For all of you out there decrying the trivialization of society, the rising cult of national ignorance, and the obsession of the American public with gossip — I am the enemy. That’s right: I am an American teenager, one of those alien creatures who could text before they could talk and think 150 characters is sufficient to capture the entire range of human experience. The funny thing is, though, that most American teenagers don’t think we’re the problem. We think the problem is you.
Yes, most teenagers are criticized as superficial, self-centered, and easily distractible. But we’re not the only ones with those qualities. American culture has begun to increasingly resemble the culture I see every day in my high school’s cafeteria – gossip-centered, sex-obsessed, judgmental, and interested only in the titillating and the immediate. More and more I am reminded, eerily, of sixth grade, when Rachel Birnbaum got all the kids in the recess yard to circle around Ben Moscowitz and call him a pee-head. In other words, in the past few years, adults have behaved, well, like teenagers.
Consider the massive public outcry and spectacle when Congressman Anthony Weiner in May of 2010 texted photos of himself in his underwear – a cultural phenomenon that started a few years ago with high school kids. Consider also the huge amount of media attention lavished on teen mom Bristol Palin. Or the much-publicized webpage connecting republican hopeful Rick Santorum’s name with a problematical sex act. As Bill Maher once said, “The only politics we understand is scandal, and the only scandal we understand is sex.” And adults, like any hormonal teenager, seem to be obsessed with sex. They invite celebrity cheaters and mistresses onto talk shows along with pundits and politicians, and constantly speculate which celebrity might be flaunting a new surgery, hiding a sexual orientation, or having an affair with one of George Clooney’s ex-girlfriends. Even the celebrities that adult media is obsessed with are teenager-like — they pay inordinate amounts of attention to class show-offs, bad girls, and clowns – those who act out and break the rules. Consider the media focus on Lindsay Lohan. Or Kim Kardashian. Grown-up conversation has become like an eighth-grade sleepover — everything is tinged with the sweetness of embarrassing scandal and the thrill of gossip, of snappy, shared judgments into the lives of the popular kids. Why else was one of the most referenced political story of the year the tale of Mitt Romney putting his Irish setter Seamus in a carrier on top of his station wagon for a 12 hour trip, during which poor Seamus pooped?
But why is this happening? Why are grown-ups acting like teens? It could simply be another case of older people co-opting ideas from the young. They took teens’ music and Nehru jackets in the sixties, and they could be doing it again. It would explain the adult fascination with text and email acronyms, which they decode with the exhilarated discovery of a linguist unveiling the Rosetta Stone.
Maybe, but I think something else is the cause. Social media — the internet, the blogosphere, the Twitterverse, and that utterly absorbing titan of internet-based human connection, Facebook, has changed how all of us relate to the outside world. – and not necessarily for the better. Social media de-contextualizes life, and this stripping away of context replicates teen experience.
Teenagers don’t have context because we just don’t know that much — we’re impulsive, short-sighted, and obsessed with our status in relation to other teens who inhabit our closed little universes. Similarly, social media strips out context because of its instant and bite-sized nature — there’s no space for two sides of an issue in a Tweet or Facebook message. Writers of incendiary blog comments tend not to strive for a balanced perspective in their hurriedly-typed passion. And texting drops not only letters from its words, but meaning from its sentences.
When teens act like teens, it can hurt them personally; when adults act that way, it’s bad for the nation. It’s hard for constructive thought or debate to arise from a national conversation when that conversation is about J-Lo. And hot topics aside, social media leaves stuff out. For example: both political parties, aided by the media, reductively frame the economic debate as tax the rich vs. empower the job creators — leaving out the complicated context of globalization and structural unemployment. As for us reality-estranged teenagers, our connection to the grown-up world is limited to repurposed aggregates of news stories, blizzards of trivia. When we as a nation culturally categorize Rihanna as more important and immediate than, say, the crisis of the euro, we severely limit the scope of our world-view. And, most disturbingly — if today’s adults are acting like teens, who knows how today’s teens are going to act when they’re adults? Although I’d like to think of myself as different, just yesterday, as I was foraging around on a popular news site, I was presented with a banner that read “Most Popular News Stories”, one of which was titled “Man with 100-Pound Testicle Refuses Surgery”. Needless to say, I clicked on it.
Mack Muldofsky, Age 16, Grade 11, The Dalton School, Gold Key