group magazine: January-February, 2000
In a climate of rising fear and increased demonization of teenagers and their culture, Mike Males, author of Framing Youth (Common Courage Press), charges it’s the Baby Boomer generation that’s messing up. He challenges these widely circulated myths about today’s kids...
* Recent school shootings prove today’s teenagers are more violent than their parents’ generation—FBI statistics clearly show crime trends are driven by exploding rates of violence, theft, and drug offenses by Baby Boomers in the 30-49 age group. A comparison of 1980 and 1997 California violent crime figures shows falling rates for 10- to 19-year-olds (-2%) and skyrocketing rates for the 30-plus age group (+111%).
* Today’s teenagers are America’s worst generation ever—Despite being poorer, despite worsening schools and family situations, adolescents display lower rates of crime, substance abuse, and suicidal behaviors than teenagers of two decades ago. Serious problems are concentrated in a shrinking, not growing proportion of the youth population. "The elders should be doing so well," says Males.
* Alcohol and drug abuse are "epidemic" among today’s teenagers—Every reliable measure shows teenage alcohol and drug abuse at record low levels. Teenagers comprise less than 4% of drug emergency cases (the most reliable measure of drug abuse) and 1% of drug-related deaths, according to the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network. Baby Boomers, on the other hand, account for almost 44% of drug emergency cases and 66% of reported drug deaths, suggesting that kids’ greatest danger may be parents’ alcohol and drug abuse.
WISH LIST XTREMES
Wishbox.com, an online gift registry aimed at the youth market, invites kids to create password-protected "wishboxes." Kids list the items they’d like, prices, gift "deadlines," and where gifts can be purchased—they can even create links to online retailers. A gift giver simply types in the recipient’s name to open his or her wishbox. Visitors will be greeted by the voice of Jason Alexander, a.k.a. Seinfeld’s George Costanza, who’s incarnated here as the site’s wise-guy host, "Wally." We suggest you invite your kids to visit a site at the opposite end of the spectrum from Wishbox: thehungersite.com. Click on the Donate Free Food button and corporate sponsors donate a serving of food to a relief organization. Kids can go to the site once a day to make donations.
GAME’S GOT ROCK
Computer game soundtracks are grabbing the spotlight—the emergence of CD-quality soundtracks starring top rock stars has spurred a Grammy category for interactive game music. Contributors in new or upcoming games include Sheryl Crow (Tomorrow Never Dies), Yes (Homeworld), and David Bowie, who’s writing eight original songs and assuming a character role in the action/ adventure Omikron: The Nomad Soul.
Entertainment boundaries continue to blur as the Web casts its net over TV and movie audiences. The Drew Carey Show, Judge Judy, and MTV’s webRIOT have already broken ground with interactive online elements. Film directors Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard are partnering a joint venture, POP.com, that will create short films available only on the Internet. And movie studios, inspired by The Blair Witch Project, are creating fake fan sites and back stories to create buzz for movies before they open.
"The pontiff legged it with my fly shades."
—Bono, after Pope John Paul II tried on the U2 frontman’s signature sunglasses, then kept them, quoted in Rolling Stone. (Bono met with the pope to enlist his support for Jubilee 2000, an organization pushing for the world’s richest nations to forgive the debts of the poorest.)
A GLUT OF CUTTING EDGES
Youth culture’s "cutting edge" looks more like a serrated blade every day. In fact, today’s cool is walking around in so many guises that "cutting edge" is now an anachronism. The world of teen-targeted magazines is a case in point. The mass-market dinosaurs (including Seventeen, Rolling Stone, Teen Beat, and Sports Illustrated) are still thriving among young people, but a host of micro-niched publications are notching explosive growth. "The trend we’re seeing among teens is super-fragmentation," says Grey Advertising president Barbara Martino in an American Demographics interview. Among the suddenly hot niche-mags: video game and extreme sports publications such as Game Pro or Warp for guys, a plethora of sister/friend publications such as Jump and Cosmo GIRL! for girls, and entertainment publications such as Teen People and Entertainment-teen that target both guys and girls.
TV AS FUN-HOUSE MIRROR
When teenagers power-up their favorite shows, do they see themselves looking back? Well, they see what hit-hungry TV programmers think normal kids look like. So how do media-land teenagers think, speak, and act?
* According to Rolling Stone reviewer Tom Conroy, this season’s 13 prime-time shows featuring young people portray teenagers as sex-obsessed (with parents who cheerily support their kids’ right to fornicate), white (it’s not an ethnic world, after all), parent-less (adults in these shows are either extremely absent or extremely stupid), and disinterested in college (many decide the "real world" has more to offer than higher education).
* Talk show host Michael Medved, author of Hollywood vs. America, says a rash of movies popular with teenagers extol the virtues of drug addiction. For example, in Never Been Kissed, Drew Barrymore’s uptight character cuts loose for the first time under the influence of hashish brownies. And in American Beauty, the most sympathetic character is "the boy next door"—a handsome, charismatic, sensitive high school drug dealer.
* And at the resurgent MTV, once again the top cable channel among teenagers, the message is "fame is within your grasp" and "older is better." Shows such as The Real World and The Tom Green Show make stars of ordinary people. And even though MTV says it’s targeting 18- to 24-year-olds, it has almost twice as many teenage viewers. MTV spokeswoman Irene Fu says, "They’re 18- to 24-year-old wanna-bes."
Kids are slamming down their double-espressos and "Doin’ the Dew" in an unprecedented caffeinated frenzy. Wonder why? Well, according to the National Academy of Sciences, today’s teenagers are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. In the ’60s, most schools started no earlier than 8:30. Today, half the schools in the U.S. start at 7:30 or earlier. At the end of another over-scheduled day, kids can’t shoehorn-in the nine hours of sleep they need.
Researchers say it’s nothing to laugh about. Tired kids...
*Learn less—Sleep-deprived teenagers have a harder time concentrating on and retaining what they’re taught.
* Drive worse—Sleep deprivation has effects similar to alcohol—kids judgments, reaction times, and driving skills are all hampered.
* Make bad choices—The same impairment can lead to dangerous addictions to cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs.
*Pick fights—A tired teenager is a cranky teenager, and that leads to more and harder conflicts with parents and peers.
Our culture bows down before speed in all its avatars—faster meals, faster modems, faster reads, faster transportation, faster relationships, faster thinking, faster customer service, faster...you name it. If it’s slow, it’s not competitive, cool, or convenient.
According to author James Gleick in Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (Pantheon), slow can’t deliver the addictive high we now demand from our multi-tasked lives. Gleick, a former New York Times columnist, says in a USA Today interview, "We do not seem interested in an about-face toward the simpler lives we recall with that rosy, nostalgic glow....Pauses are an essential part of human life, and we are squeezing them out."
Gleick believes we’re on the verge of breaking the information "speed limit"—the intersection between our finite capabilities and a super-charged cultural environment. That compression zone is already putting the squeeze on pre-teenagers.
Typical tweens (ages 8 to 14) live pedal-to-the-metal lives that are fueled by the adults in their lives. In a Newsweek interview, 10-year-old Allie Terese Baron-Phillips maps out a typical day: "I get up at 6:30 every morning, go to school and have to rush through all my classes, come home and work on my homework, go to ice-skating lessons, watch a little TV, talk on the phone, do more homework and practice my violin. If I’m lucky, I get to sleep by 11. And then the entire ordeal starts again....It would be great to just sit around, make quilts and bake pies....It would also be pretty cool to go to a one-room schoolhouse with just 10 or 15 other kids."
Surprise! Experts say faster may not be better for young people. "What we’re seeing is a superficial sophistication," says William Damon, director of the Stanford University Center on Adolescence. "There’s been no increase in the values that help a kid get through the confusion of life in a steady, productive way."
YRGRL—I don’t think it’s fair that we aren’t allowed to wear spaghetti-strap shirts. They say it takes attention away from the teachers, but the teachers can wear spaghetti straps. I also don’t think it’s fair that we can’t take our backpacks to class. They say because of safety reasons. But if someone wants to bring a gun to class, they’re going to find a way.
LINSY1386—I agree about the spaghetti straps, but I think they don’t like backbacks in classes for another reason: It’s harder to escape a crowded room in case of an emergency. I’d rather be safe than dead or injured.
BMX372—We have the same rule at my school, except now our principal makes us have mesh or clear book bags—otherwise you have to carry your books.
SK8CHIQ—We’re not allowed to use lockers at our school. Arggg! All because some stupid jerks had pot in their lockers a few years ago! I don’t think it’s fair because we have to carry all our books to and from class, and our backs hurt! We’re sick of it!
SPARKZ004—That’s just a little bit of a health hazard, because you could end up with back problems for the rest of your lives.
A2Z12100—We can’t even bring backpacks to school—or wear shorts or sleeveless shirts.
DANZ724—We can wear whatever we want, as long as our shoulders are covered, and even though they find drugs in some lockers, we can carry any backpack we want. I think it sucks that you can’t carry backpacks. I’d complain to the school board members instead of whining about it online.
MEGANS15—We can have book bags, but they were worried about kids bringing guns in their pockets, so now we have to tuck our shirts in—even if they don’t cover our pockets. But they let us wear jackets and vests that cover our pockets...I don’t get it! Why don’t they let the boys wear earrings? It goes against the constitution to let girls wear earrings, but not boys!
DAYZEE2734—We can’t bring our backpacks to classes either. They say the same things: "safety reasons." But we all know it’s because the teachers tripped over them.
Swmmrgurl—We’re allowed to carry our backpacks around, and we can wear anything we want, except tube tops. But we do have metal detectors—the kind you walk through.
WHTVW78—I go to a private school (uniforms required), and we’re not allowed to use backpacks, but it’s really not bad. Four minutes is enough time to go to your locker and get to class.
ASAP21—Geezzz! I feel bad for you people! Our school kicks! We can carry our backpacks/purses anywhere, and they don’t have to be see-though! But we can’t wear tank tops or shorts less than finger-tip length.
Nearly a quarter of all students are now attending "alternative schools," and that has public school administrators scrambling to compete. Private and parochial schools alone have siphoned away five million students. That’s why Chicago public schools chief Paul Vallas is attempting to infuse his students with parochial-like values, discipline, and achievement.
Vallas has turned Chicago schools around by...
* ending "social promotion"—kids must reach certain academic standards before they move up to the next grade level;
* curtailing the number of electives kids can choose from so schools can focus on the basics;
* implementing a "zero tolerance" policy toward troublemakers; and
* recruiting churches and synagogues to provide tutors, afterschool programs, safe havens, and even classroom space to relieve overcrowding.