‘YOU see someone just sitting there, they look like they’re dumb," explains teenager Manny Logan excitedly. "You just run up to them, slap them and run off. It’s funny." The 16-year-old boy is describing "happy slapping", a disturbing new craze where young thugs attack unsuspecting passers-by while their friends record the incident on camera phones.
First reported in south London six months ago, the fad has spread throughout the country as videos of the attacks are swapped on the internet. Police fear that as "slappers" try to outdo each other, the severity of the incidents will increase.
No one is safe from the craze. Shakey films of the "slaps" show women on buses, children in playgrounds and people at bank cash machines all falling victim.
Even Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was targeted by a group of hooded youngsters at a motorway cafe last year. A gang of ten youths appeared carrying a camera after he challenged one of them to repeat an insulting remark he had made, but they were scared off by his Special Branch protection officers.
Experts have blamed popular TV shows such as Jackass and Dirty Sanchez in which madcap stunts are performed by the stars.
"People getting slapped at random is good, man," adds Logan. "It’s good fun to do it as well."
But this shocking craze does not mark a new breed of unruly youths prowling the country’s streets - it is just the latest layer of "yob culture" that blights so many areas. The fear of crime has made some town centres largely no-go areas for ordinary people terrified by the gangs of hooded teenagers, or "hoodies", and tracksuited neds that loiter there.
"Someone needs to sort these kids out," fumes pensioner Matt Adam. Last March the 77-year-old was nearly killed after confronting a gang of yobs he caught vandalising his car outside his Glasgow home. The former soldier had his throat slashed when one of the four thugs pulled a knife.
"Chasing them away seemed like the obvious thing to do," he explains. "Not many people around here will do that now after what happened to me."
His horrific experience is an extreme example, but it is exactly this culture of intimidation that Prime Minister Tony Blair declared war on last week. He pledged to crack down on the binge drinking, vandalism and abuse that makes the respectable majority afraid. And he has backed the decision by a shopping centre near Dartford in Kent to ban teenagers wearing hooded tops. This weekend, Blair is going further; Home Office Minister Hazel Blears is floating plans to force teenage offenders to wear US-style uniforms while they do community service to enforce a sense of shame. She went on to call on parents should enforce sensible bedtimes to restore "structure" to family life.
But the image of the nation’s teenagers - and even pre-teens - as a rampaging, out-of-control army of neds is overdone. While an underclass has undoubtedly emerged - an uneducated, almost feral section of young Britain - the truth is far more complex. In fact, there is evidence that among most normal teens the shift is in the other direction - towards a more moral and elevated way of life.
Blair was in an uncompromising mood last week, spurred on by focus groups which tell him fear of teen crime is a major issue among voters. "People are rightly fed up with street corner and shopping centre thugs, yobbish behaviour sometimes from children as young as 10 or 11 whose parents should be looking after them," the Prime Minister said. "Friday and Saturday night binge drinking makes our town centres no-go areas for respectable citizens."
No-one denies he has a point. Politicians have for years reported that fear of crime is the most common complaint on the doorsteps. More than 65% of people believe youth crime is rising - even though some statistics show it is actually falling. Across Britain the number of 10 to 17-year-olds convicted or cautioned fell from 143,600 to 105,700 between 1992 and 2002. However, everyone agrees that society has seen a decline in respect for others over the last few decades. Even where crimes are not rising, a culture of intimidation and minor scale law-breaking which does not necessarily lead to police or court action has emerged.
But some youngsters warn that in the rush to crack down on the troublemakers, politicians risk tarring all of them with the same brush.
"Not everyone who wears a hooded top is a thug," says 13-year-old Leah, from Edinburgh. She is a typical teenager, dressed in dark clothing and a black sweatshirt complete with hood.
Like dozens of other youngsters her age she is spending Friday night meeting her friends and chasing boys. Instead of hanging around in the street, however, they have opted to go to the under-18s disco at Murrayfield Ice Rink.
She adds: "What’s the point in going out and vandalising things? You only end up harming things you will probably care about yourself.
"Coming to the ice rink is a great way of getting exercise and meeting new people."
A group of 17-year-old boys sit in the corner of the rink cafe talking about their souped-up cars outside. Driving hatchbacks with lowered suspensions and alloy wheels, they fit the boy racer profile. Some were even stopped by police as they drove to the ice rink.
Earlier this year the police were granted new powers by the Scottish Executive enabling them to seize vehicles that are being used to terrorise communities. The legislation is seen as a way of clamping down on the boy racers.
But Darren Dziennik, 17, from Lochgelly in Fife, said: "They see a car with lowered suspension and assume it has got to be a boy racer behind the wheel. If that was the case we would be out there tearing up and down the streets."
Experts agree with these teenagers and believe it is a mistake to place the burden of complicated social problems on them.
"Young people feel unsafe and victimised in society," said Bernadette Monaghan, director of Apex Scotland, a charity that helps young offenders into employment. "They hang around in gangs on the streets as that is where they feel safest and that seems to be getting missed.
"The level of youth crime has remained fairly static since 1991, but the difference is that it has become much more political.
"Ultimately it is just a small minority of young people committing a disproportionate number of crimes."
While this small minority causes the trouble that Blair and Jack McConnell want to stamp out, the bulk of teenagers still feel they are being unfairly lumbered with bad reputations.
Most youths admit frustration at being driven to hang around on the streets with little else for them and their friends to do.
Earlier this year the former mining town of Auchinleck in Ayrshire was thrown into the spotlight when Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson chose to make it the focal point of her fight on underage drinking. As she delivered her plans to reward people for fighting the "Buckfast culture", the MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley was heckled by a gang of swearing, shell-suited neds. For many residents in the town, the youngsters represent an intimidating group who vandalise and abuse everything in the path.
But with just half an unlit basketball court available to them, the majority of the youths who gather in the town on Friday and Saturday nights are just looking for something to do. A few bad eggs are behind the trouble, the rest just happen to have nowhere better to be.
Gordon Wells, 18, from Dunfermline, Fife, echoes their feelings. He said: "Where I’m from there is not much else to do. Until you can drive it is difficult to travel outside the town so everyone meets up in the streets and car parks instead. But because some troublemakers do the same things, we all get mixed together and end up being blamed."
A survey by Channel 4 revealed a surprising degree of sobriety and principles among the nation’s youth. The ten-year study of the lifestyles and attitudes of young people in Britain showed a dramatic shift away from stereotypical binge-drinking.
Instead, according to the survey of 2,000 people, many of today’s 15 to 34-year-olds display a more responsible side with less than 30% saying they often go out intending to get drunk compared to 39% in 1995. Almost half scorn smoking as "stupid", while many shun nightclubs and prefer the more "sophisticated" experience of a civilised meal in a restaurant or a trip to the theatre, galleries and exhibitions.
Dr Robert Millar, an expert in adolescent psychology at the University of Ulster, agrees that today’s young people are showing greater sophistication than their predecessors.
"Their world is so much more complicated than the previous generation," he said. "The pressures they experience and concerns they have are really much greater. There is an intense pressure on them to be successful - to pass exams and tests.
"They don’t want to be different in a negative way from those around them but this makes it even harder to refuse drugs and drink because of that.
"Too often adults don’t credit them with this high level of maturity they display and this is evident in a lot of the policies we see trying to deal with young people’s problems. They are being put in place by adults who think they know what is best for teenagers, but if we ask youngsters themselves they come up with better solutions."
Blair has laid down his vision of using family values to tackle the "street corner and shopping centre thugs". He wants to teach modern young people "respect towards other people."
But for those actually working with the kind of young people he is planning to target, it may not be that easy. Tamara Wilder, from the outward bound charity Venture Trust, said: "It is a difficult issue to tackle. Teenagers have always been an easy scapegoat to blame for wider problems, but ultimately the majority of these young people grow up into well rounded adults. Those that do cause trouble need help to be steered in the right direction."
ROCKED BY YOUTH CULTURE FROM TEDS TO NEDS, MODS TO PUNKS
IT WAS the birth of rock ’n’ roll that kickstarted the concept of teenagers as rebellious youth. With stars like Elvis dressing, speaking and behaving in new ways, they led millions of youngsters around the world to rail against authority. In east London youths dressed in drainpipe trousers and slicked back their hair. Their Edward VII-style of dress earned them the name Teddy Boys.
The emergence of ska, R&B and soul music into the mainstream brought a new breed of teenagers, the mods. Wearing designer suits and Parka jackets they sped around on scooters. Most listened to bands like The Who. Rivals known as the rockers rode motorbikes, wore leathers and listened to Elvis and Gene Vincent.
In the 1970s, punk arrived. When the Sex Pistols made their debut on teatime TV with a flurry of expletives, it confirmed fears of degeneracy.
By the 1980s, acid house and rave music marked the birth of the modern neds. Youngsters dressed in caps, tracksuits, floppy hats and with light sticks attended illegal raves while popping a new drug, ecstasy.
After the millennium the grunge scene that emerged at the start of the 1990s underwent a revival alongside skateboarding to produce the ‘hoodies’. Typified by their baggy, oversized clothes and hooded sweat-tops, they are seen as the new menace threatening the streets. Neds, or chavs, who prefer music by Eminem and are typified by the ghastly Little Britain character Vicky Pollard, right, are the other dominant group.