Perhaps it's fitting that this blog entry on teens begins with an SAT word (on the creators' worst days): Ephebiphobia.
"Fear of teens."
It's likely that you don't suffer from this real phobia - and it's also highly unlikely that you know someone who does. Anthropologists and psychologists often discuss Ephebiphobia as a social ill versus an individual malady. Many assert that society has it out for teens...But in a world that caters to kids and treats tweens and teens as valued consumers, is this still the case?
If you happen to receive Google Alerts for anything "teen," you would probably say yes. On a given day, I receive 6 to 10 emails with a list of headlines from blogs, sites, and minor and major newspapers across the country that talk about teens. My last update featured 28 such headlines. Here's what the headlines included:
• 1 on teen prostitution
• 5 on teens being attacked or assaulted or killed
• 1 on teen suicide
• 6 on teens being sexually harassed or harassing others
• 7 on teens charged with crimes
• 1 on an injured teen
• 4 on legislation or programs to prevent risky teen behaviors
• 1 on teens turning a concert (see Bieber Fever) into a mob scene
• 1 on American Idol
• And we can't ignore the one post on Molly Ringwald.
Just look at the Wordle for this email I received from Google Alerts to get a clear picture of what's going on...
It seems clear to us that these academics are on to something. Most of the news out there seems to involve teens at risk, taking risks and putting others at risk.
Why is this? Well, let's be honest...Teens do engage in risky behavior. And we know that the part of their brain in charge of rational decision-making is underdeveloped - even into the late teen years. And the unfortunate thing is that many teens are at risk. Their growing independence makes them feel like they are powerful and in control, but often, they are not as much as they might think.
And teens can be a little intimidating. They seem to speak a different language than adults - if they bother to speak to us at all. They travel in packs and can take over and transform a social space by their mere presence. They have a developmental imperative to test (and sometimes break) the rules...So that means they sometimes disregard ours. And their ability to eagerly adopt the latest trends only to discard them a short time later reminds us how far behind we sometimes are. And no matter how much you know about youth culture, you might still get anxious about shopping for your favorite teen's birthday present. (I do.)
But when we talk to teens, we see and hear a very different story of their lives - and one that seems to be told less frequently. The teens we talk to take risks and sometimes use poor judgment. They worry about their future (with teens becoming increasingly less optimistic). But they are also increasingly involved and interested in volunteering. They laugh at shows that we understand - like Family Guy. And they frequently cite parents as the people they admire most.
Most importantly, most teens we talk to are looking to be understood as individuals, and not to be seen as a group to be feared. Even the most angst-ridden teen will admit that they wouldn't mind some positive acknowledgment from the adult world. And for brands, showing the sunnier side of teens is a risk worth taking.
What does that mean? Use your brand's social spaces to showcase teen altruism and inventiveness. Cast for your ads from the real (albeit aspirational) world of teens. Consider products that help teens make smart decisions rather than fuel the notion that they're not interested in taking care of themselves. And finally, create teen experience that feels productive, constructive and even exclusive, but not subversive.