Teens, Sex, Media

Essay for Cultureweek, dated February 4, 2005.

Legendary stand-up comedian Bill Hicks said it more than once: your children are not special. And, like so much he was talking about, he is right. Teens in the United States are constantly fetishized by the two primary meaning-making institutions of modernity: government and the media. Not a week goes by without some politician or journalist expressing their grave concerns regarding America's youth. Such recurring moral panics generally deal with the Holy Trinity of today's public sphere: Sex, Sin and Sports. In recent months, we have been bombarded with thousands of news stories and political statements on the use of steroids by young athletes, on the free-for-all sex habits of teens, and on the lack of knowledge or respect among U.S. students regarding the First Amendment. A University of Connecticut released the results of a survey among more than 100.000 high school students recently, finding that one-third of these adolescents feel the press enjoys too much freedom, while more than one in three students said the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

In terms of the U.S. media culture, this means that young people in America learn things from their media that lead some of them to argue in favor of restrictions on what the media can say and do. Most political and media commentators feel that this is a bad thing, and have expressed their concern about the restrictive turn in teenagers views, calling for more First Amendment education in schools. Senators, scholars and pundits step up to the microphone and rip schools, teachers, and students apart.

But let us stop and consider for a moment the world of the 12-17 year old in this country as seen through the eyes of the media. First of all: nothing what a kid does is considered worth telling people about through the media, unless it involves someone who is handicapped, or someone who was either the aggressor or the victim in some heinous crime. Children are not 'normal' people who have experiences and expertise and thus have a story to tell - just like most ethnic minorities aren't real people in the mainstream media or politics; they tend to be represented as faceless 'groups' or 'interests'. Second, children and teenagers are somehow in constant life-threatening danger - if one was to believe media and politics. War, drugs, fast food, sex, traffic, guns, heavy metal music, the air they breathe, the food they eat, and the water they drink - even the houses they live in - are invoked on a regular basis to scare (prospective) parents to death and to render anything the young have to say about all of this meaningless. Public figures in politics and the media - generally concerned parents themselves - call on adults to protect their young at all costs: stock up on bacteria-killing cleaning products, drive your offspring around in tank-like SUVs, force Britney Spears-cd's down their throats together with the matching brand of soft drink the artist endorses and, most of all, don't let them ever go out at night (because they are missing all the advertisements and sponsored sports shows on TV)!

Teenagers enact two types of resistance to this institutional onslaught on the hearts and minds of America's youth: blame the media or become the media. Blaming the media explains the fact that one third of high school students feel American media should not be allowed to publish anything they want. Then there is one third in the middle who think the current checks and balances for media and government are just fine. Becoming the media is what the other one third are engaged in. These kids are part of what some call the age of 'egocasting': producing and transmitting heir own individual forms of cultural expression through mobile phones (initiating group SMS and MMS), internet (creating personal home pages, P2P file sharing networks, IM and chat sessions, e-mail newsletters and online discussion groups, connecting with likeminded others through social software like Friendster and Orkut), and 'traditional' media like independent media on radio, television, and internet - mainstream news organizations and politicians call these pirate media - and the so-called alternative press. Fed up with the top-down, unresponsive and unresponsible voices represented in mainstream media and politics, youngsters seem to be media-savvy enough to bypass society's institutions and start doing their own thing. Hey, they even blog!

Is this a good reason for a moral panic? Yes! Is it also a reason to celebrate? Of course! Any society needs criticism and dissent, whether it is based on conservative or progressive thinking. This keeps the social system in balance, helps it to evolve and maintain itself through space and time, prevents it from falling apart because of either complacency or revolution. This is not to say this country does not need a revolution - it just means that a mix of one third nervous traditionalists, one third rational realists, and one third benevolent revolutionaries seems, well, perfectly normal for the teen population, in any country. Unfortunately this does not make headlines, so journalists and politicians on the left and right use the information to their own benefit. And still they wonder why young people don't vote, don't watch television news, and don't buy newspapers anymore.

Let me repeat: young people - children, tweens, teens, and twentysomethings - are not special.