Scarleteen Confidential: In Defense of Teen Media

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For two years, I worked in a bookstore that was aimed primarily at children and teenagers. It was a job I quite enjoyed, but I quickly discovered that when you work near books, people always want to tell you their opinions on said books. That's fine most of the time. But I noticed a pattern when parents or adults would refer to The Hunger Games series. They would express dismay over a child wanting to read the book, wondering what they saw in it, and either implicitly or explicitly stating that they thought the book was not good for youth to be reading. I would usually give a neutral response about how yes, the book is dark (for those who do not know, the series focuses on a dystopian world in which children are forced to fight to the death on television as a form of political control).

What struck me about these conversations was that ninety-nine percent of the time, the adult in question had not even read the book they were criticizing. They dismissed it, either as inappropriate trash or as mindless fiction without ever actually seeing what it had to say.

I realized that this fit with a larger pattern in terms of how adults often interact with and view teen media. Adults are quick to dismiss anything aimed at or consumed by teenagers as vapid and not worth paying attention to.

This mirrors ways adults often tend to react to or view teenagers and their emotions. Something that lingers with me from my teen years was the feeling that the adults in my life viewed my emotions and ideas as poorly thought out or lacking in substance. That feeling is often echoed by users in our direct services. They feel guilty for their emotions or try to minimize them, in spite of the fact that their emotions make sense and are proportional to the situation they're in (and even if they weren't, that doesn't make them any less real to the person experiencing them). They've picked up from the culture around them that teens like themselves are too emotional for their own good. They're left feeling as thought they can't reach out or express what's going on in their hearts and minds because the adults around them will be dismissive of it.

This assumption runs both ways: if teenagers are overly-emotional and silly, then any media aimed at them must also be that way, and worthy of either hysterical scrutiny or dismissal instead of measured, thoughtful engagement by adults.

Both Roxane Gay and Sherman Alexie have written brilliant pieces about why many teens gravitate towards darker stories. What's curious to me is that this is a hard concept for many adults to grasp. We were all teenagers once, so is it simply that they can't remember what being one felt like? Why do we so often dismiss the things they like and deeply connect with?

Taking a critical, good faith look at the media teens are drawn to requires us to consider two uncomfortable ideas: that teenagers are thinking about and talking about complex, darker aspects of life and that they may be seeking these stories out because tough things are happening to them. The cultural narrative is one in which childhood and teen years are times of innocence, freedom , and safety. But the reality is that teens deal with suicide, sexual assault, coming out, lust, joy, fear, loss, chronic illness, racism, etc just as adults do, and with far fewer years of experience that could help them cope with or explain what is happening. And for some, the first time they see themselves or their experiences reflected back at them is in those stories that adults dismiss as "merely" YA (young adult) literature.

Too, YA lit, or pop music, or movies, even if they don't make big profound statements or tackle heavy topics, often have an emotional truth to them. We listen to the latest boy band ballad not because it reveals new, radical truths about love. We listen to it because it hits directly upon what it feels like to be young and in love. We read coming of age novels, set both here and in imagined worlds, because even if they're pretentious, corny, or poetic and well-written, they echo something real about our own lives, hopes, and fears.

And media can be a major point of connection between individuals, and when you're young, you're just starting to learn how to find your people. That process can feel fraught, and is filled with lots of trial and error. Having a book, music, or T.V show in common with someone makes it easier to find people with whom you might be able to form a more solid bond. The things that we love act as beacons, helping people with shared passions and interests find each other.

Even if teen media isn't serving some deeper function, even if it's just an pleasant escape or distraction, that doesn't invalidate it. We all deserve spaces to for escape, and I'll wager that we all have books, movies, T.V shows, and music that we enjoy that are considered fluffy or trashy by others. Those qualities are not unique to teen media (soap operas or the latest car chase movie franchise anyone?), and it is disingenuous to act as though they are.

I think there's also the component of adults viewing teenagers as a different species from themselves. When the adults at the store wondered aloud (often in front of the teenager in question, but never addressed to them) what they could possibly see in these books I was always tempted to answer, "Why do you read the books, watch the movies, and listen to the music that you do?" Teens are people, and they enjoy and consume the things they do for all the various reasons that people do.

Why write about this at all? Because if we undervalue and scoff at teen media we are subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, undervaluing the experiences and thoughts of teens.

That reinforces the notions that they already have about whether or not the adults in their lives will listen to them or value what they have to say. So, they will often start to wall off that part of their lives so that adults can't criticize or judge them. And while it's certainly not a one to one correlation, that self-protectiveness can lead to them not wanting to open up about or discuss other, more important or sensitive aspects of their lives, even when they need or want support and advice from the adults around them.

What can you do to subvert these unhelpful norms?

One very simple thing is to just stop passing judgment on media you haven't even consumed, or that isn't something you connect with yourself. You can decide if it seems like something for you or not, but don't just dismiss it out of hand because it's popular with teenagers. Something else we encourage is that you expose yourself to the media that the teens in your life are consuming. That doesn't mean that you have to read and watch everything that they do, as that can feel as though you are encroaching on spaces that they've carved out for themselves. But it will provide you with yet another window into what's going on in their lives. And hey, you might find that you enjoy some of it.

Media can also be a way for you and the teens in your life to connect. Having a television show or book series that you enjoy together and talk about in depth helps maintain the bond between the two of you. And, as previously mentioned, these stories often address complex topics, and that creates a space for you and teens to talk about subjects you might not normally discuss.

If you don't want to engage with a certain piece of media, but you're curious about what it's about or why a teenager likes it, ask them. That could result in a "I don't know, I just do" or a ten minute explanation about their feelings about love, time travel, friendship, and aliens. Regardless, you've at least expressed an interest in their lives and hobbies, and you've granted them the respect of asking them about those things rather than by-passing their opinion in favor of one from an adult.

In the end, it's best to let teens know that you respect them and their desire to interact with the things that they enjoy. That can go a long way towards making them feel as though they have an understanding space in which to explore ideas and experiences, and towards them feeling valued as people.