Now that I have forsaken the academy (just kidding!) and have copious amounts of commute time, I’ve been trying to read all of the books I punted on over the past 6 years. I just finished Donna Gaines’ Teenage Wasteland, an ethnography of the youth culture in the late 80’s that coincided with a number of suicides. In addition to descriptive biography and cultural criticism, Gaines’ book espouses young people as a cohesive social group, one with solidarity but not sovereignty. The book is largely focused on teenage suicide, a behavior increasing in prevalence over the 80’s. She concludes that this act comes from a state of oppression, not disenfranchisement:
In a now famous footnote in Suicide, written almost a hundred years ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim described fatalistic suicide as “the suicide deriving from excessive regulation, that of persons with futures pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline.” … Yet most experts attribute youth suicide to anomie—the opposit of fatalistic suicide in Durkheim’s thinking. In anomic suicide, the individual isn’t connected to the society—the glue that holds the person to the group isnn’t strong enough; social bonds are loose, weak or absent.
In other words, parents think that kids are detached from society and from themselves, when in fact they feel completely connected to each other, and disconnected from any concept of a future. This is not an area I know much about, but it seems that the parental view of “kids” or “teenagers” has been on a gradual decline since the baby boom. Take for instance Leave it to Beaver. In the light of today’s paranoid, parental propaganda, Beaver’s shenanigans would probably be interpreted as the actions of a conspiring gang instead of just some goofy kids. When Beaver got suck in the giant bowl of steaming soup, he was simply given a slap on the wrist, when today he would probably be arrested as a graffiti artist or culture jammer. Dude, it’s just the Beaver!
The book concludes with an afterward covering some cultural changes occurring during the 90’s, but it concludes long before the ubiquity of the internet. Gaines’ describes teenage fatalism as largely being associated with the geographic prison that many kids live in; she blames quite a bit of the “problem” on kids’ inability to get away from their home town. The internet has a huge impact on the concept of geography, giving people the ability to escape their immediate surroundings for other people and places.
The past few years have certainly seen a marked increase in youth adoption of internet communication tools; this has been the case since the onset of the web, and will probably be true for many years to come. We can assume that IM, blogs, Livejournal, MySpace, Friendster and the like are all helping support local relationships among kids, but to what extent are they allowing them to escape their hometown? When teenagers feel trapped, oppressed, and ultimately fatalistic, to what extent do they now turn to a kindred spirit somewhere far away? My guess is that today’s youth have even more solidarity than they have in the past, but it is certainly a topic that needs further exploration.
Any references to current research would be greatly appreciated.