Would it be an exaggeration to say teenagers are running popular culture? We don't think so. And, if anything, we're willing to up the bet. Take a look at teenagers today--their habits, their purchasing power, their mastery of media--and momentarily suspend your belief in the stereotypes or hollow assumptions about them. What you'll uncover is a group of people who are changing the world of marketing, altering communications, inventing new lexicons and adopting still-embryonic innovations.
The teens of today have never known a world without hyperconnectivity. They never experienced those awkward first movements of the mouse or the truly troubling (but exciting) moments when your computer seemed to speak to you on ICQ. For them, all this is as much a given as the sky.
Their always-on, interactive dynamic can be both exhausting and exhilarating. It has affected their lives--and the lives of their parents, not to mention the strategies of marketers who communicate with them--in five key ways:
Virtual urban meccas. With 93 percent of all teens online, according to research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a teen's social world is at least as much about personal interest as it is about circumstances of birth.
Although cosmopolitan centers still lure teenagers, especially creative "misfits" who feel stifled by their towns or schools, teens can now get to cultural metropolises virtually. They can build their own communities where they fit in. Geography is no longer a barrier to finding like-minded people, and home has a whole new meaning ("home page," for starters). A Facebook group or simpatico social network offers meaningful personal connections, and the wealth of city information available online makes it easy for anybody living anywhere to keep up with trends in Bushwick, Harajuku or the East End.
New rebellions over privacy. For parents trying to maintain control over their teens' lives, this all presents a serious challenge. A teen might not be able to go out and buy the car her parents don't want her to have, but she can very easily freeze her parents out of her Facebook profile. The parent can parry with an insistence on access--monthly allowance as carrot and stick--and the teen can figure out that it's no problem to, like a digital spy, have two Facebook profiles (just insert that middle initial, or leave it out): one for parents, one for the real people.
What has emerged is a new kind of insistence on privacy by teens, who can put up fences around their personal lives by using not just social media technology but also its culture. "There's a new digital lexicon spoken fluently by today's teenagers but barely understood by their elders," says a post by writer Ashley Rindsberg on The Sisterhood blog, part of the initiative by my agency, Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, that's by, for and about teen girls and helps marketers understand more about them, too. "Naturally, POS ('parent over shoulder') is on the list."
People are comparing parents following their kids on Facebook with reading their private diaries. But the difference--which can seem irrelevant to teens and crucial to parents--is that their online lives aren't really all that private. Parents feel stung over being excluded from something so many others can see and also eager to protect their kids from oversharing or engaging in behavior that can have serious consequences. An extreme example is the Facebook bullying that led to the suicide of one teenager and criminal charges brought against nine others.
New communications style. "We can't bear the thought of a friend having the latest gossip to share and not hearing about it right this minute!" The Sisterhood's Amy W. posted. This real-time talk has made today's teens not just fluent in the language of social media but also its first native speakers. Pundits have fretted that such written conversation is threatening to drive the sentence into extinction, but studies, including another from Pew, show that teens distinguish between texting and writing. Their accomplishment is in creating a fluid, effective and immediate second language that melds digital formats and linguistic content. Teens use this "multilect" collaboratively, carrying on multi-way conversations on Facebook walls, sharing and commenting on photos and videos, and working together on creative endeavors such as Tumblr pages.
Greater status symbols. Exposure to so many influences has also created a new culture of cool. Good looks still matter, but not necessarily conventional looks. Gabourey Sidibe rocked the red carpet throughout awards season. Kristen Stewart often shows up punked-out, with a smirk.
And good works are now as much a focus of teenage attention as good looks. Teenagers are no longer working the occasional soup kitchen shift to pad their college applications. Rather, they're giving back because that's what is now important to teens--whether it's holding corporations accountable, doing small-scale community service or going as far as Hannah Salwen, who persuaded her parents to sell their house and give half the money to charity.
The teenagent transformation. Teenhood was defined by 20th-century America as a physiological and psychological state. It was conceived as merely a person's transition period. But American teens today, empowered and activated by social technologies, have deconstructed this narrow definition of themselves and built a new one in its place.
It's almost as if the core definition of a teenager can no longer be negotiated by age (already the "tween" classification feels schmaltzy and trite), but rather by the kind of actions and activities in a person's life. Teens are now agents of change, agents of communication, agents of innovation.
They're no longer teenagers but teenagents. William Mack, 16, and Ja'Mal Wills, 17, are co-founders and co-CEOs of beauty startup J&W Sensations. Zac Sunderland spent 13 months and two days becoming, at 17, the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo in sailboat. Parker Liautaud undertook a trek to the North Pole when he was 15 to highlight just how important the environment is to today's youth.
In media, teenagents are setting trends and breaking old rules; they can be defined by their ambitious, intelligent and ethically aware use of social media to do big, broad-minded things. Among the top teenagents online is Jane Aldridge, the 17-year-old editor of Sea of Shoes, a blog about fashion and life, whose style is so influential that Urban Outfitters asked her to design a line of shoes. Sixteen-year-old Kristin Prim decided to raise capital for a new print fashion magazine--and, at 14, she did it.
Blair Fowler, better known to the world as JuicyStar07, enjoys a large YouTube audience for her fashion and beauty video channel. With 330,000 subscribers, and 18 million views, JuicyStar07, at age 16, is more successful than some major fashion campaigns. Another ultrapopular channel, allthatglitters21, is run by Blair's 18-year-old sister, Elle.
It's clear from all this that American culture is undergoing a digito-social revolution. Although it might have been a given that teens would be widely affected by it, what was never obvious was that they would have had such a drastic effect on creating, shaping and guiding it.
Follow Marian Salzman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mariansalzman