Bethel denotes, “house of God” — but for two centuries the town had become so saturated with idolatry, due to the presence of one of Jeroboam's golden calves (1 Kgs. 12.28-31), that the Lord derisively gave it the monicker, Beth-aven — “house of idolatry/wickedness” (Hos. 10.5-15).
On the road to this town, 12 miles north of Jerusalem, Elisha encountered “some youths” from the city, mocking him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead!” (2 Kgs. 2.23), doubtless referencing Elijah's “going-up” by “a whirlwind into heaven” (2.11). In other words, they longed to be free of Elisha, just as they were now free of Elijah. The long-standing paganism of Bethel had hardened their hearts against the Lord and his prophet.
The term, “youths,” is generic, and may allude to infants or young men (of mature age). The term was applied to Joseph at thirty years old (Gen. 41.12, 14, 46), as well as to Joshua, somewhere between the ages of 20 and 50 (cf. Ex. 33.11; Num. 32.11-12; Josh. 24.29).
Context, both immediate and remote, suggests that these Bethelites were of accountable age. God's wrath will not be withheld from those who “mock the messengers of God, despise his words, and scoff at his prophets” to a point where they are beyond repentance and “there is no remedy” (2 Chron. 36.16).
Evidently, 42 of the young men had passed that point-of-no-return, and, by the Lord's authority, were mauled by two bears from a nearby woods.