OPINION5 March 2010

Manipulative teens

It is taken for granted these days that teenagers sling information around on the internet with complete abandon and disregard. “Look at me!” they cry.  “I have 517 Facebook friends!” I contend David Aaronovitch’s most recent view that: “As a teenager I told my parents absolutely nothing and the world little more.” Today’s generation, he claims, “seem unworried by their mother’s capacity to track them and their social lives through Facebook… until, of course, it goes wrong.” 

This, to some extent, is true: teenagers have been unworried about the limitless of social networking till their sins have been exploited. But though Aaronovitch may have been a quiet youth, the truths he chose to keep to himself were part of what youths today (and in the past) have strived to protect, which is their flawless image. 

Pretty much everything teens use the internet for is to create a particular self-image. Downloading illegal music and films: partly to preserve an image that follows trends, and partly a cost saver to invest in more hip pastimes such as going to gigs or the cinema. Creating profiles on social networking sites: to create and maintain an image which essentially becomes a kind of personal advertisement. 

While this image malarkey is in no way hot news, something which has recently added to it is the desire to make this image genuine. More teens than ever are aware of the implications of illegal downloading. 14% of youths who downloaded illegal music in the past have now made the active decision not to do so because they feel artists and record labels should be compensated. This is a significant increase from 2002 when only 5% of downloaders felt this way. Teens are now aware of some of the responsibility that comes with letting your information transmit freely across the internet. 

Obviously social networking has taken over from the Chinese whispers of the classroom – being caught out by your parents, or an angry girlfriend or boyfriend who monitors wall posts in the everyday melodrama of teen life is not unheard of, and youngsters know how to control their privacy in much more subtle ways than expected.  It’s not only about whittling down to perfection the “About me” section: it is about becoming a fan of only so many pages; allowing only certain people to post on your wall; or exposing more photos of a sort to divert away from others – the photo count on a Facebook profile is more valuable than one can imagine. 

The online world is no less a social space than a playground or classroom. All of the potential messiness of social interaction that exists offline emerges online as well, with the addition of new and distinct ethical challenges. This is the reason why something like Google Buzz will potentially never catch on with youth audiences, for several of the same reasons Matthew Robson announced Twitter never would. 

While the model of Google works incredibly well as a search engine – because it starts from a blank base and builds up according to user engagement – this is not something teens want to see. Google Buzz lays out for them clearly what they like, and what they want to see according to the regularity of their usage. Even though it’s a private medium, it’s representative of the power youths still want, in having the option to change what they want to be their “favourites” without any form of dictation. They want mediums which they can cleverly and easily manipulate. 

These mediums have always been there, and there is a yearning for them to remain, with their evolution from the front cover of school diaries and lunchboxes. Keeping the door open for manipulation, then, is a key way to engage young people: the nonchalance that has marked teenage online disclosure in the past appears to be nearing an end.

1 Comment

13 years ago

We in our childhood were quite innocent. The excuses which we used to throw up to manipulate our parents would seem laughable today. Internet itself offers quite many ideas, which can motivate the teens of today to manipulate things to their advantage(though in the long run it could be harmful to them.

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