How to Use What We Know about Teens

Pop!Tech (The Camden Technology Conference)
October 1999

Brenda Laurel

(interspersed overhead slides & talk notes)
how to use
what we know about teens
brenda laurel
design research consultant
cheskin research

Thank you, Christopher.  Thanks also to Henry Jenkins, Bob Metcalfe, Harvey Ardman, and Jim Mays for inviting me to speak again this year.  As we finish things up, I think it would be a good exercise to look at the information that Christopher just gave us about today's teens and figure out what we might want to do with it.  Bob knows I'm just an old-fashioned Midwestern girl at heart, and I know he expects me to lay some ethical stuff on you, and I'm not going to let him down.
objective research methods


reliable research findings


When I worked with Cheskin on the Playtime study that led to the formation of Purple Moon, I learned that in making observations about preteen and teen-hood, you should never extrapolate, either from your own experience, or from your own kids.  Learning to look and see, learning to let go of the natural tendency toward gnosticism when it comes to understanding popular culture, is undoubtedly the most valuable skill a researcher can have.
different sets of values apply
at different stages of the work
objective research practices
value-driven goals
impassioned creativity and design
executional strategy and tactics

And yet, once you've learned what there is to learn from objective studies, you can't help turning your gaze to your own past and your own kids and seeing the ways in which they are representative, after all.

In an enterprise where you are attempting to make an intervention in popular culture, finding patterns in the data that match something in yourself or the people you know and love is a crucial branching moment from one set of values to another.  To be an honest researcher, you must begin by committing yourself to objectivity and openness, and you have to resist the enormous temptation to interpret as you go in terms of your own experience and values.  But once you have gathered and summarized and analyzed your data, the next step is to turn those observations into design principles that are honed to some purpose.  This is where other values have to come to the front, because you have a really important decision to make: what are you going to do with what you know?  Now that you understand teens in America, for example, how are you going to use that knowledge - to cater to their insecurities and cravings, or to find ways to make their lives more satisfying and productive?  To exploit them or to love them?
reliable research findings
+ common sense
+ domain knowledge
+ value-driven goals


design principles that can effect change

Of course, the right answer is, to quote Captain James T. Kirk, "that third alternative" - namely, to make things that are relevant and enjoyable to kids at the same time you are doing things that lift them up and improve their lives over the long haul. You are going to use what you know about them to give them something that nourishes them. 

When these values kick in, it gets personal. 

So let me tell you about my daughter Hilary. She's fourteen, starting her freshman year in high school. She loves to dance and sing and perform. This year was her third summer at Camp Winnarainbow, a place devoted to giving kids experience and confidence in theatre and circus arts, run for the last 30 years by a clown some of you might remember, from Woodstock - Wavy Gravy. Kids of different ages and colors and backgrounds walk on stilts and ride unicycles and eat polenta and do improv and deconstruct the Simpsons on Sunday mornings. Wavy reads to them over breakfast - Emerson, the Dalai Lama, his own recollections of the real Woodstock. 

This summer Hilary choreographed the hip hop number for the final show. She also astonished us by performing an intricate belly-dance with a full glass of water on her head. Let me tell you, watching your beautiful YOUNG daughter belly-dance with amazing grace is a psychological emetic. Your brain empties out and emotions you won't ever be able to name surge and roil beneath the surface of a deep, wild sea. 

She swirled home from Winnarainbow wrapped in an Indian bedspread and sporting early-stage dreadlocks, her face relaxed and glowing. Two days later she was off to cheerleading camp, which was just about as far from Wavy Gravy land as you can get - clean white tennis shoes, uniforms, paramilitary order, non-exotic food. By the end of cheerleading camp, I was sure she would be suffering from existential whiplash, but she soldiered through. 

Since fourth grade, Hilary has been an obsessive collage-maker. Collages are everywhere. The walls and ceiling of her room are covered with pictures of movie stars, bands, models, fashion ads. She tends these collages as if they were living things. Her room in a continual state of change, like her identity. In fact, Hilary's room makes me realize that her identity could be expressed as an ever-shifting collage of brands - Lauryn Hill, Star Wars, Dave Matthews Band, Premiere, Fat Boy Slim, Matt Damon.

Hilary's gregarious, funny, aggressive, creative, and nobody's fool. Her standardized test scores usually place her in the 98th or 99th percentile. But her grades are scary. If she doesn't find more value in school, at least enough to get her grades up, she may not get into college. She has strong political views, but only sees herself voting if there were evil people running against good people, otherwise, she says, she would question whether or not it was important enough to bother. 

Of course, I think she is incredibly cool. I'm also worried sick about her. What will become of her if she doesn't get a good education? What kind of citizen will she be, and what kind of future will she have? My brilliant daughter is acting out most of the trends that Christopher just outlined for us in her profile of teens. 
movies, magazines, and music are primary information sources
actors, athletes, models, and rock stars are role models
a good job is more valuable than a good education
money is extremely important
politicians are suspect


Our teens get most of their information and their values from magazines, music, and movies ? popular culture.  They have few, if any, role models who aren't athletes, actors or models.  They are much more familiar with big brands than big ideas.  We have succeeded perhaps too well in making them consumers.  Money is seen as the main reason for working and heroes are billionaires.  Their lives have unfolded in an era of prosperity and good economic times.  The way to get ahead is to avoid too many years invested in education, jump into the stock market game, and break all the rules.  They do not know that there are problems that can't be solved by money.  They are suspicious of politicians and reluctant to participate in the democratic process.  And they are about to assume the reins in what is sure to be humanity's most challenging century.
potentially the most powerful generation ever
technologically savvy and interconnected
concerned about the environment
relatively conservative in lifestyle
sophisticated and global

But as Christopher points out, when you look at the data, this is the least screwed up generation of kids to come along in a long time.  They're lifestyle conservatives, relatively sensible about sex and substances, smart about media, technologically savvy, globally connected, and environmentally aware.  And they are a vital force in our economy? Teens account for about $150 billion dollars a year in revenues in the US alone.  So why would anybody want to change them?  What would be the point of an intervention?  What do they need that we haven't already given them?
what the world will need from
today's teens in 21C
skill and inventiveness in science and technology
personal resilience and resourcefulness
great leaders and good governance
"an informed populace"

Somehow, they need to find the motivation to study and learn things that are hard and which don't have an immediate payoff. Despite today's crippled educational system and the current consumer joy-ride, this generation is going to have to invent and perform in science and technology like never before. 

Somehow, they need to find in their schools and their communities a source for training in the arts of personal resilience and resourcefulness. In a climate of easy money, whether they're day-trading or selling drugs, life probably isn't teaching them what they need to survive under conditions of profound change. Stuck in a formula of memorize-and-test, high school is no longer helping kids learn these life skills. And with high-paying, high-tech jobs in abundance, there's no time to waste steeping in a liberal arts education. This is not a climate that produces people broad and deep and wise enough to lead. 

Our kids - and our democracy - are going to be in pretty bad shape if education and political participation continue to decline. And the odds for democracy throughout the world decline when American democracy falters. We hope that our teens will blossom into an informed populace, a generation that can produce great leaders and good governance. To quote Thomas Jefferson, "Whenever people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government." The corollary is, when people aren't well-informed, they're likely to wake up one morning to find that their government - and their lives - don't belong to them any more. 

As a thought experiment, I'd like to use the technique we employed when we were designing Purple Moon for girls and apply it to teens. Let's say that our primary goals are the four phrases on the right side of this slide: skill and inventiveness in science and technology, personal resilience and resourcefulness, great leaders and good governance, and an informed populace. How can we use what we know about teens create design principles for popular culture that can help us meet our goals?
findings about teens and teen culture
design principles for use in entertainment,
education, technology, and politics

For purposes of this exercise I'm going to assume that there is an "us" with "goals" and that we have the desire and means to meet them. I'm going to assume that the captains of industry and society's next billionaires all know somewhere deep down that resourceful, knowledgeable citizens are more likely than simple consumers to create a resilient economy. I'm going to assume that we are all willing to go some distance to achieve that, and that we're going to resist the temptation to whine about soft-minded liberalism getting in the way of tough-minded capitalism. I don't want to hear any bickering about "who's going to pay for" the things I suggest. Whether funding comes through industry, the federal government, the states, or foundations and charities, the truth is that we are all going to have to ante up for the greater good. 

Stay with me now. 

I'd like to spend the rest of my time proposing some design principles - some ideas about what we might do to get teens ready for the 21st century. So you can see my thought process, each slide shows relevant research findings about teens in the upper left and proposes some design principles in the lower right. 
trends move from explorers to visibles
+ trends that aren't adopted by visibles don't grow
+ trends adopted by non-teens die
interventions in culture and technology
should speak to explorers and
must speak to visibles

Christopher told you about Cheskin's teen segmentation model. If we look at how trends move through teen culture, it becomes clear that efforts to introduce new trends should be aimed at Explorers - that small segment of wildly creative kids who are responsible for birthing almost all "authentic" teen trends. The second choice is to introduce a trend to Visibles, the large segment that we think of as "classic teenagers". But the trick here is to make the trend look like it's coming from the Explorers rather than from some corporate product development unit. Think about Urban Outfitters. 
teen role models are musicians, 
movie stars, models, and athletes
promote more diverse role models

Our pragmatic, goal-oriented teens should know that, internet success stories notwithstanding, the average lifetime income of a US citizen is about 90% higher with a college degree than it is without one. But of course, just as teens believe themselves to be immortal, they also tend to feel exempt from statistics. So if you can't prove the value of education pragmatically, maybe role models would help. What do Brad Pitt, Nicholas Cage, Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Dave Matthews, Lauryn Hill, and Bill Gates have in common? Uh, they didn't graduate from college. In fact, I spent half an hour vainly searching Excite's Celebrity section for one single currently popular young movie star or musician with a college degree. So featuring the "educations of the stars" probably won't work very well, either. 

One design principle might be, encourage a wider variety of role models. Last summer at my youngest daughter Brooke's summer camp, I met a girl of about twelve who was wearing a "Space Camp" t-shirt. I introduced myself and asked her if she had attended Space Camp. She said yes, she had, three times, and that there was no doubt in her mind that she would become an astronaut. She was already studying physics and higher-level math and was keeping up her physical training. Her hero was Sally Ride. Even with today's low-fat space program, a child who wants to be an astronaut knows that there is some serious study and self-discipline involved. A child who wants to be a star or an accidental millionaire knows no such constraints. 

We need more movies like October Sky. Literature teachers should be teaching books like Jane Goodall's Reason for Hope or Linda Greenlaw's The Hungry Ocean. And it wouldn't hurt for Glamour to do a spread on beautiful young women who are superstars in math or science, or MTV to interview a smart young athlete about the physics of snowboarding. Media magnates, you can do your part by giving us some new role models. 
ethnicity is cool
use interest in ethnicity as a hook for learning
in history, social sciences, and the arts

Latino music has joined African-American music as a "mainstream ethnic" category. Explorers are listening to music from Cuba, China, South America, Africa, and eastern Europe. We can also see an explosion of ethnic clothing styles and appropriated words from other languages in American teen culture. 

The majority of American teens are decidedly anti-racist, and tolerance has been turned to celebration in many domains, including sports, music, and film. Now it is time to leverage these excellent new attitudes in the teaching of history, social sciences, and the arts. The teaching of history is particularly in need of a fresh approach; one of the most important subjects in our curriculum suffers from the worst educational design, often dwelling on mere chronicle and ignoring cultural dimensions altogether. Contemporary teen interest in ethnicity offers a great opportunity to engage kids in learning about the world's peoples. 
teens are environmentally aware
use environmentalism as a hook for learning
in science, economics, and government

As with race and ethnicity, there has been a sea change in teen attitudes about the environment. Although teens may not yet be using words like "sprawl" or boycotting the Wal-Mart, they are generally keen on preserving the Amazon rainforest, protecting endangered species, and recycling trash. Schools are starting to pick up on these values as a way into science. At Los Gatos High School, for example, the freshman environmental science course is designed to leverage environmentalist values to re-engage students who have not been hooked by science in junior high. 
teens are interested in the body
as an edit surface
use body-editing as a hook for learning
in science and genetics

In a few years the entire human genome will have been sequenced. What kids will want to do with that information will make nose-piercing look as meek as lip gloss. Once introduced to the concept of genetic manipulation and engineering, kids can also join in the political conversations that are already brewing and begin to explore the connections between science, policy, privacy, and law. 
teens believe sex is dangerous
use AIDS as a platform for learning about biology,
social studies, research, and policy

Teens believe, rightly, that sex is dangerous. Many schools are finally teaching kids what they need to know about the psychological, cultural, and health issues around sex. Kids are learning about sexuality and gender identity, teen pregnancy and contraception, sexual abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. The topic of AIDS in particular can be used to explore all the complex connections between sexual attitudes and policy in medical research, public health, and human rights. 
teens enjoy humor
use political satire as an exercise
for honing critical thinking skills
about government and politics


I heard the worst Monica Lewinsky joke from my youngest daughter Brooke when she was 10. I laughed in spite of myself. About half an hour later, she came to me and sheepishly asked what the joke meant. She was appropriately grossed out when I explained it, but as the controversy dragged on in the media, more jokes came home with the kids, and many led to serious conversations about morality and politics. For decades, Mad Magazine has done us all the great service of sensitizing our kids to political and cultural issues of the day through satire. What would happen, I wonder, if we gave kids assignments in history, art, or writing classes to create political satire, jokes, or cartoons? I think they would learn a lot about politics and current events while feeling empowered and having fun. 
teens value freedom
use personal freedom as a hook for
earning about democracy and
encouraging participation


In my day, it was marijuana and the draft. Today it's internet censorship and curfews. Teen culture always offers up scenarios in which adults seem not to want kids to have any fun. In Hilary's speech class, these issues show up as topics for formal debates. To prepare, she has to find out what laws and policies exist and how they have worked. Then she has to apply reason and judgment. I have no doubt that adults would learn a great deal from the arguments developed by the kids in her class. More to the point, she has the opportunity to learn that policies are made by people, and that public discourse can have some effect on government. 
teens like adventure movies
+ teens like action game
+ teens value fun
use future-scenario gaming
as a learning activity


A few weeks ago, I met Richard O'Neill at "After the Genome V" Richard is an advisor to the Secretary of Defense and chairman of an informal think-tank called the Highlands Group. He is also renowned as one of the world's finest war-gamers. Richard explained how he uses future-scenario techniques developed by Peter Schwartz and the Global Business Network to help people from government, industry, science, and the arts visualize possible futures and understand their implications for the present. Richard's descriptions got me thinking about how much fun Hilary and her buddies have doing improv. It also made me think about speculative fiction movies like War Games and Outbreak and even The Matrix and about certain strategy-and-action computer games. The bad news about Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is that children's intelligence is used without their consent, and their awesome skill at play is actually being used to massacre people. The good news is, Card was right about the way that play often stimulates stunning displays of improvisational intelligence. Future-scenario gaming could be used to great advantage in schools, camps, or clubs and could give rise to some spectacular multi-player online environments. 
teens are technologically savvy 
and drawn to the internet
study teens' online usage patterns,
social practices, and searching heuristics

design online learning environments that
leverage existing teen practices

Some believe that it is our duty to set educational standards for helping kids to search the internet and to interact with the various things they find there. I know of one such effort that is currently being funded by a high-profile philanthropic organization with great cooperation from the government and various universities. The project intends to apply proven educational strategies to create a set of guidelines for students using the internet. These guidelines can then be disseminated to educators and communicated to students, and education will be the better for it. 

The thing that is left out of this picture is reality. Kids are already living with the internet. This year's college freshmen were born after the first Atari game was introduced. They have grown up with computer games and they have watched MTV most of their lives. Because the wiring of the visual system is so heavily shaped in adolescence, their brains are capable of perceiving as much as five times more information than the average adult when confronted with rapid-fire video montages. Many of us were alive when remote control devices for televisions were novelties; for them, surfing television and the internet is as natural as breathing. As Douglas Rushkoff points out in his book Playing the Future, their interpretation of media is profoundly intertextual. They can easily shift from the Simpsons to E-Bay to the 10:00 News and see what you and I might perceive as random connections as coherent themes. The questions that the internet educational standards project does not appear to be asking is, what do kids already do? How have contemporary media forms already shaped their consciousness? What are their navigational strategies? What engages them? What produces "flow" experiences? What signs and signals attract them? What makes them feel good about themselves? 
teens like online communication
design online environments for mentoring
and cross-generational communication

Every day, millions of people are using the internet. They are finding communities of interest and looking for good things to do. Many of them are actually highly motivated to do something that has social and cultural value. The art of starting communities for inquiry and exploration in education might consist in attracting some of those millions of people who are not educators but who are experts, people who have relevant professional and life experiences to share, and making an environment in which they are introduced to students with common interests. Then the task becomes one of building infrastructure for something that actually looks like a healthy society, where adults take responsibility for and pleasure in communicating some of what they know to the young people in their community. It may not be by the book, and students are sure to be exposed to misinformation and some bizarre attitudes through this kind of contact. But it is discourse? Discourse that honors the individual, develops communication and critical thinking skills, and it reinforces the "fabric of society" that we now all too often talk about with nostalgia. 
teens are interested in ethnicity +teens are global
+ teens are interested in online communication
+ volunteerism on the rise + teens value peer friendships
design environments for teens to communicate with
and provide support for other teens across the globe



A few years ago, Professor Justine Cassell produced the Junior Summit for the MIT Media Lab. Over the course of six months, MIT networked children from over 50 countries in the world to form a global youth community. Adults worked as system architects, translators, and facilitators. After a year online, the kids elected their own representatives to a summit conference in Cambridge held in the winter of 1997. Some of the kids arrived in Boston with no shoes. They discussed everything from child labor to democracy, and their community still exists. There are other examples of this kind of work, including Jane Goodall's Roots and Shoots organizations. Jamie Coats' company Kid's Energy is another promising example of a system that is intended to support kids in using their own voices, forming global communities, and mustering resources for their own work. 
teens are interested in money
+ teens are interconnected and technologically savvy
use near-currency and banking services as tools
for learning about money, investment, and finance


Doughnet, Rocket Cash, I Can Buy, and other near-cash systems designed to help kids become online shoppers represent the beginning of new opportunities for banks and financial institutions to intersect with teens. Banks need to create relationships wisely. Teaching kids about money and how to manage it responsibly will serve both the customer and the institution. 
teens are interested in the stock market
use mock portfolios as tools for learning about
economics, business, money, and risk

use the idea of investment as a way
to explore the idea of philanthropy

Risk is a hard concept to teach in the age of instant millionaires. But as the wind changes direction, understanding risk will be crucial. In these prosperous times, it's also hard for kids - and adults - to see that money is for more than just buying things. When government abandons the public good for whatever reason - the lure of lower taxes, corporate maneuvering, or a distorted notion of conservatism - philanthropy must take up the slack until people come to their senses. Like voting, individual acts of charity are seen by kids as insignificant, especially when compared to the scale of corporate philanthropy. But nothing can substitute for the personal experience of doing good without expectation of personal gain. We need to give our kids first-person experiences of generosity. 
teens are interested in money
+ teens are pragmatic and goal-oriented
use interest in wealth and goal orientation as hooks
for learning about ethics, long-term thinking,
and economic resilience

teens know when they are being marketed to and they don't like it
use two-way communication with teen customers
treat teen customers with respect

Here's a letter my step-daughter Suzanne got from Delia's, after waiting six weeks for several back-ordered items to appear in the mailbox. 

Sep 21, 1999 Dear Customer, Thank you, again, for your recent order P3578390001. Unfortunately, the item(s) you ordered are no longer available. We want to thank you for your order and hope that you will give us an opportunity to serve you once again. If you have any questions please call our Customer Service Department at 1-800-DELIA-NY. Sincerely, Delias Customer Service 

We didn't know what order P357890001 was and Customer Service put us on hold for half an hour before the connection dropped. 

Brooke went to the mall and found a jacket she liked at Wet Seal but it wasn't the right size. We asked the clerk to call stores in other parts of the state. "I can call," she said, "but I can't have it mailed to you or transferred here. It's against our policy." These are examples of companies that prey on the intense desire of teens and preteens to acquire the latest fashion items and take advantage of their naivet as customers. Soon, one hopes, companies won't be able to get away this sort of thing. A company who wants to do well with teens will treat them with respect. Once teens have that experience, the bar will be raised. 
teens are sophisticated consumers
extend the idea of a "savvy customer"
to politics and government

teens value individuality and personal uniqueness
+ teens want validation and acknowledgement
create occasions for teens' voices to be heard

teens are cynical about politics
create forums for teens to air views and opinions
as a way of encouraging participation
in politics and government

The rhetoric around the "girls" movement was "empowering" girls and young women. Not too long ago I did some consulting for a public broadcasting station. The goal was to "empower" kids by building new online communities for them. I noticed that when we use the word "empower", kids are always the object - not the subject - of the sentence. I asked my colleagues at public broadcasting, what if we think of kids, not as the recipients, but as the authors of empowerment? Young people are among America's most affluent and "targeted" consumers; our culture makes and sells kids things that we think they'll like. We can provide the opportunity for kids to do something besides consume popular culture: the opportunity to critique it - to speak in their own voices, through powerful new technologies and media. The proposal that has emerged from this kind of thinking gives kids key slots on national news and culture programs in the public broadcasting system. It also creates a website where they can comment on any aspect of popular culture and direct and amplify their voices through broadcasting and publishing. Another example of this kind of thinking is Nickelodeon's plan to provide production support, funding, and broadcast opportunities for kid-created work in honor of the millennium. 
teens are interconnected and technologically savvy
enable online voting

Where online voting is enabled, I would bet that the participation of first-time voters in the next election will double. Some folks are afraid of this? Probably the same folks who resist allowing people to register to vote when they renew their driver's license. Well, those folks are just going to have to get over it. Citizenship is participation, and the future of our democracy depends on it. 
teens can smell hypocrisy
like a dog can smell fear
live the values you want teens to learn

You've probably heard it said that a dog can smell fear on you. If you're afraid of a dog, it's more likely to come up and bite you. 

I think our kids can smell hypocrisy on us, and it makes them cynical. We can't be trusted. In the absence of elaborate explanations, our words and our actions are severely at odds. They hear us say how important school is while we cut funding for education. They hear how U.N. Peacekeeping troops are making the world safe for democracy in the hotbeds of world strife while they hear that the U.S. won't to pay its dues. They hear about the high ideals of democracy while Congress spends its time squabbling over the president's sex life. 

But never mind the big, complicated political stuff. The little stuff is just as important. They hear us say how much we love them while American parents spend an average of three minutes a day in conversation with their kids. We tell them how important it is to be cautious and obey the law and they see us double-park or drive too fast. Every day I tell my kids how important self-esteem is, but they've heard me say dreadful things about myself just because my company tanked or I burned the toast. 

If you're a parent, you probably know that our children are what make us grow up. We have to be honest for their sake, generous for their sake, self-disciplined for their sake, hopeful for their sake. We have to take joy in our lives if we want them to see the possibility of taking joy in their own. Because the fact is, no matter who they say their heroes are, our children's role models are us.

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