Fear of violence is killing Victorian culture
We all know there’s an election on in Victoria and we all know one of the major campaign issues is crime and violence – no surprises there.
This is not a piece on the rights, wrongs or otherwise of the respective election platforms on fighting crime – I’ll leave that for others to dissect.
What I want to contribute is a perspective on how Victoria’s often intense and sometimes heated debate about violence and personal safety has impacted on young people in the state and the potential knock-on effect for our community as a whole.
Each year Mission Australia carries out the largest survey of young people in the country – 50,000 took part this year – regarding their concerns, what they value, who they turn to for advice and how they feel about the future.
One of the stand out results from this year’s survey – released today – is the level to which young Victorians are concerned about crime, safety and violence above their interstate peers.
Our survey shows that 32 per cent of young Victorians see crime, safety and violence as one of our country’s biggest issues, compared to 21 per cent nationally.
That’s quite a difference and a worrying one at that.
This is despite recent Victoria police crime data showing a 3.8 per cent drop in the overall crime rate in the past year, with a 14 per cent drop in CBD street assaults over the same period.
I know the initial question from readers will be, “Why is this so?” but the more important question for the health of our community is, “What does this mean?”.
To my mind there’s no doubt that the higher level of concern we’ve uncovered is largely a result of Victoria’s raging public debate about violence over the last two years.
Whether by perception or reality, increased concern about violence and personal safety among young Victorians has serious broader implications.
The fact is Victoria provides us with an example of the unintentional consequences of ringing an alarm bell so loud and so often that an awareness raising exercise turns into something much more negative.
Research shows that when trust between people breaks down it helps usher in a range of negative outcomes – social and economic – for both individuals and the communities in which they live.
People keep to themselves, they don’t interact, they don’t get involved.
We’re perhaps already seeing that take place.
Our survey has detected declining participation rates in arts and cultural activities among young people in the state.
In 2008, close to one-in-two young Victorians told us they were engaged in arts and cultural activities. This year only barely over a quarter reported the same – that’s a significant drop.
We’ve also captured information that shows young Victorians are wrestling with stress at far greater levels than in recent years with personal concern about the issue jumping by ten per cent since 2009.
If young people are pulling back from community participation because of fears for their personal safety then the levels of trust and connection we enjoy in our society will be seriously challenged.
Take this comment from a 12 year old female respondent to our survey:
“I always watch out when I’m in public places…because after watching the news I get really scared about abuse and things like that, because some people have very sick minds.”
Or this from a 13 year old female:
“I am always worrying that when I walk home someone is going to kidnap me. Every single time I walk past a man on the footpath I feel very uncomfortable.”
They’re both truly devastating comments to read from children and completely out of step with the reality of danger in the community.
Having young people feel safe in the multiple environments in which they live, including in their schools, neighbourhoods, cities and communities should be a national priority.
If initiatives aimed at addressing personal safety among young people aren’t working – and in Victoria it appears they’re not – then we need to change them.
In Victoria and elsewhere we should be investing in programs that improve resilience among young people and provide practical advice on coping with stress and keeping safe.
Peer-to-peer mentoring – programs that provide structured guidance and tools for older students to work with younger ages in schools and other youth settings – is a proven way of effectively approaching these issues.
We have a responsibility as adults – and our media and community leaders particularly so – to recognise that inflammatory talk about crime and violence, while good for circulation figures or votes, can be detrimental to us as a society.
And Victoria is providing us with evidence of exactly that.
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