I recently attended an event at MIT, “Coming of Age in Dystopia: The Darkness of Young Adult Fiction,” that looked at the dark world of teen fiction. It was a panel discussion that featured moderator Marah Gubar, a professor of literature at MIT; Kenneth Kidd, a University of Florida professor who focuses on children’s literature and Kristin Cashore, author of Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue. It was an interesting talk that highlighted the impact media can have on teens; as well as the responsibility of those who engage teens, through media or otherwise.
The discussion started with a reference to “Darkness Too Visible,” a 2011 Wall Street Journal article by Meghan Cox Gurdon on the nature of young adult fiction. Almost four years after it appeared, it still evoked a strong response from Cashore. She and Kidd touched on the issue of censorship by parents, teachers and librarians, with Cashore saying such attempts demonstrated adults’ desire to avoid difficult issues.
What troubled me most about the event was an apparent double standard at play. Cashore seemed happy to recount the positive messages she receives from young readers who can identify and find strength through her characters, but spoke with derision of letters she receives from adults chastising her for the sex in her novels.
Frankly, I have no issue with sex but there are parts of young adult literature that I find problematic. These are around destructive behaviors that are either glorified or glossed over. For example, the book Willow came up during the event. It’s about a teen girl who becomes involved with self-harm and tells only her boyfriend. They don’t seek any adult support and it seemed irresponsible to leave kids with the message they can cope with this type of thing on their own.
While none of the panelists were familiar with the book, Cashore offered two defenses. The first was that different readers will take different things from a book and the second was that she believes this writing is not necessarily meant to be instructive. That second point is the one that bears consideration.
Those who create content for teens must be aware that their audience is constantly seeking direction and validation. Whether intentional or not, teens will take lessons from content they’re exposed to. Some will find positive messages and meaning in media and others will gravitate toward darker signals.
As new content and distribution channels have become available, the ability to curate content aimed at young people has diminished. Teenage boys no longer need to face the judgmental gaze of a convenience store clerk if they want pornography. Young girls, via the Internet, can be exposed to more information on a range of diseases and disorders than ever before. The MIT panel, for example, brought up Wintergirls on the topic of anorexia, which some critics described as “an instruction book for how to be anorexic.”
The new reality of unfiltered exposure to content can have serious consequences for teens; whether it’s a dramatic increase in eating disorders or kids deciding to leave home to join ISIS. The media genie is not something that can be put back into the bottle. So what can be done to engage teens in more positive ways?
The teenage years may well be dark and difficult ones for most kids. Dwelling on the dystopian aspects of life does little to alleviate the challenges teens face and, in some cases, exacerbates those challenges. Marketers are not going to solve the problems of the still nascent world of digital media but if they are more mindful they can avoid making a difficult situation worse.