The world is a scary place, even for teens. They’re coming of age in a time when bad things happen to good people on a mass scale, a time in which a normal day can turn ugly in the blink of an eye. Their young lives have been marked by horrific events: 9/11, Virginia Tech, and, in the past year, shootings at a crowded Colorado movie theater and Sandy Hook Elementary School.
After the bombing at the Boston Marathon a few weeks ago, the mom of a 13-year-old girl told me her daughter had been shaking she was so scared, despite the fact they live hundreds of miles from Boston. All of the places that the girl was supposed to feel safe — school, the movies, sports events — had come under fire, making her worry that something bad could happen to her at any moment. Even though these places now have far more sophisticated security systems than they did a few decades ago, modern kids are continually reminded by their parents and teachers to be prepared. Still, they find it hard to feel safe no matter how many drills they’ve done because they recognize the randomness of the attacks they’ve heard about in the news. The teen girl above told her mom that she had already picked out the best hiding place if a shooter ever came to her school.
The 24-hour news culture, bolstered by citizen journalists on Twitter and Facebook, adds to the imposing fear kids feel. While teens aren’t spending much time tuning into TV news or reading CNN online, they are logging on to social media where the news they see is mixed with gossip, speculation, and misinformation, making it hard to know who or what to believe. And the constant stream of news updates blended into their social feed can make an event feel inescapable.
The effect of this culture of fear can already be seen in media. Kids still like to be scared by a good fright night feature, but instead of realistic depictions of fear (such as shooters and bombers, which were more common in the ’90s), they gravitate toward vampires, zombies, and disembodied paranormal forces. A similar trend can be seen in television where shows like “Once Upon A Time” and “Vampire Diaries” are popular with teen audiences. But when shows get too close to real-life fears, teens prefer to tune out. “Glee,” which is known for discussing challenging topics that matter to young audiences, recently ran an episode with a school shooting. Rather than receiving the usual praise, the show got backlash because audiences found it too disturbing, even though they felt the message was important.
While leveraging fear as a selling tool has worked with past generations (“What you don’t know about your cell phone could kill you!”), it can be paralyzing for today’s youth. That’s not necessarily to say marketers should steer clear of fear — the success of “The Walking Dead” and the “Scary Movie” series prove young people still like horror. Just remember that teens prefer their scary stories cut with a touch of campiness, comedy, or supernatural to take the edge off.