Visualization of a radio signal coming from a mobile phone in a data filled scene.

Bringing Psychology to the Digital Turf War

An increasingly large proportion of the UK public support legalisation of some or all drugs, a position underlined by the Liberal Democrats’ advocacy for cannabis legalisation since 2017. To justify this political opinion, attitudes on a related issue – whether drug crime is victimless – are also shifting. If self-inflicted harm is discounted, and free will assumed, then there might be some merit to this argument in a post-legalisation world. But as the conversation on the future of drugs shifts, we must not allow a clouding of our view of the present situation. As it stands, there are undoubtedly victims of the drug distribution industry, and none clearer than the young children who are recruited into drug muling for County Lines gangs.

There are reports of children as young as 7 being groomed for this work, although the average age is more like 15-17. Once recruited, an adolescent’s life prospects look pretty gloomy. Making an early exit from a County Lines gang is not easy given the range of emotional, financial, and security threats and incentives that can be offered by senior gang members. In time, a victim will be coerced into evermore severe crime, with mounting potential legal consequences.

In my article about online harms, I suggested that where traditional educational methods fail to protect children from grooming, a preventative ‘inoculation’ method may be successful. To put that intervention to best use, however, we need to identify those children who are at the highest risk. If the most vulnerable can be pre-emptively primed against grooming attempts, then we not only protect the individual, but starve the County Lines gangs of their supply of drugs mules, which raises their costs. At risk of stretching the inoculation metaphor too far, we can aspire to create a sort of herd immunity against gang recruitment.

Much as the best way to predict the next platform for criminal activity is to consider it from their perspective, a good starting point for identifying vulnerable children is to think about who County Lines recruiters are likely to target. The information available to them when looking for potential runners is mostly demographic in nature: age, gender, income level, family situation, and maybe education.

The on- and offline grooming of children for low-level drug-running is certainly a strategic move for the gangs. Young children are less likely to arouse police suspicion, and unlikely to face severe consequences if they do. Under-12s cannot be held responsible for crimes, so in a crude legal sense – and we shouldn’t expect much legal sophistication from gang members – the recruitment of children is risk-free. Further, adolescent children are highly impressionable, so the impulse to join an alternative authority structure is particularly strong at this age. While most of the kids being groomed are boys, there are reports of girls being sent to investigate new markets for geographic expansion.

As for income, it’s no surprise that good targets are from very low-income backgrounds. While the grooming that occurs is clearly psychological exploitation, it is also perfectly possible for County Lines gangs to offer a rational choice to these children who can make far more money from running drugs than from essentially any other opportunities available to them. Equally, those in areas of deprivation are already in the centre of the County Lines market, so they are simply more geographically available too. For the same reasons, children with poor educational records – both in terms of attainment and attendance – make good targets.

Finally, where a child has poor family support, they are at much higher risk of grooming. This is for two main reasons: firstly, they are more likely to have unsupervised time in which they can establish contact, and later run jobs, with the gang. And secondly, because the senior gang members can fill an emotional gap in the child’s development. It is a very human impulse, especially for those at the youngest end of the recruitment spectrum, to seek out authority figures when parents are unavailable. Although there are cases of children with stronger family networks falling into County Lines work, this second explanation is highly instructive because it shows that the grooming process is – at its heart – a psychological one.

So, can we use this knowledge to go one better than the criminals? While demographic information might be a reasonable predictor of vulnerability, the ultimate ‘decision’ of whether or not to agree to drug-running is a psychological one. The field of behavioural science has become increasingly confident in the ability of ‘psychographics’ to replace demographics in behavioural prediction, particularly in the realm of voting intentions. Just as we can use these measures to predict the chances of a given politician winning you over, perhaps we can also use them to predict whether a young person is at risk of acquiescing to County Lines grooming.

Two concepts seem worthy of importing for this context. The first is ‘neuroticism’, considered by many academics (though not all) to be one of the fundamental traits upon which all individual’s personalities differ. We know that those who are highly neurotic are particularly at risk of depression and substance abuse disorders. These conditions, in turn, can be effectively leveraged by gangs to recruit young people. In the first instance, the gang can provide a sense of belonging and purpose, reinforced through various in-group symbolism – much of which can be conveyed online, including through the now-infamous genre of ‘trap’ music. In the second, the gang can act as both a supplier and an employer, indeed it is common for gangs to persuade young people to pay off their own drug debts by distributing to others, presumably underwritten by the implicit threat of violence. Clearly then, those of a neurotic disposition are at particularly high risk to exploitation by gangs.

The other psychographic measure I would consider is ‘locus of control’, measured on a scale from internal to external. An individual’s locus of control is the set of events over which they believe they have influence. It is essentially a measure of a person’s self-confidence and sense of personal responsibility. There are disadvantages to being at either extreme, but in the case of exploitation we should be concerned about those with a very external locus of control (i.e. those who attribute most events in their life to forces beyond their command). People in this category typically have few opportunities in life and compound this problem by believing they have even fewer than they do. This means that the allure of belonging and money-making is particularly strong, and the convenient appearance of an authority figure (senior gang member) offering profitable terms will be viewed as particularly fortuitous.

Both neuroticism and locus of control can be objectively measured by several inexpensive tools, most often questionnaires, and these measurements are remarkably reliable. It is therefore a perfectly feasible policy to administer such tests to demographically at-risk populations through schools and social work. Much as with my suggestion of an inoculation game, the benefits here are not a cure-all, but rather operate in the periphery. By taking the marginal gains on offer, we can more efficiently focus our deterrence efforts, whatever form they might take. Ultimately, by making these gradual improvements and bringing in expert knowledge from new fields, law enforcement can gain the upper hand in protecting young people from County Lines abuse.



  • Steve Rick

    Steve is passionate about social policy since his postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics. He’s a Fellow of the Royal Society for Arts and has been a visiting lecturer at a number of business schools and universities, as well as contributing author.  

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