The media distorts teens
Real Life or Broken Mirror? Examining Media Representations of Teenagers

By Michelle Goodman, 17, UCLA
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It’s hard to imagine what adults think when they see magazine covers like "The Monsters Next Door," "The Secret Life of Teens," and "My Boy Built a Bomb!" They probably go home frightened and begin looking through their kids’ drawers for bomb building instructions or other warning signs. These adults would probably avoid high schools, arcades, or malls, because they think that the next teen they see will shoot them. Yet despite the many magazine covers and newspaper headlines portraying teens as monsters, there are publications that have dared to portray teens and the recent events of violence fairly.

Some media are actually talking to teens and getting their realistic opinions, instead of talking to crazed parents or experts. The March Life magazine cover story titled "The Secret Lives of Teens" randomly selected teenagers aged 13 to 18 and asked for their beliefs on current issues. With its quick nuggets of information, this story sounds like the parent’s version of a Seventeen magazine "Style Profile," and is extremely unrealistic because it draws from such a small number of teens.

Life sent a positive message

The article does send a positive message. The teens who are profiled in the magazine are intelligent, creative students, and some are seeking careers in education. Interestingly, much of the alcohol, drugs, and guns they get come from their parents; "In Connecticut some [teens] claimed that eight- and nine-year-olds sometimes get guns as presents," according to the article.

Both Newsweek and 60 Minutes are also talking to teens and showing America our moral side. Devon Adams, a 17-year-old friend of Dylan Klebold, wrote an article for an August issue of Newsweek entitled "Mourn for the Killers Too." In her own words, Adams says that she never wants to leave Columbine. "And I never want to forget the people who died, including Eric and Dylan—Dylan was my friend and I still don’t understand why he did it." Since the Columbine shooting, Adams has become a gun-control activist. She joined an organization bent on creating better, stricter gun legislation and believes that the gun buying age should be raised to 21—"If you’re not responsible enough to drink alcohol, you’re not responsible enough to buy a gun." The fact that a mainstream, nationally distributed magazine would allow a teenager to write an article is impressive.

60 Minutes interviewed youth who are furious with David Cash, the "Bad Samaritan," who chose not to stop or turn in his friend, Jeremy Strohmeyer, when he knew that Strohmeyer had molested and killed 7-year-old Sherrice Iverson in a Nevada casino bathroom. Cash stated in an interview that he feels no remorse, does not feel anything for Iverson, and remains friends with Strohmeyer, even though he witnessed part of the crime. When 60 Minutes had Cash speak to a group of his peers about why he did nothing, the teens were dismayed. They told Cash, "How could you just sit idly by while your friend murdered a little girl?" and "You’re a sick individual." Cash may be an immoral, monstrous teen, but the rest of the group redeems us all.

Magazines have shown that youth are violent for many reasons

Publications such as Newsweek have helped explain the complex roots of teen violence—that it seems to be caused by a number of factors, including parental neglect during early childhood, a violent or mentally unstable family history, and access to weapons. In the article "Why Teens Kill," author Sharon Begley writes, "The temptation, of course, is to seize on one cause… but there isn’t one cause… Science has a new understanding of the roots of violence that promises to explain why not every child with access to guns becomes an Eric Harris or a Dylan Klebold, and why not every child who feels ostracized, or who embraces the Goth esthetic, goes on a murderous rampage."

A June Rolling Stone article, "Humiliation and Revenge: the Story of Reb and VoDkA," painted a vivid picture of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. It explains the dynamics between the two boys; for example, that Eric Harris was the leader of the two, and that the hysteria around the "Trench Coat Mafia" was false; Eric and Dylan rarely wore trench coats. In some ways, Eric and Dylan had anger and frustration that is normal for teenagers. Sarah Slater, who was a friend of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold says, "’Eric and Dylan had an attitude about the school … I hate the school … We all say stuff like that.’"

But Eric and Dylan acted on their feelings in ways that are far outside the norm. The "secret life of teens" was definitely not the cause of their violent acts. Eric Harris kept a public web site where he detailed the successes and failures of his bombs, giving them names like "Pazzie" and "Atlanta." Anyone could have recognized the problems he had and addressed them—problems that were unique to him and not universal among all teens. Luckily some media understand that.