If you go to Google News and search for "teens," "teenager" or any variation thereof, a slew of headlines like these will pop up:
Teen Details Massacre Plot, Reveres Columbine Killer
Helena Teen Gets Suspended Sentence for Bomb Threats
Deputies: Teen Robbers Hurt in High-Speed Chase
Teen Neighbor Charged With Stabbing Hoarders in Olney Home
4 Teens, Adult Charged in Indian Trail Home Invasion
Florida Teenager Allegedly Murdered Grandmother
Teen Smoking Down, Synthetic Drugs Up
Mayville Teen Arrested for Hosting Underage Drinking Party
Teen Arrested for Underage Drinking, Assaulting Officer
Drugs, Heat and Alcohol Send Boston Concertgoers to the Hospital
Five Teenagers Charged With Murder in Woodbury Drug Overdose
Sutton Teen Admitted Possessing Drugs and a Knife in a Public Place
The negative news focused around teenagers drastically outweighs any positive news about them. In fact, out of this recent search, guess how many teens were in the public eye for something unrelated to crime, violence, arrest, death or other trouble? Two.
Now I'm sure if I dug deeper and checked other teen-specific and good news sites, more would have popped up because positive stories about America's teens do exist -- they are just, unfortunately, overshadowed by the ones that paint our youth to be violent, drug-addicted, alcohol-drinking delinquents. Sure, some are. But a lot aren't.
And that's the point. Teenagers are often singled out in the media to further create this dramatic, sensationalized stereotype that just, frankly, is not accurate. Our teens know this and feel this too.
According to a recent poll of more than 1,000 young people by the think tank Demos, four-fifths of 14- to 17-year-olds feel their age group is unfairly represented in the media. In addition, 85 percent believe these negative stereotypes affect their ability to get a job (and aren't we, as adults, always telling them to do just that?). Kind of ironic that the reason they can't find employment is oftentimes because of the way we have allowed society to portray them.
As 17-year-old Jacob Conley, from Jacksonville, Fla. said, "I think a lot of teens are discredited. I've been through things most adults haven't been through. Adults think right away, 'Oh, that's just a teen; they don't know any better.' They don't even give us the chance. Maybe they've forgotten that Bill Gates wrote his first program at age 13, and Joan of Arc was a young teen when she led the country of France. Adults are just too quick to judge. Sometimes I feel like they are on this real high pedestal looking down on us."
Fellow student, 16-year-old Michael Leathers agreed as he talked about the way he felt while shopping one day. "People just kept staring at us like we were doing something wrong." He went on to say, "Teenagers are judged based on how you look versus what you have to say. Adults look at me like I'm some crazy person -- not who I really am on the inside."
"They just assume teens are irresponsible," added Jacksonville high school student, Will Frketic. "I know several adults who had kids when they were a teen and raised them by themselves. As soon as they grow up they forget that they were once teens too."
The media exacerbates this cycle by broadcasting shockingly negative stories. Not to say that there aren't teens who are breaking the law, but it must be kept in perspective. Consider this: There are roughly 7,500 youths in adult prisons or jail and 96,000 in the juvenile justice system. That's only .25 percent. So does that mean one-quarter of one percent of our teenage population deserves 95 percent of the media attention about them?
Every day headlines declare their drug use, drinking, gang activity, violent acts and otherwise out-of-control, irresponsible, appalling behavior -- like they're all Justin Bieber-esque. Or worse. MSNBC even recently aired a segment entitled "Caught on Camera: Teens Gone Wild." While what was caught on camera was despicable, was it really necessary to air that?
We are in the midst of a culture that relies on shock TV for entertainment, and teens are caught in the middle. The media is "using" these kids to further their own agenda and their own bank account without any regard to the impact on them personally and as a generation. They are a target, the media's prey.
Just this past week, CNN posted a story about a teen plotting a school massacre who was arrested and said, "I think I'm really mentally ill." Not only did CNN exploit this 17-year-old who could quite possibly be mentally ill (not that planning a crime like this is excusable), but they went on to state his name in the article -- something that lacks complete journalistic integrity -- simply because everyone else was doing it, they said. "CNN does not usually publish the names of minors charged with crimes but is naming (him) in this case because his name has been widely reported in his community."
Sure teens can get into trouble all on their own without the media's judgmental eye. And not that some of their crimes aren't reprehensible. Because they are. And not that they don't need a suitable punishment (or better yet, rehabilitation). Because they do. But is it really necessary to consistently focus on that less than one percent? Are we as a nation that starved for entertainment that we have to exploit an entire generation of young people?
So here's an idea: Instead of focusing on the respectively small number of teens gone terribly wrong, how about focusing on the millions of others? The ones who are honest and hard-working? The ones who have overcome -- or are currently dealing with -- substantial obstacles in their lives (sometimes things we can't even imagine). The ones who are just everyday average American kids who love loud music, rowdy friends and greasy pizza on a Saturday night? The ones who are good-natured, like to help others, try hard and care about their futures. The ones who are silly, goofy and laugh at the simple things in life. The ones who have great aspirations and idealist views about the world. Trust me, they exist. If we're truly going to raise a stronger next generation, we have to change our view of teenagers. And that starts, largely, with the way the media portrays them.
The answer may not be that simple. Or maybe it is. But one thing is for sure: We're not doing teenagers -- the future leaders of our world -- any favors by continuing to perpetuate this negative stereotype. Let's not give them any reason to further judge themselves. Because, in the end, that could very well backfire.
Added 17-year-old Frketic, "If they're going to look at me this way, then I might as well act like it. What's the point."