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Youth Slaves

Scapegoating kids doesn't work--never has

By Annalee Newitz

SO I'M PLUGGED into my portable CD player, reading The Industry Standard and sitting on a San Francisco bus, heading down Geary to Fillmore. It's a typical multitasking moment until the batteries die on my stupid Sony and I'm forced to listen to everybody's conversations.

Two rows ahead of me, four high school girls are giggling and talking and clearly ditching school. "Let's go to the Castro!" one of them says, toying with a highlighter marker that turns into a pot pipe. Another one laughs and draws on her backpack, chatting a mile a minute about "that chick" and "some guy" and "those girls." The sky is a hot blue and the day is beautiful: I start dreaming about my own days ditching school with my girlfriends and wandering around the suburban mallscape with stars in our eyes. It was like dropping off the radar and becoming fugitives for a day--glorious, exhilarating, innocent rebellion.

Suddenly my reverie is rudely interrupted by a twentysomething alterna-chick, who stands up abruptly and looms over the girls, shouting, "Hey, you shouldn't ditch! I used to think I was tough like you, and I ditched school and now I have tracks on my arms and AIDS!" I start rolling my eyes. Great--so she was an idiot when she was a teenager, and now these innocent ditchers with their tiny pot pipe have to suffer for it.

"Hey, we're not you," says the toughest-looking gal, "We're not stupid!"

"You're going to miss a lot by not being in school! Education is really important, and you shouldn't ditch!" yells their self-appointed moral authority again. I'm starting to wonder if I'm on some new Republican candid camera show.

A hippie guy turns to the seething alterna-chick and says consolingly, "They're not going to listen to you, ya know." A young woman who looks like a raver chimes in, "Hey, the San Francisco school district doesn't give a shit about them, so why should they care? It's only the third week of school, and they're not missing anything anyway. Let them take it on their own heads."

"Why is she messing with us?" mumbles the tough gal to her friends. "We're not saying anything to her."

I'm wondering the same thing. It reminds me of how grown-ups try to "manage" kids online, with stupid crap like the Child Online Protection Act, grotesque propaganda sites such as www.theantidrug.com, and porn filters.

Then there are the "benevolent" teen management tools on the web, like www.teen.com (a youth portal aimed at getting kids to start buying the "right" deodorant or car or whatever as soon as possible), or www.ecrush.com, which for all its flirtatiousness seems like it's aimed at keeping girls' sexual desires framed and contained by the fleshless safety of electronic communication.

Online, teens are yet another target market, ripe for control by corporate or ideological advertisers. Offline, they're just a target, especially on this bus ride, where four boisterous rebels probably ended up feeling needlessly crappy and learning nothing from it.

What is it about youth that makes adults feel so proprietary? Given that our culture is obsessed with the beauty of teens, and our current economy revolves around the tastes of a youthful "Internet generation," it seems to me that the problem is intergenerational jealousy. Adults will use any form of restraint--school, Internet regulation, advertising, even raised voices--to keep their young cohorts from feeling too smart or seductive or self-confident or free. Because we cannot start our own lives over again, we covet the not-yet-lived experiences of teens.

I'm not saying that young people and teenagers don't need education and guidance. Absolutely they do. But so do adults. And as long as we continue to scapegoat teens as either naughty or potentially naughty, adults demonstrate that they've learned nothing at all about the dangers of what you might call pre-emptive imprisonment. Restraining someone because you worry about their potential behavior will result in nothing but an excess of barriers and defenses--a shutting down of the curiosity that education and free information are supposed to inspire.

The last snotty comment that our angry adult on the bus hurls at the now-grumbling teenagers is, "You don't scare me! You're just little girls!"

I don't know. She sounds pretty scared to me.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who used to ditch high school and now has a Ph.D. and a great job and can be reached at ([email protected]).

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From the September 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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