How to Use What We Know about Teens
Pop!Tech (The Camden Technology Conference)
|how to use
what we know about teens
design research consultant
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.
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
|different sets of
at different stages of the work
objective research practices
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?
+ 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.
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
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
|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
|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
|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
|teens value freedom
use personal freedom as a hook for
earning about democracy and
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
|teens are technologically savvy
and drawn to the internet
study teens' online usage patterns,
social practices, and searching heuristics
design online learning environments
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
|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
use mock portfolios as tools for learning about
economics, business, money, and risk
use the idea of investment as
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
+ 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
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
|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.