27 AUGUST 2001

Teenagers have always defined who they are by who they hang out with. David Higgins, writing from Australia, finds those groups are getting harder for outsiders to pick.

‘Group therapy’

An unexpected thing happened when the kids came out of the mines. Little more than a century ago teenagers were a resource, put to work on the farm, in the mill or at the quarry. Today they shape international political policies through highly organised Internet communities. When not conducting anti-globalisation protests, they also like to hang out with their mates at the local shopping mall. But even there, teens have found influence through economic power, says David Smith, the marketing manager for Blacktown's Westpoint shopping centre.

Like every other shopping centre on the planet, Westpoint is a headquarters for local teen groups. Before and after school there may be anywhere between 50 and 100 teenagers bunched around.  The paradox facing Westpoint was that teenagers represented huge potential revenue — but they also intimidated some customers who complained about the "gangs" that had taken over the mall. That often resulted in security guards asking teens to move on.

Smith's solution was to invite representatives of various teen groups to join a committee to advise on the operation of the mall. About five teenagers, aged 15 to 17, regularly attend meetings with Westpoint managers and council workers. The meetings provide a rare insight into the way teenage groups work — but there really is no great mystery, says Smith.

"We gather they come here because it's a safe environment and they like to be seen. The thing with youth is they like to be treated like adults. They hate it when we call them kids.  "They're spasmodic in the way they hang out. There could be anywhere from two to 15 [in a group]. There's no real set criteria. They just move around and meet up with other friends. The groups grow and disperse."

It's tempting to believe that, like their parents who were all bodgies, widgies, flat-tops or surfies, today's teens fall into categories — just a lot more of them. It would be a simple way to "understand" modern teens and their universe of influences beaming in over the Internet. But it's not true now and it probably wasn't true then, says Barry Chapman, the former Triple J and Triple M boss, now head of the pay TV music networks Channel V and musicMax.

"I just think it's the same as it's always been. They are basically aspirational, they have dreams and hopes. We talk to kids every day on the [Internet] chat channels. They still congregate and are attracted to the same things — musical styles, sporting heroes, fashion. "The categories will be their own and driven by their peer groups and they won't fall into gang concepts or anything like that. They'll be socio-economically driven if anything."

Alex May, who heads up the youth division of EMAP — publisher of teen magazines such as Smash Hits and Barbie Magazine — says it is marketing suicide to apply labels to teens. Even if they are accurate, they are short-lived. "They are extremely fickle and it's hard to maintain credibility with them because of their attention span. When you're a teen, time is a slower than when you're grown up, so something you wore six months ago you wouldn't think of wearing today."

Teens do align themselves with social groups based on common interests, says Kipling Williams, a professor of psychology at Macquarie University. "We like to know who we are and one way to do that is to understand the groups to which we belong."

But does that mean they change their social groups as often as their interests? Of course not, says Triple J's program director, Stuart Matchett. Young people are connected through a few broadly based common interests, such as the Big Brother TV show or the pop icon Eminem. But they are also connected to much smaller, perhaps more dynamic groups, based on niche interests.

"A whole lot of kids watched Big Brother," says Matchett. "But that might be meaningless in terms of their musical interests. Just in terms of the music, it's not even dance versus non-dance. Once you get into dance, there are so many sub-genres."

Teens often belong to more than one group and move freely among them, says Tim Walter, 20, who has been involved with Blacktown's Youth Action Policy Association since he was 15. "Today there are more groups of people and more subcultures and that has brought people together and also torn them apart. Usually when you know someone in another sub-culture or group, you can walk up and things will be OK."

But it's not always so harmonious. Some groups, like the "homies" (fans of hip-hop music) and "the skaters" (skateboarders), don't mix much, he says. There are also racial islands which are not often bridged, he says.

Compared with the US experience, violence among teen "gangs" is relatively unknown in Australia. But Dr Stephen Juan, an anthopologist at the University of Sydney's faculty of education, warns that any early signs of such activity must be closely heeded.  "You always see [youth groups forming] when the family breaks down or in revolutionary societies. You have young people forming bonds with each other to get a sense of security," he says.

In hostile environments without family or community support, teen groups can evolve into violent gangs such as are common in parts of the US, he says. "For protection in a hostile environment you form a gang; otherwise you're vulnerable and isolated."

It is technology, however, that has brought the greatest environmental changes to the way in which young Australians interact. Teens have far greater access to technology than any other age group. About three-quarters of homes with children under 18 have a computer and more than half have Internet access. Almost all Australian children aged 5 to 14 have used a computer, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Combine global instant communications with the teenage drive to form social networks and you get a glimpse of how today's teens are building the first truly global communities.

Whereas the shopping centre provides a few hundred personalities from a single primary culture, the Internet provides a limitless setting, allowing even the most fringe-dwelling teens to locate each other, build new communities and recruit like minds — not just from around the corner, but from around the world.

"I've got loads of friends on the Net from overseas and interstate," says Walter, who — along with 100 million young people — keeps in touch with his friends using an instant messaging software program called ICQ.  "With the war in Yugoslavia I was talking [online] to someone who was a kid on the enemy's side and he was saying how it sucked and I was saying people should get over it."

If governments used ICQ, says Walter, "they might solve a lot more problems". Stephen Juan has no doubt tomorrow's adult communities — even governments — will not only use such technology, but derive power from it.

Teens are already living in online communities far from adult influence — but influential in the adult world.

Juan points to the way they have formed potent international online communities around political issues such as globalisation and global warming. "When we look at the economy and the environment, these things are international and we all have a stake in it. Hopefully as young people realise their power and their ability to organise, they can influence these things ... because those in power will never admit that they are [actually] not in control."






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