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Education & Development

Youth in The Spotlight

Updated Tuesday, 27th March 2018

The world changes, but the disdain the older generation shows for the next is something of a constant...

Young people have always provoked strong feelings in adults - often feelings of outrage or disapproval. In 20BC, the Roman poet Horace lamented the moral decline of youth: this generation is worse than their fathers, he said; and their fathers were worse than their grandfathers. "Kids today" have always been viewed with suspicion by the older generation.

But just as they often provoke fear, they also provoke fascination. Young people are constantly in the news. On the one hand, they are seen as vulnerable - needing protection from danger, suffering from mental health problems, easily exploited. On the other hand, they are seen as threatening - forming dangerous gangs, taking over space, causing crime. At the same time, fictional representations of young people are wildly popular, not just aimed at the young, but at all ages.

This material often says more much about adults - what they fear and desire - than it does about young people's real lives. But it affects young people's day-to-day experiences and their perspectives on themselves, as well. 

Out of place

Young people stand in front of a skatepark full of graffiti. Creative commons image Icon Garry Knight - Flickr. under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license Young people on the streets are often considered a problem. While younger children have some spaces dedicated to them – like playgrounds - and tend to spend more time near home, young people looking for places to socialise must often make spaces of their own. But they are unwelcome in many adult spaces - explicitly excluded from some (like pubs), and without the income to enjoy others.  

So they colonise places that are not made for them, spending time in parks, on street corners, in shopping centres. But they are often unwelcome there, too. Think, for instance, of shops that allow only two schoolchildren in at one time, or places forbidding people wearing hoodies from entering. In recent years, more and more space has become privately owned, rather than public, so yet more spaces have become inaccessible for young people. Groups of teenagers in public are often seen as a threat by adults – their presence itself is seen as “causing trouble”. Sociologists and geographers have said these attitudes are like seeing young people as “weeds” – growing in the wrong place, needing to be uprooted. This hostility has sometimes been written into law – like with ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders), which can criminalise non-criminal activity and are often targeted at young people.

The burden of being out of place often weighs more heavily on poorer young people, less likely to have space at home to see friends, or organised leisure activities their parents can pay for. 

Mods and moral panics

A photograph of two early-1960s mods on a customised scooter Creative commons image Icon Sergio Calleja under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license In the 1960s, two conflicting youth subcultures came to blows. The rockers were bikers; they rode motorcycles, wore leather, drank and smoked cigarettes. The mods rode scooters, were sharply dressed, cleancut, and took pills. One bank holiday weekend in 1964, large groups of mods came to popular holiday resort towns on the south coast, to find rockers who had had the same idea. Fighting broke out between the groups, and there was general disorder over two days. Of thousands of young people involved, two were taken to hospital. Afterwards, four young men were jailed, and 36 given fines.

The media coverage was widespread and hysterical, with front-page headlines like "Battle of Brighton". Young people were denounced as "vermin", "louts" and even "internal enemies". These "battles" were used by the sociologist Stan Cohen in his discussion of "moral panics"- which happen when a person, or group of people, become defined as a thread to societal values. He argued that, although there had certainly been clashes between mods and rockers, the severity of the violence was exaggerated, and the media and societal response was disproportionate. More than that, he pointed out that the media had helped to create the battles on the south coast. By widely reporting the clashes, they invited more mods and rockers to travel from further afield to join the action.

Through the reporting, the mods and rockers were viewed as moral threats to the very fabric of society. They became "folk devils" - larger-than-life targets of hostility, absorbing the social anxieties of the age. Even small clashes between mods and rockers were played up by the media for many years. They represented a fear of the new, and the young, and changes in society. Moral panics like this one have been common - and it is very often young people who become the "folk devils". 

Schools in fact and fiction

The experience of schooling exerts a powerful influence over many of us. We remember our years in school as life-changing: whether good or bad, a time when we changed as people and forged our identities. As well as education, school also acts as a restrictive, total social environment. As a compulsory experience, it is almost impossible to escape; young people are trapped with their peers for several hours every day. This sometimes oppressive situation has become even more complete with the spread of social media: even at home, peers from school cannot be broken away from.

Films and TV programmes have long capitalised on this strange environment as a setting. High school films often play up the social hierarchies and jostling for status, focussing on conflicts between different "tribes" of young people. The archetypal high school films come from the USA; of course, an exaggerated and stylised picture. But this mythical US high school culture has spread, in some ways, to the UK, as with the proliferation of increasingly elaborate proms as end of school dances.

In factual reporting, newspapers and TV news report widely every year on national exam results, reflecting and reinforcing the government's spotlight on testing and standards. Most years, when students gain higher results than the previous year, there is widespread speculation that standards are falling. At the same time, spectacular examples of success are highlighted: triplets all accepted to Oxford, 11-year-olds receiving GCSEs. Newspapers seek out attractive young women celebrating their results to such an extent that opinion pieces mock the cynicism of this practice (sometimes in the same newspapers). 

Migration and displacement

Image of the wall outside Yarl's Wood with protest graffiti all over it, and two young people sit outside. Creative commons image Icon Darren Johnson - Flickr under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license The human crisis of forced migration is one of the greatest political and social issues of our time. Newspapers as well as politicians decry the impact of what is seen as excessive immigration on the country, despite evidence indicating that immigration has an overall positive effect on the economy. Europe seeks to keep refugees out, but this is almost impossible to do without leaving them to die.

Sometimes, though, newspapers find sympathy for the very young: children displaced from their homes by war and forced to endure dangerous journeys, sometimes dying on the way. Once they grow a little older, young people are less likely to garner sympathy. They are often viewed with suspicion, and border agencies spend a great deal of time trying to assess the age of unaccompanied minors. Children (those aged under 18) are given more protection under international law, so the authorities assess the age of young people based on their "appearance" and "demeanour".

Those who are deemed to be over 18 will lose the support and advice provided to child refugees. Those whose claims for asylum are rejected can be detained indefinitely in immigration removal centres, while the authorities try to deport them - but may not be able to. Sometimes this is because the situation in the countries of origin is too dangerous, sometimes because the country will not agree to take back those who have left. Children and young people are also detained with their families, if they have arrived together. Conditions in these centres are often poor, with complaints of sexual abuse, fights, and inmates working for extremely low or no wages. 

Making media

Brendan Jordan posing with the words Drag Queen next to him - taken from YouTube. Creative commons image Icon Brendan Jordan under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license Traditional media often profits from young people without their involvement: adults write stories about them, which young people may or may not find to be good reflections of their own lives. But the internet and social media have brought new opportunities for young people to create and share their own material with the world.

One way young people interact with traditional media is through fandom: not just watching TV programmes or films, but writing stories based in their worlds, or creating short fan films. This can involve exploration of themes or relationships that the original media will not cover.

In the last few years, YouTube has seen an explosion of "personalities" become famous through video blogging, or vlogging. Many of these personalities are teenagers; they often broadcast from their homes, using a webcam, and can gather millions of fans. Their videos cover all kinds of topics - make-up tutorials, video games, social justice.

Their fans are almost all young. Research has indicated that they are now more influential than "traditional" celebrities, like actors or musicians: young people see them as closer to their own lives, fostering a more intimate connection. Some have made considerable amounts of money, through brand endorsements or book deals - although this can be a double-edged sword, as they move further away from the relatable status they were. YouTube celebrities' appeal and popularity is often baffling to adults - as youth culture through history has often been - but young people say they appreciate a more honest, direct relationship with people they see as ordinary.  

Changing the world

Malala Yousafzai Creative commons image Icon DFID - UK Department for International Development under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license We often hear that young people (particularly in Britain) are apathetic - that they don't care about politics, or the bigger issues. And it's true to say that young people vote less, and often feel alienated from traditional politics. But many young people are deeply engaged in different ways.

18-year-old Malala Yousafzai has been campaigning for girls' education since before the age of 12, when she started speaking out against the influence of the Taliban in her region of Pakistan. Her father was an educational activist - young people's political activism isn't just rebellion against their parents. She received death threats for her views, but continued to speak out. In 2012, she was shot in the head while travelling home from school, as punishment for her activism. She eventually recovered from the attack, but remained in a critical condition for some time.

Since then, she has spoken at the UN, written a memoir, opened a school for Syrian refugee girls, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. The attack against her was condemned in Pakistan, but the Taliban continue to view her as a legitimate target.  

Malala's work is a particularly spectacular example of young people's political activism, and bravery in the face of repression. But she is not alone - young women and men across the world fight for issues they believe in. In Britain, for instance, there has been a resurgence of teen feminism, with girls speaking out against sexual harassment in schools and other issues. They have harnessed the power of social media to broadcast their message beyond their communities and make connections with like-minded people - fighting for a safe and positive educational environment for everyone. 




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