A Home Office report has said that children as young as nine are being drawn into street gangs in exchange for trainers or tracksuits with some schoolchildren even pressured into sex with high-ranking gangsters.
The government report published on Thursday (14 January) says that often children were used to sell or conceal drugs while some were even set drug sales targets, and punished if they were not met.
The report was devised to assist the government tackle the problem of youth gangs in cities and towns across the UK and revealed that sexual exploitation of children is a major problem.
Researchers spoke to current and former gang members as well as police officers, the probation service, local authorities and health services in 33 areas in England and Wales. The new data revealed that the youngest members were most commonly said to be aged 12 to 14 (50%), while a third were said to be between nine and 11. And a handful (7%) of gang members were said to be under nine.
One interviewee said according to the BBC: "The method of recruitment is to target young, easily influenced youths as young as 12-years-old from local schools and the surrounding area. They (gang members) recruit them with the lure of earning money or being given new trainers, tracksuits, then use these runners to deal for them."
The reported stated that when asked how often sexual or physical violence occurred, nearly all of the interviewees said that "sometimes" or "often". Disturbingly even sometimes as a punishment for rival gangs.
Some of the gang members told researchers that the young girls who took part in sexual activity with gang members were motivated to perform sexual acts for respect "because of your reputation, because of your name".
The research found that many of the new criminals were less likely to mark territory but were more prevalent on social media. They would often compete with other gangs on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook or YouTube with videos showing off their exploits.
The government also announced it was extending its programme to tackle exploitation by gangs to Basildon, Grimsby, Harrow, Hastings and Eastbourne, High Wycombe, Medway, Sefton, Southampton and Swindon.