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Teens Avoid Bad Neighborhoods, But Not Because Their Parents Say So

Teens make their own decisions about where to hang out after school.

Teens spend less time in their local neighborhoods if they’re afraid of crime, a new study based on GPS data from smartphones suggests. But this fear does not seem to have any connection to whether or not parents and caregivers are afraid. The findings suggest that teens make their own decisions about where to hang out after school and that, once an area gets a reputation among teens (for better or for worse), no amount of parental prodding is likely to change that.

“It is clear that kids who live in high-poverty areas are spending less time in their neighborhoods and that is linked to a collective fear of crime,” coauthor on the study Christopher Browning of The Ohio State University told Reuters. “You can imagine that, even when the caregiver is afraid, if youths have activities in the neighborhood that everyone else is involved in and their friends are involved in, they simply go with it.”

gang of teens

The study, presented at the American Sociological Association, involved 1,400 teens living in the city of Columbus, Ohio and its suburbs. Teens agreed to carry a smartphone, capable of transmitting GPS data to Browning and his team every 30 seconds. This revealed that the teens spent about half their waking hours at home, and that the remainder was divided between spending time in their own neighborhoods and visiting other neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the researchers surveyed each child’s caregiver, asking which neighborhoods he or she considered dangerous. Surprisingly, the teens did not avoid neighborhoods that their own caregivers deemed unsafe—but studiously avoided neighborhoods that the locals considered dangerous.

On one hand, the data indicates that teens may have a better feel for local crime rates (or at least how locals perceive their own neighborhoods’ crime rates) than their parents. But on the other hand, the findings suggest that teens make their own decisions when it comes to shunning poor or dangerous neighborhoods which means that, even when social service open recreation centers in disadvantaged parts of town, the youth may not show up.

“Our results suggest these amenities may be underutilized because young people are withdrawing from the neighborhood,” Browning said in a press statement. Whether they are afraid to go there or just following their friends elsewhere, young people spend less time in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”