At first, I thought the commotion outside my house was caused by revellers pouring out of the local pub.
It wasn’t long before Christmas and, as I got ready for bed, I assumed the raised voices came from too much seasonal goodwill rather than anything more sinister.
It was only when the flashing blue lights of an ambulance lit up my bedroom that I pulled back the curtain.
There, sprawled on the pavement outside my house was a teenage boy. A paramedic was bent over him, trying to staunch the blood I could clearly see flooding from his abdomen.
The boy looked so young and vulnerable as he was placed on a stretcher and carried to the ambulance, an oxygen mask over his face. Deeply shaken, I watched the ambulance speed off, wondering if he would survive.
As a former news reporter who worked amid the violence of the former Yugoslavia as it fell apart, this was not the first time I had seen a young man bleeding from a terrible wound
Later, when a police officer rang my doorbell to ask if I’d seen anything useful, he told me it was the second attack on a teenager he had attended in the area in 24 hours. That night I couldn’t sleep.
As a former news reporter who worked amid the violence of the former Yugoslavia as it fell apart, this was not the first time I had seen a young man bleeding from a terrible wound.
But this wasn’t the Balkans. It had happened on my doorstep, outside the house where I raised my own son, on the streets where he once walked to and from school every day.
Shepherd’s Bush is a mixed area of West London. Large, run-down council estates lie a stone’s-throw from smart streets inhabited by journalists, broadcasters and a few well-known actors.
Of course, I’d been concerned for my son during his school days, worried he might be mugged for his mobile phone.
But stabbings, on the other hand, had seemed to be another matter – a horror confined to rival drugs gangs, probably in different parts of London.
Like everyone else, I’d seen the disturbing reports showing that the number of fatal stabbings in England and Wales is soaring – in fact, they have just recently reached their highest level since records began in 1946.
97 likes: Glorifying a series of violent assaults in London shops, this film was uploaded with the hashtags #ukdrill #lol. Drill is slang for shooting and stabbing
Until that night before Christmas, however, gang stabbings didn’t intrude on my comfortable middle-class existence. Only then was I jolted into paying real attention.
Like many parents, I had no idea at all. It was my grown-up son, who is studying sociology and has an interest in youth crime, who explained the shocking way that social media now dominates the lives of our teenagers.
Perpetrators film their attacks and post the videos on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube, glorying in the violence and using the attention they receive from their followers – particularly the votes of approval in the tally of ‘likes’ – to score points with their rivals.
And it is projected directly into homes of all types – rich, poor, middle-class – via their mobile phones and tablets.
Our teenagers are stabbing each other to death for ‘likes’.
I started watching videos made by gangs in my area, including the W12 and MDP, which – according to some – stands for Money, Drugs, Power. Others say it stands for something still more disgusting.
145 likes: This horrific sequence taken from CCTV footage at a North London shop shows a knife being plunged into a victim’s chest during a gang robbery
The clips show them rapping about how tough they are, boasting about their violence and goading rivals.
Filmed on the walkways of local housing estates, I saw groups of teenage boys wearing black balaclavas and sportswear, gesturing as if shooting a gun and making stabbing motions as they name their victims.
My son explained the meanings of the street slang they use. I now know that guns are ‘waps’ or ‘spinners’, knives are ‘shanks’ and ‘rambos’. Shootings or stabbings are referred to as ‘drillings’.
The message was rammed home when I tried to find out what had happened to the boy on my doorstep.
It didn’t take long before my screen was filled with articles about similar bloodshed in my area – clippings posted triumphantly on social media by the thugs responsible. All this, just a few clicks away from my own kitchen.
Fortunately, the boy had survived and, although his condition was judged critical at first, he has since recovered and has been safely discharged from hospital. No arrests have been made.
But my son’s request on Facebook for more information turned up another disturbing story.
We learned there had been another recent stabbing just a couple of streets away – and this time the victim was someone we knew, a 16-year-old who had been at the same West London state primary school as my son. His older brother had been a close friend.
1.9k likes: Brazenly showing off a machete and other knives, this home-made drill music video features the notorious 410 gang from Brixton, South London
There was a time, in fact, when I knew the family relatively well.
I’d been to their home, chatted with their mother at the school gates and attended the same children’s birthday parties. We’d eventually lost touch, but I remembered the boy in question from a decade earlier – a dark-haired, rosy-cheeked six-year-old with a mischievous grin.
Now he had been badly wounded as he walked home one evening with his older brother and I decided to make contact with his mother once again, if only to say how sorry I was about what had happened.
We met in a local cafe. In a calm, soft voice, she told me about the night her son was stabbed: the icy fear that went through her when she got the call and the anxious hours that followed as her son lay on the operating table while surgeons repaired his punctured lung.
Virginia (not her real name) told me that her son was recovering physically but the whole family were still in a state of shock.
She insisted that he wasn’t involved in drugs and that he was not a member of a gang.
He had been at a local secondary school but was not at all academic and was excluded aged 15, a few months before his GCSEs. Today, she is particularly critical of the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) where he and other excluded pupils were sent instead of normal schools.
PRUs have gained a reputation for being little more than dustbins, breeding grounds for violence and criminality. Students consigned to them have a 99 per cent academic failure rate.
And during our conversation, I was acutely aware that my own son might have ended up in the same situation.
He’d been diagnosed with numerous learning difficulties, including attention deficit disorder and dyslexia. But I was fortunate enough to be able to afford to send him to a private school that provided the learning support he needed.
Virginia is a devoted parent, but today she is at her wits’ end. She knows that her son needs guidance to get his life back on track, but she doesn’t know where to start. And how would she, when so much of teenagers’ lives is led online – and imagery of violence is everywhere?
Virginia’s family have been helped by a youth advocate, Nathaniel Levy, who confirms that social media is one of the key drivers behind the spate of violence.
‘Local authority cuts to youth services are one thing, but social media is warping the minds of our young people,’ he told me.
Nathaniel, who turned his back on a thriving property business after his younger brother was murdered, set up the Robert Levy Foundation with his parents, an organisation that tries to help young people at risk of violence through its mentoring programmes.
The attitude behind the violence is extremely territorial – more so even than in the past.
Where it used to be a case of one postcode against another, now it’s one block of flats or one side of the street against another. It’s known as ‘reppin your block’.
If anyone from outside your area comes in, you have to attack them. The gangs operate a point-scoring system. If you stab someone you get points or ‘reps’; you’re known as a ‘bad boy’ who has ‘repped his block’.
Last year, a former gang member told The Mail on Sunday that children as young as nine play a game called ‘Scores’ with gangs boasting of their attacks on social media in a bid to outdo their rivals.
‘The bigger the crime, the higher the points, the more and more you do something the more and more rep [reputation] you get, the more you get ranked up,’ said Chris Preddie, who grew up alongside gang members but has been awarded the OBE for his work with young offenders.
Yet the situation is far from hopeless. Now 20, my son is at university in Glasgow.
Once the murder capital of Europe, the city has managed to cut knife crime by more than half in the past 15 years by treating it not just as a police issue but a public health priority. Schools, hospitals and social workers have been asked to work together.
I recently spoke at a fundraising dinner for the charity Leap Confronting Conflict, which offers training to young people to help them reduce violence in their communities.
There, I met young people who had benefited from the programme, including a 17-year-old boy who had been left needing a colostomy bag after being stabbed.
They told me that without adult supervision, and with nowhere to go, they were left with no choice but to spend their time on the streets around their homes.
The danger surrounding them meant they felt forced to join gangs out of fear. ‘We needed to protect ourselves, and that was the only way we could do it,’ they told me.
The Metropolitan Police’s gangs unit has identified 32 gangs operating in the borough of Hackney alone. They estimate that most of them are just groups of young boys who have banded together and are carrying knives to protect themselves or rep their block.
Only six to seven of the gangs are making serious money from drugs but they don’t tend to carry knives because they don’t want to attract the attention of the police. It’s bad for business.
Levy agrees that, for all the publicity, drug dealing is just a small part of the picture.
‘Many of these kids are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,’ he said.
‘They’ve seen friends injured or killed or faced death themselves. How can we expect these teenage boys to cope with this kind of trauma on their own?
‘They’re not learning social skills. The parents aren’t there for them because of pressures of work or because they’re also on their phones. If kids are left to raise themselves, their behaviour becomes extreme.’
Knife crime touches lives far beyond those involved in the illegal drugs trade. It’s affecting increasing numbers of very ordinary young people, black and white, who feel abandoned, see no prospects for themselves and are turning to aggression to boost their self-esteem. Or live in terror of becoming victims themselves.
One chilling aspect of Instagram and other social media platforms is their users often know an attack is due to take place. And they will know the identity of the perpetrators – terrifying spectres from their online worlds. But ‘snitching’ is a dangerous business.
‘If you won’t tell the police who stabbed you or your friends, the only reprisal you have is revenge,’ says Levy.
‘If we don’t invest time and resources in our young people, these levels of lawlessness will continue to spiral out of control. It’s like Lord of the Flies out there.’
And, as I discovered, it’s far closer to home than we might think.