Learning About Teens Across Formats in the Digital Age

Understanding behaviors and needs of teens across several media types can be enhanced by learning from documentaries, scholarly discussions, and interviews.  Subsequently, librarians can better serve teens, and can become partners in discovery rather than “gatekeepers” (Martens, 2011, p. 51).

Two documentaries, published thirteen years apart, demonstrate that technology is evolving, that teens are targets of marketing, and that teens may not be aware of their involvement in a carefully crafted “feedback loop” which gathers data, designs marketing strategies, and yields profits (Goodman, Dretzin, & Rushkoff, 2001).  Many teens have access to money and enjoy being part of the loop, whether they are aware or not.  Bombardment with commercial messages keeps them involved with media and products.  Corporations continue to commodify teens, especially girls ( Martens, 2011, p. 50).

In Frontline: The Merchants of Cool (Goodman, Dretzin, & Rushkoff, 2001), Douglas Rushkoff reports that teens are big spenders and corporations know this.  Corporate “culture spies” (e.g., correspondents) find out what is “cool,” and corporations use technology, film, music, and books to market products to teens.  The documentary emphasizes that corporations tap into teen rebelliousness, interest in sex, resistance toward mainstream culture, and thrill-seeking in order to sell to teens.

Frontline: Generation Like (Goodman, Dretzin, & Rushkoff, 2014), provides an update on technology, corporations, and teens.  Teens are highly involved in online activities (Goodman et al., 2014; Latham & Gross, 2014, p. 55) and share popular culture with increasing speed and ease.  Corporations continue to reap profits by targeting and engaging teens.  There is also a new factor in the mix: “social currency” (Goodman et al., 2014).  Through social media, teens are rewarded online with social contact, measurable validation, and exposure to growing audiences.  There is, however, a “man behind the curtain,” and teens are working for him for free (Goodman et al., 2014; Martens, 2011, p. 55).  With keystrokes, clicks, and yearnings for praise and distinction (Goodman et al., 2014), teens create data for analysis and marketing design, and they expose countless others to commercial products.  When they contribute content, they add ideas that benefit online entities and the commercial interests behind them (Martens, 2011, p. 59).

The commercial activities of online entities and the lure of social environments may place teens at risk for privacy invasion, misuse of identity, and involvement with malintent.  Most teens are not concerned about online safety (Pieters & Krupin, as found in Latham & Gross, 2014, p. 67), and teen interviews can demonstrate acceptance of the online world as trustworthy.  They may feel empowered by receiving and sharing information; they trust brands as if they were friends (Goodman et al., 2014); and it is unlikely that they recognize exploitation or commodification (Martens, 2011, pp. 49-50).

Recent teen interviews (summarized in Quinn, A., 2014, September 28) confirm that technology and media are givens in their lives, and that they are aware of popular culture via formats including online media.  They may search for reading materials online, but they make decisions about accessing materials across several media.  Teens enjoy validation (e.g., identification with characters), and they are interested in storylines which provide escape and include rebellion, sex, and resisting convention.  Behaviors and needs of teens who like to read, however, are not fully involved in technology.  They have ‘non-tech’ reading models, and they talk about what they read with friends and family.  Vivid facial and verbal expressions communicate involvement and enthusiasm that cannot be conveyed with the use of keystrokes, clicks, emoticons, or “likes.”


Goodman, B. (Producer), Dretzin, R. (Producer and Writer), & Rushkoff, D. (Consulting Producer and Correspondent). (2014). Frontline: Generation Like [Documentary]. Boston, MA: WGBH Educational Foundation.  Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/generation-like/

Goodman, B. (Producer), Dretzin, R. (Producer and Writer), & Rushkoff, D. (Correspondent). (2001). Frontline: The merchants of cool [Documentary]. Boston, MA: WGBH Educational Foundation.  Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/view/

Latham, D., & Gross, M. (2014). Young adult resources today: Connecting teens with books, music, games, movies, and more. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Martens, M. (2011). Transmedia teens: Affect, immaterial labor, and user-generated content. The international journal of research into new media technologies, 21, 49-68. doi: 10.1177/1354856510383363

Quinn, A. (2014, September 28). Young adult reading interests: Going to the source. QUINNLOOK [Academic blog].  Accessible at quinnlook.wordpress.com

6 thoughts on “Learning About Teens Across Formats in the Digital Age

  1. That was my concern when I was watching Generation Like. I saw so many teens being so open when they were making videos for YouTube or posting a comment,or a picture on Facebook. I kept asking where are the parents? Why are they not monitoring them? Anything they put out there is going to be out there for everyone to see.


  2. And, the big corporations are sure to know about the online behaviors of teens. Adults can empower teens to advocate for themselves regarding online safety, and sometimes teens benefit from our help. One way librarians can help is to function as role models when we share our online searching tools with teens.


  3. Totally agree with your comment Lisa. I recently read an article about teens and their nude photos being hacked, much like celebrities. There seems to be some type of invincible feeling that they may not realize or care about privacy. I was also a little disturbed by the amount of time the girl in the one video spent earning points for the Hunger Games. It’s great that she’s so enthusiastic but it seemed bordering on an unhealthy obsession. I wonder how it affects her school work and social life?


  4. Online behaviors of teens can be influenced by brain development, which in teens can result in different attitudes towards risk-taking than adults might have. Even if teens are aware of privacy issues, they truly might not care because the risks are not real issues for them.

    I believe that young adult librarians care about the well-being of teens they serve, and on a personal level, it is disturbing to know that teens are making certain decisions. And so, it’s important that we librarians are well-educated and aware of the many issues involved in online activities. This way, we can provide teens with broad and current information about how online systems work, and what happens to information that is stored and shared electronically. Knowledge is power, including the power to make healthy decisions.


  5. I appreciate your point that “teens are targets of marketing, and that teens may not be aware of their involvement…” The word “target” brings me to the idea of hunters trying to kill something – and I think this is what the marketers are doing – killing individuality. Teens are so consumed with fitting in and being cool that they will spend their money (I’m not sure why the documentaries stated “disposable income”…) to make sure they are. On the other hand – there are those that are trying to step away from the popular, but marketers are hunting them too – to find the next cool thing. Although they don’t realize it, these teens are being manipulated and social media is allowing this to be done with ease.


  6. Thanks, librarylady2015, for your analogies! It would be great if “social media” could be renamed as “social/commercial media”! And, given that social media are here to stay and widely used, how do we facilitate the use of this format for the benefits it offers to teens? This question is related to any activity that supports the development of self-esteem and critical thinking. I believe that a “partnership” between librarians and educators can provide teens with a wide variety of materials and opportunities to discuss content that can help teens explore ideas and learn to make their own decisions . . . fighting the commercial forces (and social forces as well) that aim to manipulate them.


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