The Performative Nature of Teens

| Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Photo by Summer Skyes 11
Today's Tune: I Will Wait

Often when talks of teenagers come up, particularly teenage girls, people feel the need to express just how dramatic and sensitive teenagers are. Everything is so monumental, so personal. They also like to go on and on about how kids these days demand so much attention and turn to things like social media and blogging to gain some sort of recognition for existing. Or something, I don't know.

Basically, in my mind, it boils down to people 1) forgetting what it was like to be a teenager, and 2) believing that adults as a whole have "grown out" of the craving for attention or "drama." To which I say lolololololol right.

I will admit that the nature of growing up in the quickly developing landscape of social media and the Internet is very interesting to me. My day job involves working closely with social media and figuring out how and why people respond to the things they do, so it's a very relevant topic in my life. Personally, I think social media is both fabulous and frustrating. Fabulous because it can create communities and give people access to information and support systems they'd have a lot of difficulty finding before, and frustrating because although it can connect so many wonderful people, it also gives voice to the multitude of craptastic, troll-y people who exist in the world.

And I feel like this ties directly into being a teenager in this world.

As those of us who work with and write for teens typically understand, experiences are such a very big deal because they're new. After you've reached adulthood and presumably had a number of life experiences under your belt, sometimes repeatedly, they've clearly lost their newness. But when they were brand new, they were a big deal. And because those experiences are so fresh, so raw, it makes you feel like you're alone. You're unique in a sea full of strangeness.

This powerful feeling of individualism can lead to wanting to express yourself, to becoming desperate to find a kindred spirit. You want to speak, and you want to be heard. Young people often feel ignored, by adults and their peers. So where better to turn than the Internet community, where you can reach out into the great blue something and have people find you, hear you, and respond to you?

It makes for a potent cocktail. As I mentioned, people often describe teens as "dramatic," as though they're performing their emotions for an audience. In reality, it's usually less about putting on a show and more about wanting to be heard and understood. When you turn to sites like Tumblr, you can find that in spades. Yes, teens (and adults, let's be honest) can find an audience there, and the inclination to "perform" for that audience can be high. That doesn't mean it's a bad thing. It's all part of the pain of growing into adulthood -- it helps you find a voice, a passion, maybe even a calling. It helps you feel appreciated and less alone. Teens who feel like outcasts in society (gay/lesbian teens, trans* teens, disabled teens, POC teens, etc.) can find incredible support systems that they might never have had years ago. That's pretty amazing.

Whenever I hear people my age (BECAUSE I'M SO OLD, GUYS) or older bitching about how "these kids" won't get off their damn phones or blogs and go outside once in a while, I kind of roll my eyes. They don't understand that this is where people (not just kids) are finding community these days. I've met some of my very best friends over the miracle that is the Internet. People that I'm incredibly close to and talk to on a daily basis. People who came to my wedding. But we leave miles and miles, sometimes countries, apart. We never would have found each other were it not for coming together in an online community, talking until someone found us and liked what we had to say, and connecting with each other.

So, yes, sometimes the actions of teenagers can see over the top and melodramatic. Sometimes it feels like they're performing. But 1) this is not symptomatic of adolescence alone, and 2) so what? Maybe it's more important to understand why this is what's connecting with them.

What do you think, readers? How do you feel about teenagers, social media, and the Internet at large?


{ Mrs. Silverstein } at: November 14, 2012 at 6:30 AM said...

I think a symptom of the new-ness you describe, too, is a very real concern that whatever is happening--good, bad, or otherwise--might be what happens for the rest of their lives. When I was 16, I told my best friend that I was coping ok with the fact that I would clearly be single forever and die alone, because I had never had a boyfriend. And I remember absolutely meaning it. I realized that I had things I liked to do, and I figured, ok, I'll just build a meaningful life around those, no problem. Three years later I met my husband. But at that moment, as a sixteen year old? It felt SO CERTAIN and I really did not think I was being the LEAST bit dramatic. Frankly, I thought I was very calm about the whole thing! It's a matter of perspective. Adults are increasingly able to tell themselves ok, this will pass, I'll get through this, and they're much more likely to feel like they have the agency to change things about their lives. Teenagers are just moving into adulthood--where things are likely to have long-term consequences--but all they've experienced is childhood, where they often DIDN'T have the ability to control things, and which people have told them is vastly different from the "real world". So it's easy for them to assume, when something significant happens, that OK, this is it, this is my life now. It's a good assumption given the information they have; it just makes them seem loopy to adults sometimes.

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: November 14, 2012 at 5:44 PM said...

Interestingly, the four of us happened to talk about this (sort of) during our writing meeting today too. It started as talking about people posting about politics on FB/Twitter, and then people complaining about whatever in their lives, and then people just sharing "private" things publicly in general. And yeah, like you, we think it's more about connecting and finding community/support than it is about being (pardon our language) attention whores.

(Okay, there certainly ARE those folks too.)

You bring up a really good point, that adults don't necessarily outgrow the exhibitionist urge. But teens are more familiar with and entrenched in the social media world, so that's probably the main gap right now. Parents and grandparents don't get it, because they didn't grow up with it in the same way. But it's not so different from chatting at the water cooler, or gossiping at the local roller rink, or whatever.

{ marian rose } at: November 15, 2012 at 2:43 PM said...

As an educator working with teens I sooo appreciate your perspective on this. Generally I love participating in the newness and the discoveries that come up within the context of our relationships. I do struggle with some intense emotional reactions at times and this really gets me.

{ Sarah } at: November 23, 2012 at 6:55 PM said...

I am on Tumblr & mentioned the relationship drama of some teenagers to my husband, and he said something nice about teenagers. He said, "I sort of envy teenagers for really feeling as though there are still all sorts of possibilities out there and feeling as though the world ought to be fair."

Of course, really, relationships can be dramatic & maybe I just don't truly understand/remember the drama b/c I'm quite happy with my one relationship, so maybe I too was unfairly judging.

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