A Toronto Police Services logo is shown at headquarters, in Toronto, on Friday, August 9, 2019. Toronto police say they have not confirmed whether a group of teen girls who allegedly assaulted several people at public transit stations are the same ones that allegedly stabbed a homeless man on the same night. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

Pandemic isolation, social media could be factors in violent crimes by teens: experts

Violent crime committed by teenagers could be increasing in Canada’s most populous city due to pandemic isolation and the influences of social media, experts say, as Toronto police investigate a string of assaults allegedly committed by teen girls.

Police said this week that a group of up to 10 teen girls allegedly assaulted several people at random at downtown Toronto subway stations on Dec. 17. Investigators have not confirmed whether the group is the same one that allegedly stabbed a homeless man who later died in hospital – those teens congregated after meeting on social media, police said.

Experts say attacks involving groups of girls are extremely rare but violence among young people might be on the rise.

Ardavan Eizadirad, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said recent data from Toronto police suggests more young people are becoming involved in violent criminal behaviour.

That increase could be attributed to a combination of factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“Not having access to a caring adult or not being able to access programs in your community or programs that are culturally reflective of identities … when those things don’t happen, people look for other things, which are risk factors rather than a protective factor, to find a sense of belonging and find community,” he said.

Toronto police data presented last month at a Toronto District School Board planning and priorities committee meeting shows 622 young people between the ages of 12 and 29 were victims of stabbings and 586 were accused of stabbings between January 2021 and November 2022.

Kaitlynn Mendes, a professor of sociology at Western University, said young people are generally struggling right now due to social and economic impacts of the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of, maybe, isolation, loneliness. People are having mental health issues, maybe feeling disconnected from society, maybe they’re feeling bored,” she said. “It’s really hard to know exactly why these people are engaging in these acts without actually speaking to them.”

Social media platforms have helped strangers meet in real life to organize protests around the world, including the Arab Spring uprisings, she said, and they have also been recently used by some to connect with others who are interested in violence.

“What we’re seeing is that digital technologies are just being used for more nefarious purposes rather than maybe some of the more hopeful or kind of positive purposes that we were initially seeing,” she said.

Toronto police have charged eight teen girls, ranging in age from 13 to 16, with second-degree murder in the fatal stabbing of the homeless man.

They said that investigation is separate from a probe involving the group of teen girls who allegedly committed the subway assaults, a case in which they are looking to speak to victims.

“We have not confirmed whether or not it is the same group of girls,” Const. Caroline de Kloet wrote in a statement.

Jerry Flores, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, said attacks involving groups of women or girls almost never happen.

“We oftentimes associate this kind of behaviour more with …. boys ,usually gang-associated boys,” he said. “Individually, when women fight back or girls fight back, it’s usually fighting back against multiple forms of abuse.”

Flores said the rates of crime among teenagers are generally hard to measure, due to privacy laws that protect young people in Canada.

He said young people may get involved with non-violent offences or drug related offences but it’s unusual to have an underage child committing a violent crime like murder in Canada.

“When they are (committed), they are very sensational,” he said. “So they get a lot of attention.”

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