The article investigates how exposure to gang-affiliated peers affects social behaviors and attitudes of early adolescents. Much of the literature finds that exposure to gangs contributes to adolescents’ antisocial behaviors. According to other studies, however, gang exposure can also promote prosocial behaviors. The present article re-examines this contradictory evidence, exploring potential complementarity of both reactions to gangs. Using a survey of 1,782 adolescents aged ten to 13 from rural Colombia, I compare adolescents who are and are not in a school class with members of youth gangs. I exploit the fact that schools in rural Colombia are unsegregated. Moreover, the presence of youth gangs across these schools is linked to incidence of historic armed conflict rather than typical forms of social disadvantage. This comparative setting thus allows me to establish an unconfounded relationship between exposure to gang-affiliated classmates and social outcomes. The analysis reveals gender differences in the effect of youth gang exposure. I find that girls react to male gang classmate by increased involvement in prosocial organizations. Boys, by contrast, adjust to male gangs by expressing more antisocial attitudes. There are no gender differences in the effect of gang classmates on alcohol consumption (an indicator of antisocial behavior). The article shows that the well-documented antisocial adjustments to gangs are – population-wide – complemented by prosocial adjustments, with gender being a key moderator. I discuss the implications of these findings for theories of violence and social change after conflict.
This was originally published on SAGE Publications Ltd: Journal of Peace Research: Table of Contents.