By CommonAction - The youth engagement specialists  

 
The FireStarter Youth Power Curriculum

Guide for Youth

The Media Distorts Teens

by Gohar Gaylan, 18, California

 

Adam's Note: For a complete lesson plan including debriefing questions and related materials, go to LA Youth's Website.

Every time I go to the supermarket, I see another magazine cover saying there's something wrong with teens. After teens shot their classmates at Columbine High, Newsweek's cover showed the face of a troubled teen that looked angry and dangerous. His eyes were cold and mean. The headline stated in bold, white letters, "The Secret Life of Teens."

Inside the magazine, the cover story referred to the rap artist Eminem. A parent is quoted saying, "I don't understand this kid Eminem. What is he about?" The article goes on to say that "...the secret lives of teenagers are likely to remain a secret."

Who writes this stuff? Have these editors talked to a teen lately? They make it sound like we're all ready to blow up our schools with bombs that we built in our bedrooms. They accuse us of having secret lives, but we're not the ones that are going around having affairs with interns so that Time magazine can publish a cover story saying "How the Scandal Was Good For America" (February 22, 1999). That cover seemed to excuse President Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky

When a teenager commits a terrible crime, the media connects the crime with the teen's age. They make it sound like all teens are like that. But when an adult commits a horrible crime, the media doesn't try to make it sound like all adults are demented killers.

After the tragedy in Columbine, the front page of the Los Angeles Times read "Armed Youth Kill Up to 23 in a Four-Hour Siege at High School." But after the August shooting by a 37-year-old at the Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, the headline across the August 11 paper read "Gunman Opens Fire, Wounds Five at Day Camp." His age was not mentioned in the headline.

Headlines and Pictures Suggest That All Teens Are Severely Depressed

There were a ton of articles published after the Columbine incident. Each one tried to figure out what's wrong with teens. Many of the articles made valid points. But their headlines and presentation give the wrong impression. An article in Newsweek titled "When Teens Fall Apart" makes it seem like all teens are unstable and ready to crumble. Another article titled "How Well Do You Know Your Kids" gives the impression that all teens keep major secrets from their parents. They make it sound like it's the teens' fault that the parents don't know them or what's happening in their lives.

After Columbine, people started to censor teen videos, TV and music. President Clinton singled out three video games that he thought, "glorified violence" and contributed to the deaths in Colorado. Producers postponed violent episodes of sitcoms such as the season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and video retailers were asked to return tapes of The Basketball Diaries. So many people were criticizing Marilyn Manson, he cancelled his own concert, although Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold didn't listen to Manson's music. (They listened to Rammstein and KMFDM.)

After the shooting at the Jewish Community Center, none of the media pointed out what kind of music the gunman listened to or what kind of video games he played. Nor did the media ask these questions about the Atlanta man who killed his wife, children and people who worked at his office. In fact, Newsweek's cover had the headline, "The Atlanta Massacre." What? Why didn't they publish "The Secret Life of Adults?"

”Groaning Lumps?!?”

An Aug. 9 cover story for U.S. News & World Report reported "Inside The Teen Brain." The first paragraph portrays teens as moody adolescents who don't do chores and homework but spend five hours on the phone every night. The first paragraph read, "Your bluebird of happiness is flown, replaced by a groaning lump that can scarcely be roused for school. In short, your home is now inhabited by a teenager." (A lump? Sounds like something you put in the oven for dinner. And aren't adults grumpy in the morning too?)

The second paragraph continues, "The shooting in Littleton, Colorado, focused the nation's attention on aberrant adolescent behavior, but most teens never come close to committing violent acts. Still, even the most easygoing teenagers often confound their elders with behavior that seems odd by adult standards."

But it is adults that often confound us teens with behavior that seems odd.

Adults make laws but they don't enforce them. They make a law saying that no one under 17 can see a R-rated movie without a parent, but then they make it really easy for us to see it. In June, after American Pie opened, my friends and I went to see it. Not all of us were 17. One of my friends was two weeks short of her 17th birthday. So when I was purchasing my ticket, I asked for two. The lady refused, because I wasn't 21. No biggie. I stood in line again and bought another ticket from another lady. Ironically when we entered the theater, the guard at the door asked my friend for her ID. She showed it and even though she wasn't 17, he let her in.

Adults talk about caring about teens but all they care about is how much money they can make off us. For example, the movie American Pie, with its graphic story about some boys who make a pact to try to lose their virginity before prom, is clearly aimed at teens. Yet it's rated R. The moviemakers could have cut some scenes and gotten a PG-13 rating, but they didn't-why should they? They know that teens can all go see an R-rated movie if they want to.

Many companies now hire teens to work as trend spotters. They try to predict what the "next big thing" is going to be. That way they can get a head start on manufacturing and marketing to youth.

Adults talk about how teens "confound their elders," but they take no responsibility for the mixed messages that they send us. I wonder if the editors of teen magazines even read what they publish. If they did, they would see how contradictory their message is. On one page of a teen magazine, it says that it doesn't matter what you look like because you are beautiful the way you are. On the next page of the same magazine, there is an ad for Cover Girl makeup and the following page has a guide for losing weight before summer. I've seen one ad for diet pills that shows a thin girl in a bikini. The ad says, "My friends laughed when I bought a bikini. But when I walked on the beach..." Does it ever occur to the advertising executives that these pills aren't safe and that some girl who is five pounds and four ounces overweight might order them?

Adults talk about wanting teens to succeed but often they block the path to success. They won't hire us because we don't have experience. But how do we get experience when we can't get jobs because we don't have any?

It is adults who cut the education budget. It is adults who make the decisions that leave us with tattered books, unqualified teachers and chairs that rock back and forth because their legs are uneven. It is also adults who allocate more money to prisoners than to students. So why doesn't Newsweek report how hard it is to get into a decent college or how many hours teens spend a night on homework?

It’s Time For Adults To Take Responsibility for Their Actions

And maybe it is time that the media started taking responsibility for what it did. After the shooting at the Jewish Community Center, one of the local news stations had a special report on what encourages these madmen to go out there and commit these heinous crimes. An expert said that the images of people crying and comforting each other is often what encourages people to kill. And while the expert was talking about comforting and crying, the station was showing pictures of people doing it. And before the station went on a commercial break, it showed more pictures of this sort. It was as if the station was doing this on purpose.

So next time an adult asks, what's wrong with America's teens ask them, "What's wrong with America's adults?"

 

Adam's Note: For a complete lesson plan including debriefing questions and related materials, go to LA Youth's Website.

 

SUGGESTED CITATION: Gohar, Gaylan (1999) "Media Distorts Teens" in Fletcher, Adam. (2001) FireStarter Participant Guidebook. Olympia, Washington: The Freechild Project.


© 2001 by The Freechild Project, PO Box 6185, Olympia, Washington 98507, (360)753-2686, info@freechild.org. All rights reserved. Parts of this Guidebook may be quoted or used as long as the author and organization, Adam Fletcher, The Freechild Project is duly recognized.

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted for commercial purpose without prior permission.  Please contact The Freechild Project, PO Box 6185, Olympia, Washington 98507, (360)753-2686, info@freechild.org, for information about reprinting this publication and information about other publications.

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