Reach back in your memory, and try to recall what it was like for you in junior high. A few people seemed to have it all together – they were the in-crowd – and everyone wanted to be a part of that clique. For those who don’t make it into the “in-crowd,” middle school and high school can seem like an interminable hell. Old alliances shift. Your best friend from childhood has been accepted by the in-crowd, but you weren’t… devastation. The boy you like rejects you in front of your friends… humiliation. Then there’s the raging hormones and physical changes that come with puberty – all out on display for your peers, because for the first time in your life you have to change and shower in front of your classmates. You’re embarrassed if you’re not yet developed; you’re embarrassed if you’re a little too developed. Sometimes your body betrays you. Your relationships change. Your parents treat you differently. There’s terrible pressure to fit-in.
A neighbor whose smart, exuberant, athletic, confident daughter recently started middle school confided to me recently that her daughter now cries herself to sleep most nights. Such are the social pressures imposed on adolescents.
Middle school demands conformity. Developmentally it’s when children are starting to develop a sense of their own identity, separate from their parents. But in establishing their own identity, they are often looking for social cues from their peers about what to think, how to act, what to wear.
But where are those social cues originating from? Who decides what music is “cool,” which celebrities are worth of our attention and adoration, which clothes we should be wearing? Who creates the illusion of cool that so many children spend their adolescent years pursuing, and what does it get them in the end?
Several years ago, PBS aired a Frontline documentary called “Merchants of Cool” that lifted the cover on how major corporations closely monitor youth culture not so that it can give youth more of what they want, but to manipulate them into buying what they have to sell. What marketers tell us is “youth culture,” is not truly an outgrowth of what teens want or need or desire, but what marketers have determined will push the right buttons, and what’s being pushed back at them is crude, violent, antisocial, and highly sexualized. But this is what impressionable teens are being told they want.
The documentarian, Douglas Rushkoff describes it as one enclosed feedback loop. “Therein lies the danger of today’s teen-driven economy…teenagers increasingly look to the media to provide them with a ready-made identity predicated on today’s version of what’s cool. Rather than empowering youngsters, the incessant focus on their wants and desires leaves them adrift in a sea of conflicting marketing messages.”
New research suggests that this relentless pursuit of cool is a dead-end street. A recent study published in the journal of Child development followed the risk-taking, socially precocious “cool kids” for a decade and found that their pseudomature behavior in their youth led to problems in early adulthood, ranging from difficulties with intimate relationships to criminal activity. Pseudomature behavior also turns out to be a strong predictor of future drug and alcohol use.
It’s easier to grasp how foolish it is to pursue “cool” when you’ve passed out of adolescence and have the blessed perspective of time. You come to realize that the so-called “outcasts” and “losers” grew-up to be some of the most interesting, accomplished people, who do the most amazing things with their lives. But that’s difficult to explain to a middle-schooler who is still living through the experience.
As parents, though, we can help to mitigate the relentless marketing pressure somewhat by helping our teens to understand how manipulative the media messages they are consuming are.
Many of the girls they see on screen are highly sexualized and deliberately provocative. Ask your teen if the girls they see on screen are like the girls they know in real life? Why or why not? Do the girls on screen seem one-dimensional? What do you know about the character other than the adult sexuality she projects? What kind of attention would that invite in real-life, and is that the kind of attention you would want? Why or why not? When you see girls who dress provocatively in the real world, do they project confidence or insecurity?
Likewise, most of the boys shown on screen are immature, aggressive, and unintelligent. Ask your teen if they feel this is a fair representation of the boys they know in real life. Would they want to be viewed that way? Would they want to around someone who acts like that in the real world? If a person acts like that in the real world, what would the likely consequences be? Would they be taken seriously? What would be their prospects for getting into college? Getting a job? Are there any consequences for this behavior on screen? How realistic are they?
When your teen expresses interest in a particular performer, ask them what they find appealing about that performer. Ask them to explain, in their own words, what that performer’s songs are about. Suggest performers whose music touches on the similar themes but in a less aggressive or less sexualized way. Encourage them to expand their horizons and find something to appreciate in all genres of music.
And beyond encouraging teens to talk about their choices, limiting their exposure to media influences is especially important in those teen years. More than 75% of American teens have television sets in their bedrooms. And many will end up watching programs they know their parents would disapprove of when they are watching television unsupervised. Get the TVs out of the rooms, and you will have gone a long way toward conquering the cool mystique.