Thomas Hine, in his very informative book The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, argues that both “teenagers” and “youth culture” are modern social constructs that originated from adult workers’ need to keep teens out of the workforce in order to protect their own jobs, and that were made permanent with the universal adoption of compulsory high school. These historic facts spawned a new class of young people in between childhood and adulthood called teenagers (the word began to be widely used in 1945). Teens can drive at sixteen but can’t vote until eighteen. They can work at mostly menial jobs but only after school or during the summer. They have spending money from these jobs and/or from their parents but not enough to be financially independent. They are encouraged to express themselves in our individualistic and consumer-driven society but can still be censored by parents or school administrators.
Since World War II, teenagers have captured the imagination of marketers as the most coveted yet fickle demographic, with billions to spend, whose loyalty, if gotten as teens, will last through adulthood. They also know teens influence their parents’ purchasing decisions. The first teen demographic was the baby boomers, followed by Generations X and now Y. Teenagers have also become the inspiration for most of our popular culture since the 1920s. From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dancing flappers, to the mobs of girls who screamed and cried for Elvis and the Beatles, to the mud-covered flower children who danced to Hendrix at Woodstock, to the moshing, Mohawked punks and their disco dancing counterpart in the 1970s, to all of us who donned parachute pants and tried to moonwalk to Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the 1980s, all the way to today’s teens who worship or despise Britney, Jessica, Paris, and Nicole. Teens have been and continue to be the ultimate pop culture tastemakers.
And while teenage trends in clothing and music have come and gone and come back again, the characteristics of this stage in human development have remained constant: trying out different identities, learning responsibility, being impulsive, idealistic, feeling invincible, dealing with physical changes, distancing from parents, and creating meaningful relationships with friends.
I’m not a parent yet. So you may be thinking, why would I write a book primarily for parents about teenagers? Perhaps it’s the same reason I ended up working with teens and in teen media over 10 years ago: My teen years were tough. So tough, there were many times I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and told my diary I didn’t want to go on, usually in the form of very dark poetry that alluded to blood and thorny roses and vampires. My parents were heading toward divorce, and I was rebelling hard. There was no voice of reason in my house, just what seemed like desperate and often failed attempts at disciplining an out-of-control teenager.
I eventually found a few voices of reason when I would go to my after-school job at a now-defunct Nashville health food restaurant called the Slice of Life. We served tofu, macrobiotic cookies, and fresh squeezed OJ to people like Bonnie Raitt, Steve Winwood, and k.d. lang. The waitstaff was made up of people in their twenties and thirties, mostly struggling songwriters and musicians trying to catch a break. But they talked to me — and even more importantly, they listened to me. Not like I was a teenager, but like I was a real person, just like them. They listened to my problems and usually gave me pretty good advice. For the first time as a teenager, I felt validated and respected by adults instead of mistrusted, feared, yelled at, or talked down to. There were other voices of reason I bumped into throughout my teen years — a camp counselor in Maine, a few great high school teachers, my grandfather.
Ever since I graduated from college, I’ve spent my career trying to be that voice of reason for teens and adults trying to reach them. I started through my mentoring work with inner-city teen girls at a nonprofit magazine called Teen Voices and continued creating content for teens at companies like Oxygen Media (a TV network that used to have a show for teen girls called Trackers) and Kibu (a now defunct dot.com for teen girls). A few years after I left teen media, I missed it so much — the subject matter, the teenagers, the other people who were as passionate about it as I am — that I started Ypulse.com, a blog all about teen media and marketing.
Totally Wired aims to be that voice of reason for parents of teens or other adults who either work with teens or just have teens in their lives. A lot of the media coverage of teens and technology has been fairly sensational and even fear mongering, causing some adults to panic and literally try to “unplug” teens by forbidding them to go online or visit certain websites. As we all know, the prohibitionist model does not work. And especially with technology, today’s teens can hack around most attempts by parents and schools to ban access or use filters to restrict Internet use.
Being a teenager hasn’t changed because of the Internet and cell phones, but technology is reshaping teenagers’ relationships with each other, with their parents and teachers, and with the world. While most parents view the Internet as a positive force in the lives of teens, they probably couldn’t tell you exactly what their teens are doing online during the hours they spend on the computer with the door closed. And unfortunately, many parents haven’t made the time or built a relationship where they feel comfortable asking. Just as reading by young women in the nineteenth century was viewed by fearful parents as a disease, and just as flappers dancing to “jungle music” (jazz) horrified adults in the 1920s, the introduction of movies, radio, TV, and now the Internet have all followed a similar pattern of first being feared and then gradually accepted as part of our society.
Totally Wired will give you some basic information about what teens are doing with the technology they have grown up with as well as a healthy, realistic perspective on how to deal with it (and ideally become closer to your teens in the process). The book will examine issues related to teen blogging; social networking sites aimed at teens like MySpace; cyberbullying; how technology is affecting parent-teen communication; how technology is being used (or is not being used) in education; how teens have embraced technology and are transforming entertainment and media; and how they are using technology to express themselves in creative new ways.
The good news is that what teens are doing online and with cell phones and other devices doesn’t have to keep you up at night any more than what they may be doing at the mall or their friends’ houses or wherever they hang out offline. That said, you may find a need for updates to the traditional “don’t talk to strangers” speech and some new discussions around the public nature of the Internet. Totally Wired will help you understand what these technologies are and how teens are using them as well as what to watch out for, so you can feel good about what your teen is doing online.