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The Real Life of Teens

By June 23, 2009News

The Irish Times 24 June, 2009

Anna Carey

The media portrays teens as being 'sexting', binge-drinking louts – but it's just a variation on a centuries-old stereotype. Why are we so afraid of young people?

LOCK UP your daughters – and your sons, for that matter. Hot on the heels of terrifying social trends like sexual texting, pre-teen binge-drinking and putting naked photos on the internet, a new strain of debauchery has infected the youth of today.

On May 28th, the New York Times printed an article entitled For teenagers, hello means 'how about a hug? '. According to the piece, more teenagers in US schools are greeting each other with friendly hugs – to the dismay and confusion of their elders. One school principal declared that "touching and physical contact is very dangerous territory" and says her school is so full of "needless hugging" that they actually banned it. Is the media really so eager to see teenagers as a strange and threatening species that it has resorted to scare stories about hugs? Even "needless" ones?

Demonising young people is, of course, nothing new. "What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets, inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?" These aren't the words of a moralising 21st century columnist after Junior Cert results night. They were written by Plato in the 4th century BC. As long as there have been young people, there have been older people claiming that the younger generation are going to the dogs.

But in recent years, moral panics are becoming even more hysterical. If you believe certain media sources, everyone born after 1990 spends their days happy-slapping, "sexting", having sex parties and drinking their own weight in alcopops. A few isolated incidents are repeatedly portrayed as typical of an entire generation. "Young people are held up as a measure of how society is doing, but they're not asking to be that measure," says Michael Barron, director of BelongTo, an organisation that works with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people. "Technically, this should be an influential position, because people are looking at them and taking their cue from them, but it's much more negative – they're only a measure of how bad things supposedly are."

And young people feel that their generation isn't being represented fairly. Stephanie Kelly (19) is a former chair of Ireland's youth parliament Dáil na nÓg and a founding member of Fairsay, an organisation set up by teenagers in 2007 to combat stereotypical media depictions of young people.

In that year, Kelly and another Fairsay member, Maria Kelly, studied every newspaper in Ireland in the weeks before and after the release of the Junior Cert results. They found that while some stories celebrated teenagers' achievements, still more focused on result-night binge drinking, with salacious headlines such as, The G-string round your ankle if you're up for sex.

"Bad news is interesting," says Stephanie. "No one wants to see a headline saying everything's okay, you're all good. Tabloids especially are looking for shocker headlines to sell papers. They do this with every age group but young people can't really defend themselves – they don't have a public voice." There's a tendency to depict an entire generation as one big homogenous group, Kelly says, and this is something that never happens to older people.

"There are no articles written about 25- to 40-year-olds because there's an understanding that they're all different," she says.

But why is this? After all, those who criticise young people were once young themselves. Perhaps, suggests Michael Barron, that's part of the problem. "I think perhaps this fear of youth is a sort of generational envy – people are looking back on their youth and wishing they'd made more of it. And of course, it's also a fear of the future."

The latter fear can be exacerbated by technological developments. Today's teens are the first generation who can't remember a world without the world wide web.

"Thanks to the internet it's harder to tell what young people are doing and that scares people," says Stephanie Kelly, who says that many scare stories, such as sexual texting, "happy slapping" and lewd self-portraits are all about new technology. But internet access doesn't make teenagers into a whole new species. "We're not really different from teens 20 years ago," says Rosie O'Dowd (17) from Tralee. "We're just growing up in a different world."

When the positive achievements of young people appear in the press, they are often written about in a slightly patronising way. Dylan Haskins (21) of the Hideaway House, who has been putting on all-ages music gigs since his mid-teens, says these things are "often only reported if it can fit the traditional formula: 'Young person does good; old people praise'."

HASKINS SAYS that while the press are quick to judge wild teens, they don't want to delve too deeply. "There seems to be a lot less willingness to grapple with the fundamental reasons behind why certain groups of young people go wild in Aya Napa," he says. "Maybe that's because the answer digs up an uncomfortable reflection on Irish culture over the past 15 years, and who's responsible for that?"

In 2006, Dr Maurice Devlin conducted a study for the Equality Authority entitled Inequality and the Stereotyping of Young People . The study showed that not only did teenagers feel stereotyped by the media and society, but that they strongly felt these stereotypes affected the way adults, particularly those in positions of authority, treated them.

Which makes the exaggeration, generalisation and in some cases barefaced lies, even more frustrating. In 2003, Oprah Winfrey's show featured a discussion of "Rainbow Parties" at which teenage girls supposedly wore different coloured lipstick before fellating multiple boys. Cue headlines on both sides of the Atlantic about teen orgies.

But no first-hand accounts of these parties ever surfaced. It was all rumour and hearsay. "This 'phenomenon' has all the classic hallmarks of a moral panic," says Dr Deborah Tolman, director of the Centre for Research on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State University. "One day we have never heard of rainbow parties and then suddenly they are everywhere, feeding on adults' fears that morally bankrupt sexuality among younger teens is rampant, despite any actual evidence, as well as evidence to the contrary."

Caitríona Henchion, medical director of the Irish Family Planning Association, believes hysterical stories about teenagers can contribute to the early sexualisation of young people. "That sort of media coverage reiterates the idea that the majority of teenagers are sexually active," she says.

"And that implies to some teenagers that if you're not, there's something wrong with you and you're somehow lagging behind. If you have a few girls going to discos thinking they are expected to go without underwear and give blowjobs, that's serious."

And when sensational stories do contain a grain of truth, they present the unusual as the norm. Yes, some teens binge-drink and some have sex at an early age. But they're not necessarily typical of their generation. Scaremongering reports on underage sex at discos ignore the fact that the median age for first-time sex in this country, according to a 2007 study by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, is 17 – the age of consent.

THE RYAN REPORT reminds us of how dangerous the demonising of young people by viewing them as inherently deviant can be. It might be a good idea for adults to develop some historical perspective, and remember that the good old days weren't really that great. Although today's teenagers may seem to be growing up faster, this can, as Stephanie Kelly says, "bring a maturity", one that Michael Barron sees in young gay teenagers who have the confidence to come out and demand respect, something that would have been unthinkable a generation before.Of course, even if we remember all this, we won't be able to completely stop ourselves rolling our eyes about the younger generation. Even teenagers do it, after all.

"I have a 12-year-old sister and I sigh 'what are kids today like?' at least once a day!" laughs Kelly. "Every time she says something about a boy I think, 'When I was her age I was climbing trees . . . '"

"Young gay teenagers have the confidence to come out and demand respect – something that would have been unthinkable a generation before.