The relative immaturity of the developing brain is a breeding ground for instant gratification: ‘I want it, so I am taking it.’”
Ivankovich says that instant gratification and impulsivity probably play huge roles in the relatively high numbers of theft, coupled with a dab of youth entitlement — which may explain why even kids with means commit the crime. “It’s the sheer challenge, especially those who come from privilege,” she says. “They test boundaries. Remember, this generation is high on the thrill-seeking scale. They binge drink, they can be promiscuous. Even if parents say, ‘If you wanted it, all you had to do was ask,’ it doesn’t matter. It’s the thrill of the chase.”
Ivankovich says young, privileged Americans are also prone to believe media representations that “those with money are not held to the same standards” as those of a lower socioeconomic status, which may fuel an already-existing sense of entitlement. “It’s the here and now, and that’s the farthest they look,” she says.
By age 24 or 25, when theft drops off, Ivankovich says that most people have developed a sense of perspective; young adults continue to cognitively mature until the prefrontal cortex has fully developed into their late teens to mid-20s. Then, there’s a shift.
At this point in time, emotional maturity, self-image and sound judgment begin to take a more adult-like form. “They’re reaching a formal operational level of thinking,” Ivankovich explains. “This allows them to evaluate how decisions, like theft, can impact all facets of their life — their employment, family and more.”
Ivankovich says parents would be wise to address issues of entitlement early on, and be careful not to inadvertently encourage bad behavior by putting out every fire that children and teens leave their wake. “When a child feels they will be protected and have no consequences, regardless of the issue, they are more likely to break the rules,” she says. “This can open the floodgates for inappropriate, even criminal behavior.”
Food for thought.