Before coming to the SC Campaign as a graduate assistant in the fall, most of my interaction with teenagers was limited to family friends or grocery store cashiers. Even as a 25-year-old, my general reaction to teens in the media was “I vaguely remember this, but… I don’t really get it.”
As the Teen Expressions coordinator, I had a unique opportunity to hear directly from teens. But, to be honest, the prospect of delving into the minds of teens was a little scary at first. What if the media was right? What if teens were getting sex ed from music videos and values from 'Jersey Shore'? But of course, S.C. teens proved that they are more than what you see in the media.
The contest gives teens a place to share their perspective from their hearts and minds, not just from academic research or "trend" news pieces. We get unfiltered opinions from teens on topics like sex, teen pregnancy and relationships. Some of them were silly. Some of them were serious. Many of them were thoughtful, and all of them helped add to my understanding about how teens think.
Some of what the teens shared might not surprised you:
- They take love and relationships very seriously. Even though your gut reaction might be to roll your eyes when 14-year-olds use words like “forever” when describing their girlfriends or boyfriends, it is important to understand that it is their reality.
- Individuality was a dominant theme, and teens want you to know that they are different. From teen parents to teens who are abstinent, there were lots of entries with the clear message of individuality. We have to stop expecting all teens to be influenced and motivated by the same messages, because they want to be taken seriously and judged based on their personal decisions and beliefs – not the ones in the media.
- They aren’t fooled by society’s messages of excess and apathy. Many of the entries were about waiting to have sex, or protecting themselves to prevent the unintended consequences of sex. They don’t want to have babies because it is “trendy,” or to get on TV.
- Forget the stereotype of the unmotivated teenager. They might express themselves differently, or have different priorities, but they care.
- A lot of the entries about teen pregnancy showed that teens aren’t tuning adults out. Many of the teens who entered represent youth organizations and health classes, and their viewpoints reflect teens who are getting the messages we as health educators are desperate for them to hear.
When you talk to teens, they are listening. We need to be doing the same. Teen Expressions offers some good lessons about how to keep these conversations going.
- Welcome their opinions and perspectives, even if you don't understand them at first.
- Start by asking open-ended questions about how they feel and how they interpret the messages targeted to them.
- Some teens may be able to express their thoughts and fears better through art or poetry, so don’t limit your conversations to formal sit-downs.
- Encourage examination and critical thinking rather than just memorizing rules and guidelines.
- Elizabeth Benfield is a graduate assistant at the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregancy and a MPH student at the University of South Carolina.