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Fire setting 'fun' for bored adolescent thrill seekers

A major research exercise that investigated fires set by adolescents has shown that one in five participants had lit 10 or more unsanctioned fires.

The research which involved 274 adolescents in South East Queensland also showed that the majority of those who lit fires did so for fun, or out of boredom.

Undertaken by Bond University, the Australian Centre for Arson Research and Treatment and the Child and Youth Forensic Outreach Service, the research is one of the largest undertaken into the subject of juvenile arson and fire setting.

Results of the work are being published by The British Psychological Society in its Journal of Legal and Criminological Psychology on 8 July, 2014.

Bond University Assistant Professor of Psychology, Dr Bruce Watt, said the publishing of the research results by the UK institution was a major achievement.

He said the data was collected in South East Queensland in 2012 across urban and regional settings.

“Deliberate fire setting in Australia is estimated to cost $1.62 billion annually,” he said. “In addition to the significant financial cost, deliberate fire setting has the potential to have impacts on the emotional, mental and physical well being of victims and the community.”

In Queensland in 2011/ 2012, 349 offenders were proceeded against for arson offences and of these, 133 were juveniles (i.e. 16 years and under). The proportion of the overall population 16 years of age and under is 11 percent, but that group accounts for 38 percent of arson offences.

Dr Watt said the participants in the research were under 18 years of age and were selected from the general community and youth justice services.

“One of the main concerns for us was the number of those participants who had lit 10 or more fires, which was much higher than we expected,” he said.

“Secondly we found that of those who lit multiple fires, there was a predisposition to be involved in other anti-social behaviours such as fights, lying and stealing.

“We also found that there was a similar proportion who may have been involved in minor fire playing incidents, such as playing with matches, where the fire still managed to get out of control and therefore their innocuous behaviour still delivered serious outcomes.”

Beyond the excuses of boredom or fun, which accounted for 67 percent of participants, 13 percent said they lit fires out of curiosity and 10 percent because their friends were doing it.

Dr Watt said the most common things that juveniles set on fire were outdoor plants or objects (about 40 percent).
The next most popular fire setting targets were small objects such as boxes, newspaper and tissues which had the potential to get out of control and spread to larger objects.

“Arson involving buildings such as school structures and the like were a very small minority amongst the research sample,” he said.

Dr Watt, who has been at Bond University for the past six and a half years, said one of the most concerning findings from the study was the fact that despite having been researched and spoken to on the issue of fire setting, 19 percent of juveniles reported they were likely to continue their behaviour.

“That is a real worry for us,” he said.

About Legal and Criminological Psychology:

Legal and Criminological Psychology publishes original papers in all areas of psychology and law.Visit for more information.

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The British Psychological Society is the representative body for psychology and psychologists in the UK. The Journals of the British Psychological Society form an essential part of the Society's mission to advance and disseminate psychological knowledge. With a publishing history spanning over 100 years, our journals portfolio is at the forefront of the psychology community with international contributions and readership. For more information, please visit Follow BPS Journals on Twitter or BPS Journals on Facebook for the latest research.

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