Youth Culture   /   Spring 2009   /    Essays

(Re)inventing Adolescence

Kent Baxter

Teenager in El Paso, Texas (1972). Via Wikipedia Commons.

For those of us who keep a watchful eye on the portrayal of youth in the media, a glance back at 2008 reaffirms a longstanding and unsettling trend. Even though reliable sources, such as the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, have indicated a steady decrease in crimes committed by individuals eighteen and under during the past decade, the most widely covered and thus well-known news stories were, once again, the sensational examples of teens gone wild. Topping the charts of the over-saturated last year had to have been the gang of six vindictive cheerleaders in Florida who beat a rival unconscious and recorded the whole grisly scene for YouTube, but there are plenty more to add to the list. While such skewed coverage often gets explained away as a general preference for the sensational on the part of the media or a penchant for the grotesque on the part of the viewing public, it seems particularly pathological when it comes to teens, especially since so much evidence supports the fact that the vast majority of teens are doing quite well, compared to other demographics.11xThis essay was adapted from Kent Baxter, The Modern Age: Turn-of-the-Century American Culture and the Invention of Adolescence (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008) 1–72.

This discrepancy between fiction and reality has not been lost on many scholars. In his 1999 book Framing Youth, Mike Males meticulously exposes the falsity of negative myths about contemporary teens. From mistaken reports of excessive violence to hysteria about rising pregnancy and substance abuse, Males demonstrates that data have been disfigured by government agencies, interest groups, and the media to perpetuate fear about the next generation. Consistently, as studies continue to reflect more positively on teens, unfavorable stories persist with increased vigor. “Whether the issue is violence, crime, suicide and self destruction, drugs, smoking, drinking, risk, or attitude, the sequence is the same,” Males concludes. “Teenagers are universally denigrated when, in reality, they are behaving well amid severe stresses.”22xMike A. Males, Framing Youth: Ten Myths About the Next Generation (Monroe: Common Courage, 1999) 21.

An extensive two-year study completed by the FrameWorks Institute and the UCLA Center on Communications and Community in 2001 revealed not only a marked dislike and distrust of teens, but also a pronounced discrepancy between this view and all of the current data relating to the age group. A summary of public opinion polls in the study revealed that “only 16% of Americans say that ‘young people under the age of 30 share most of their moral and ethical values,’” putting teens only slightly above homosexuals, welfare recipients, and rich people.33xMeg Bostrom, The 21st Century Teen: Public Perception and Teen Reality (Washington, DC: Frameworks Institute, 2001) 4.

Furthermore, when a 1989 Gallup Poll asked 1,249 adults to compare contemporary youth to those 20 years ago, topping the list were the words “Selfish” (81 percent), “Materialistic” (79 percent), and “Reckless” (73 percent).44xBostrom 5. These descriptors and the other data cited in the study are diametrically opposed to how teens actually view themselves. A survey of 1,015 high school students cited in the study found that the values teens hold most dear are “being honest” (8.6 on a 10-point scale), “working hard” (8.4), “being a good student” (7.9), and “giving time to helping others” (7.6).55xBostrom 6. But perhaps even more striking than this discrepancy was the study’s findings regarding the persistency of adult misconceptions. When six different focus groups from three separate cities were given a news story that outlined positive trends for teens, an overwhelming majority of the adults rejected it as false. “I questioned almost the whole story,” one father vehemently asserted.66xMeg Bostrom, Teenhood: Understanding Attitudes toward Those Transitioning from Childhood to Adulthood (Washington, DC: Frameworks Institute, 2001) 18.

Even the media itself has broken the story about the myths that surround our least favorite demographic. U.S. News & World Report, for example, devoted an entire special issue in 2005 to finally revealing the truth. The inside front cover of “Mysteries of the Teen Years: An Essential Guide for Parents” announces that “many of the common complaints about generation Y…are quite simply wrong. Adolescents now are less likely than their parents were to smoke, do hard drugs, get pregnant, commit violent crimes, drop out of school, and drive drunk.”77x“Mysteries of the Teen Years: An Essential Guide for Parents,” special edition, U.S. News & World Report, 2005.

Still none of it seems to stick. Gangs of psychopathic cheerleaders somehow make more sense—are more interesting—than students studying for their SATs or lining up to volunteer at a local soup kitchen. Why is this so? What is the nature of this interest? A full answer is, of course, beyond the scope of this short essay, but I would like to suggest that part of our (mis)perception of teens is something we have inherited from the past, from the very inception of the developmental stage of adolescence, and that a glimpse back at this origin may be the first step in exposing the constructedness of teens’ seemingly natural propensity for misrule. A brief examination of two texts (the origins of the juvenile court and the earliest full-length work on adolescence) will illustrate my point.

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