They’re routinely dismissed as selfie-taking snowflakes, but teens can teach us grown-ups valuable life lessons, says novelist Keith Stuart.
Teenagers are trouble. Society has felt this way ever since the 1950s, when a potent combination of rock’n’roll, fashion and free time conjured them into existence. In my day (the 1980s), being a teenager meant hanging out at indie clubs or outside off-licences, getting drunk and snogging people – but only those who liked the same bands as you. These days, the cliché is that teenagers live through screens: they sit in darkened rooms glued to their phones and, when they do venture out, they’re selfie-obsessed.
When I set out to write my second novel, Days of Wonder, I knew one of the lead characters was going to be a 15-year-old girl with a serious heart condition. But it wasn’t writing about heart disease that worried me – it was the teenage stuff. How could I get inside the head of someone who belonged to Generation Swipe? We’re told they shy away from the world – they obsess over safe spaces and have been dismissed as snowflakes. So I met teenagers along with their parents and talked about their lives, partly for research and also to assuage my own fears: my eldest son is 12 and I was worried about what to expect. But it turns out things aren’t so bad out there…
They do leave their bedrooms and have fun IRL
OK, a few of the teenagers I spoke to (mostly boys) do spend a lot of time in their bedrooms playing on screens. I spent most of the late 80s lying on my bed listening to The Smiths and writing bad poetry; these days, teens are listening to Spotify playlists and sharing Snapchat stories. It’s about space and identity – your bedroom is where you figure out who you are and what you want. But most of the teens I met were also social and organised about meeting IRL (that’s ‘in real life’ to anyone over 55).
What I found fascinating is that their understanding of our home town (Frome in Somerset) and its surroundings is so different to mine. Without the money to sit in cafés and too young to go to pubs, they have a network of places that fulfil the same sorts of functions. One girl mentioned ‘a field we go to in summer’, another ‘the bandstand in the park. It’s not like we’re doing anything illicit, it’s just that we’re a large group and don’t want to disturb anyone’s parents.’
A lot of teenagers joined clubs – sports, drama, dancing, coding – specifically to build and maintain larger social groups; but they all had places around town, even if it was just a car park, where they knew they would find someone to chat with. In short, teenagers are resourceful about how they use the free places available to them.
As adults we tend to be very directed socially – we’ll make specific arrangements or we won’t go out. But it’s good to create a regular place (a café, a park) where you and your friends know you’re likely to bump into someone if you fancy a chat – the daytime equivalent of a local pub. Once in a while, try to meet somewhere that doesn’t require you to spend money – it forces you to be more imaginative and will probably involve getting to know your local area better.
They are their own mini therapy group
I learned how, far from being selfie-obsessed, teenagers are thoughtful and careful with their friends. One I spoke to talked about her social circle almost as if it were a therapy group. ‘Even with the guys we talk about everything,’ she told me. ‘We care about each other and want to know what’s going on’. Another girl told me she scrolls through Instagram only when she’s with her friends so they can reassure each other about body image after seeing hundreds of photos of perfect celebrities. I think that’s beautiful.
Teenagers have new ways to communicate with each other. One boy I spoke to is on his PlayStation for most of his free time, but he plays with three other friends and chats to them via the headset – they talk not just about the game, but about their lives and concerns. Another boy keeps a FaceTime chat open with his friend in the evenings, so he can talk to her while they’re doing homework or watching TV. These are valuable new ways of reaching out.
One of the best things you can do for your mental health is to maintain a group of supportive friends who you’re genuinely open with. Creating group chats with your friends via Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Snapchat is a way to keep in touch and support each other when you’re not together. Joining a book club is a good idea because it’s a safe place to talk about emotions without it feeling too personal.
They want you to be their parent, not their BFF
The line between childhood and adulthood is becoming blurred as many of us are continuing to party like students, post jokes on social media and generally mess about with our mates well into our 30s and beyond. I regularly walk round to my friend Simon’s house with a backpack full of video games, crisps and lager – and I’m 46. In some ways, this makes it easier to understand and talk to our children, but few teenagers want Edina from Absolutely Fabulous as a mum. Teens crave boundaries; they need to know you care enough to set curfews and worry about them. As one girl told me, ‘I want my parents to know where I am and what I’m doing. It’s about safety.’
At the same time, when I was talking to the parents of teens, they stressed that being a Victorian disciplinarian is no good either. ‘Teenagers need boundaries but they have to be flexible and logical,’ said food blogger Chris Mosler, who has two teenage children. ‘You can’t just say, “You’re living under my roof so you’ll do as I say.” We all have to respect who we’re living with.’ I found that teens are resourceful about pushing boundaries. One girl told me, ‘I wrote a formal letter to my dad asking to extend my wi-fi access to 9pm. He sent it back because I’d made some spelling mistakes, but he did agree in principle. Anyway, I managed to find the admin password and changed it myself.’
The teens I spoke to were all good at negotiating barriers – and I think this is a valuable skill. Understanding the rules, but being prepared to make someone explain them and be flexible and logical about them, is good practice however old you are.
They do actually read
We’re often led to believe that the reading and viewing habits of modern teenagers extend only as far as scanning through Snapchat messages and watching videos of kittens falling off furniture. One of the most reassuring things I discovered was that this isn’t the case. Pride and Prejudice, the Brontës, Philip Pullman, James Herriot and the poetry of Dylan Thomas all came up as favourites among the teens I spoke to.
They also recommended young adult (YA) novels to me – some of it is the most rewarding fiction I’ve read in years: big, honest stories about love, sexuality and mental health. There are fascinating YA sci-fi and fantasy writers – Patrick Ness, Amy Alward and Melissa Albert – who help readers navigate relationships, peer pressure and anxiety. One girl told me her favourite fantasy book series is Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas because, as the books progress, the central romantic relationship deteriorates in a realistic way. ‘It’s important to show that relationships aren’t perfect,’ she said.
Teens are good at finding content that they identify with, especially vloggers. One girl told me, ‘I really like Ash Hardell, who is non-binary. I watch a lot of LGBT content because I like guys and girls. It’s nice to see other people the same as me.’ Another girl watches François Truffaut films on YouTube to help with her French language, which is ridiculously cool.
Read YA fiction! Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green are great places to start. And learn how to use YouTube more wisely – whatever you’re into, there’s a channel for it. Try TED, Vox and Kurzgesagt for interesting educational stuff.
They know what’s going on in the world
It is a cliché that teens are so obsessed with boosting their Instagram likes that they are oblivious to the wider world. And, in truth, they’re probably not watching News at Ten. They don’t need to. Most of those I spoke to used smartphone apps, including Twitter, Snapchat’s Discover feature and Apple’s news stream to monitor current affairs; they also
watch documentary videos put out by BuzzFeed and Vice on YouTube. ‘We discuss everything,’ one girl told me. ‘We have to – the amount of times significant changes have been made that no one of our age wanted but we didn’t have a say.’
In reality, young people are on the frontline of a lot of the debates in culture, economics and politics – as we saw so devastatingly after the Florida school shooting. Teen activist groups such as Team Future, Reclaim and Legally Black are organising headline-grabbing protests, often after attending workshops run by organisations such as Campaign Bootcamp and The Advocacy Academy. Activism is on trend. I was so inspired by this that I added a plot into my new book involving teenagers running an online campaign. If you’re confused by current debates, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, your teens may well have been having these conversations online for years.
Those I spoke to really care about other people and their causes because they feel so connected through social media. We should all learn to use these platforms for more than just sharing holiday photos and celebrity gossip. Download news apps, create Twitter lists of politicians and activists, subscribe to current affairs podcasts and YouTube channels. Be empowered.
They’re interested in your old music collection
Now that pretty much all music, modern movies and TV are available for streaming, it can be hard to work out what you like. I found that teenagers appreciate the music, movies, fashion and culture their parents grew up with. They listen to Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, they watch Friends, they relate to John Hughes movies (The Breakfast Club was a favourite), they know about 80s pop. You only have to look at the way Marvel movies appropriate 70s rock and how fashion keeps harking back to the 80s to see how these iconic cultural moments are valued by young people. In Days of Wonder, I have two old goths running the local comic store and the lead character Hannah is fascinated by them because you don’t really see those music tribes any more – you don’t get teens identifying as punks, mods, goths or grebos.
But there is also a sense of family nostalgia in the music teens have inherited from their mum and dad. ‘I got Van Morrison and Elbow from my parents,’ one boy told me wistfully. ‘I grew up with that music; they are car-journey tunes.’ Another girl agreed: ‘David Bowie is my dad’s favourite. Sometimes when we’re sitting around in the evening we put Bowie on and sing along. I think that music still really speaks to people.’ So the answer is, yes, keep your Duran Duran albums and do make your kids listen to them. They’ll thank you in the end.
It’s fine to be confused and exhausted by our digital culture. Sometimes it’s good to switch off the phone, the set-top box or the laptop, and listen to a record or a CD, or even blow the dust off a video recorder and play a VHS tape. Take time to enjoy the things you loved as a teenager, complete with the scratches and the crackles. There is meaning in those memories and imperfections. Life put them there.
Days of Wonder by Keith Stuart is published by Sphere, price £12.99