It’s Time To Engage Teens In More Positive Ways

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 2011Wall 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?

  • Recognize that the media influences teens. To pretend otherwise is to play a dangerous game. If you are developing digital experiences for kids — even if fun and frothy — your audience may latch onto things in unintended ways.
  • Create opportunities for positive experiences. Digital media has teens and kids in its thrall, and that affinity can be used to expose these audiences to their potential and big ideas. It may not be easy but it is worth considering. John and Hank Green — and the whole “nerd fighter” movement — do this really effectively.
  • Cynicism is part of teen life but there should also be room for affirmation. Always’ “Like a Girl” Super Bowl spot is a great example of this being done well.

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.

Originally published at www.mediapost.com.

The top 10 faces

It’s been just about six years since I started my 1000faces project. The first photo that I count was this one taken in Austin, TX back on March 5, 2008. I don’t know who she is but it was her 21st birthday.

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I’ve now photographed almost 4,000 faces and for some reason they’ve been getting more attention lately. Since my Flickr account hit 2M views today I decided to share the 10 ten faces (based on views), so here they are:

Face - a woman with red lips and a red headband.
I photographed this woman with red lipstick and a red headband on the street in Montreal.

Face - smiling man with white hair, beard and glasses
This is a professor at MIT that I photographed in the basement of the old Media Lab.

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This is one of my colleagues at InkHouse, outside our old office on Crescent Street in Waltham.

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Here’s my wonderful wife Wendy.

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Another colleague outside our Crescent Street office.

Face - smiling woman with long hair and glasses
A couple of years ago I photographed MIT’s emTech conference and took this one.

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This is Omar Tawakol of BlueKai, taken at Craft in New York.

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This is another colleague out on the streets in New York very late one night.

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This was taken late one night (or early one morning) in a bar in New York.

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Also in a bar, in New York – but not so late.

While I like some of these pictures, they probably wouldn’t me on my top 10 list, but these are the faces that have had the most views. Can’t explain it, not sure what to make of it but it is what it is.

Daily Dozen – Men at MIT

Yesterday I did women at MIT and said I’d do men at some point and today’s the day. I’m doing it now because I know if I don’t I’ll forget. Hopefully this isn’t too much MIT for everyone!

Face @LeonBlank speaking at #foe5
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Face - Jay Rosen
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Face - Deb Roy
Face - Grant McCracken (@Grant27) kicking off the second day of #FoE5
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Face - man speaking and pointing his fingers
Face - smiling man at MIT
Face - a man and his brain
Face - Jonathan Zittrain (@zittrain) at #FoE5

Daily Dozen – Women at MIT

Earlier today I was looking for writing by Martin LaMonica, a reporter I know. He mentioned that he was blogging for the MIT Technology Review and I found a piece he’d done on an event I photographed. It included a photo (not one of mine) of one of the speakers and that made me decide to do a set of women at MIT. Later this week I’ll do men.

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Face - smiling woman at MIT
Face - smiling woman at emtech MIT
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Face - smiling woman at emtech MIT
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Daily Dozen – Enjoy Bill Joy!

Over the years – by a path I can’t explain – I’ve had the opportunity to become involved with MIT. It’s one of my favorite places for a whole lot of reasons. One aspect of my involvement is as a photographer for various events. The Communications Forum, the Futures of Entertainment, Media in Transition, Unbound and emTech are some of them and they’ve all be awesome. Bill Joy, one of the co-founders of Sun Microsystems and now a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, was one of the speakers at emTech 11. He’s heavily into energy now and had a great on-stage chat with Jason Pontin of the Technology Review. Here are some of my photos from that session. enJoy them. hahahahahahaha!

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Daily Dozen – Men with round heads/faces

For whatever reason, when I sat down this morning to put together the Daily Dozen, men with round head/faces popped into my head. I hadn’t even opened my laptop or given it any thought. Sometimes it happens. I’ve done two sets based on round – men with round chins and people wearing round glasses. One of the tricky parts in doing round heads/faces is not simply using every bald face I have. While it’s true bald heads do make ones head/face look rounder it isn’t the only thing that can convey that impression. Sometimes it is the cheeks and chin together, sometimes the hairline. Sure, today’s set has plenty of bald fellows but it has plenty of other kinds of faces too. Hope you enjoy them all.

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Face - bald man with a nice smile

Daily Dozen – Men Listening

Think of what people’s faces can show – looking, listening, speaking, engaging, reflecting, expressing emotions (there’s a whole range of those, from joy to dispair) and how different they all look. As I started looking at photos and thinking about today’s set I was struck by the look of people (and specifically men) as they listen. The photos below show men listening in a particular situation – when they are speakers. Look at how engaged they are with what they are hearing. In this situation they’re listening to questions to which they’ll soon need to respond. They’re listening intently – but also, one imagines – thinking of their response and trying to understand how the question or comment fits into the context of the subject at hand. They’re not simply passively hearing the words but listening closely and processing what is being said.

Faces - Bob Stein
Face - Jay Rosen
Face - man in glasses
Face - William Uricchio speaking at #FoE5
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