The Web Is The New Mall

I will always fondly remember the afternoons I hung out at the Green Hills Mall in Nashville, TN – oggling Benetton sweaters I couldn’t afford, drinking soda at the food court, and yes, smoking cloves in the bathroom. Teens and malls have always gone together like ruma ruma ruma (ok sorry) — it’s a rite of passage to be dropped off at a mall with your friends for a few hours to hang out. It seems that over the past several years, retailers have grown weary with teen antics at the mall. Hanging out has turned to “loitering” and teens are being kicked out or forced to have a parent accompany them.

This article from the St. Louis Post Dispatch describes the evolving dynamic between teens and malls:

“For half a century, malls and teenagers have gone hand in hand. Food courts, department stores and specialty shops have become the stage where the drama of adolescence plays out.

These days, though, the mall-teenager relationship appears to have fallen on rocky times. Retail centers across the country have become increasingly uncomfortable with the mall’s serving as a teenage right of passage or de facto day-care center.

And some experts say that the feeling is mutual, with more young people looking to the Internet for social interaction.”

It’s true — more teens are hanging out online on sites like MySpace. I write a lot about this in Chapter Three of Totally Wired, which focuses on social networking sites. These virtual hangouts are beginning to replace the mall as one of the few parent-free zones where teens can do what teens need to do to as part of the process of growing up — hang out.

My friend and youth researcher danah boyd says it best:

“So what exactly are teens doing on MySpace? Simple: they’re hanging out. Of course, ask any teen what they’re doing with their friends in general; they’ll most likely shrug their shoulders and respond nonchalantly with ‘just hanging out.’ Although adults often perceive hanging out to be wasted time, it is how youth get socialized into peer groups. Hanging out amongst friends allows teens to build relationships and stay connected. Much of what is shared between youth is culture — fashion, music, media. The rest is simply presence. This is important in the development of a social worldview. For many teens, hanging out has moved online. Teens chat on IM for hours, mostly keeping each other company and sharing entertaining cultural tidbits from the Web and thoughts of the day. The same is true on MySpace, only in a much more public way.”

Personally, I think more offline malls like The Lab and other hangout spaces (skateparks, all-ages shows, etc.) should be developed just for teens.

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