Study: Thrill, Lack of Recreational Activities Attract Youth to Gangs

A small team of researchers at the University of Illinois wanted to find out why some youth join gangs, so they asked dozens of former gang members.

In the team’s resulting study, participants cited the rush of adrenaline they got from participating in gang violence and a lack of local recreational activities as reasons for joining gangs.

“When we asked them what drew them to gangs, many of them said the lifestyle: It’s the adrenaline, the rush, the excitement,” said Liza Berdychevsky, a co-author of the study and assistant professor at U of I.

“Some youth turned to gangs out of boredom. They were looking for fun and recreational opportunities,” she added. “Had there been some recreational opportunities to keep them busy and away from the street at least some people may not have ended up in the gang.”

Berdychevsky, along with co-authors Kim Shinew and Monika Stodolska, interviewed 30 former gang members from more than a dozen gangs that operate in Chicago and downstate Illinois, including the Latin Kings and Latin Queens, Almighty Saints, Satan’s Disciples, Two-Sixes and Vice Lords.

Researchers were particularly interested in the role of leisure and recreation as gang activities.

“Most of the research focusing on gangs is coming from the perspective of criminology and sociology,” said Berdychevsky. “What this perspective failed to consider is the leisurely aspects of involvement in gangs. Understanding them and incorporating them into prevention and intervention can be an important tool to help [at-risk youth] abstain from gangs.”

While active with a gang, most of the participants had been a perpetrator, victim and/or witness to violent crimes – including murders, rapes, beatings, shootings and stabbings. None of them held full-time jobs and many attended school sporadically, if it all, leading them to adopt “leisure lifestyles,” according to the study.

That lifestyle revolved around house parties that involved drugs, alcohol and sex; “hanging around” on street corners; various types of vandalism; and “gangbanging” – violence perpetrated against rival gangs or other members of the same gang.

“What struck me the most was how participants described their motivation for deviant leisure and the violent activities,” Berdychevsky said. “Many compared the ‘gangbanging’ and committing of violent acts to rival gang members to hunting and stalking prey.”

One participant, Fiorella, compared the thrill she got from gangbanging to a drug addiction and feeling of sexual satisfaction. “It was addicting, the adrenaline rush of doing it. It was just out of this world,” she said.

“It’s like you’re on a high, like after you had sex with somebody, good sex, like after that orgasm and you’re just in that serene place, that’s what I felt [when] gangbanging. That’s why I did it.”

“Some youth turned to gangs out of boredom. They were looking for fun and recreational opportunities.”

–Liza Berdychevsky


Others, like Camila, cited the lack of opportunities for leisure in the neighborhood. When asked what she did “for fun” on the weekend, Camila said, “I had nowhere to go so what was I going to do? Hanging out, driving around, gangbanging.”

Some used violence as way to gain support from their peers, fit in or move up in the gang hierarchy, according to the study. Several participants recalled feeling pressure from the gang to commit violence, including Mason, who said “[When] the pressure is on, what’s in your mind, is if I don’t use [the gun], they’re going to call me a chump. If I do use it, there’s like an arena with a standing ovation.”

Many participants said they joined gangs because they were “searching for protection and means of self-expression and a sense of belonging that they didn’t have in their families,” said Berdychevsky.

“Recreational activities can satiate those needs as well and channel those needs from gang involvement into a more prosocial activity.”

Not only could recreational opportunities be used to occupy at-risk youth’s time, but it could also show them a different way of life.

“Some of the people we interviewed said they felt they were practically born into gangs,” Berdychevsky said, adding many participants had parents, siblings and even grandparents who were gang members. “There was nothing else for them to do and this is how they satisfied their needs for self-expression, self-esteem and security.”

The use of leisure activities in gang prevention, intervention and rehabilitation is often “under recognized,” according to Berdychevsky.

“Our data suggests recreational practitioners should be at the table when decisions are being made about strategies for prevention and intervention efforts in Chicago or any other areas that are affected by gang violence,” Berdychevsky said.

“Recreational activities have to address those needs youth have for rebelliousness, adrenaline, excitement,” she added. “It has to be fun and attractive to them, and meaningful to them. It needs to keep them busy, so they’re safe and focused and don’t have time for gangbanging.”

The study has been accepted by the journal Leisure Sciences and is the first in a series of papers examining gang membership and criminal activity from the perspective of leisure science. 

Follow Kristen Thometz on Twitter: @kristenthometz


Related stories:

Sweaters and Other Strange Ephemera of Chicago’s 1970s Street Gangs

May 18: In the early days of their existence, Chicago’s street gangs developed some unique conventions that, ironically, helped law enforcement track them down. We took a look at the history of Chicago’s gang sweaters.


BUILD Chicago Offering Alternatives to Gang Life for Nearly 50 Years

April 13: After sustaining a life-threatening gunshot wound, 16-year-old Latee Smith began plotting revenge on his attacker. But a local intervention specialist helped Smith refocus his energy.


Study: Kids in Violent Neighborhoods ‘Strategic’ About Friendships

March 29: Most kids form bonds over shared interests. Kids living in violent, high-poverty Chicago neighborhoods are more strategic about whom they befriend in order to manage the threat of violence, a new study finds.