Sometimes I wonder, sincerely, if I know what it’s like to be a teenager these days. I love writing and reading about teens, and I remember my own teen years very clearly–I find it easy to recall the depth of emotion and misguided understanding of the world. The angst and joy and anxiety and overwhelming sense of undefined identity. But when I was in school, the Internet was in its toddler years. Old enough that a lot of people had it but new enough that we were all still using AOL IM. Now the Internet is so ubiquitous we–who lived without it at some point in our lives–can’t conceive of it ever not existing.
What does that mean for teenagers now? How does that shape them in ways I was never shaped?
One thing that I don’t remember dealing with is the level of pure meanness that goes hand in hand with the anonymity of the Internet. Bullying was around, of course, but it wasn’t non-stop, 24/7. It didn’t infiltrate one’s life in the same scope as it does for kids today. And maybe I’m looking back with glasses too rosy, but it’s not just Internet bullying that plays into this culture of meanness. Comedians, reality TV, scripted TV even–it’s all so mean. As a whole, we’re no longer laughing at jokes, we’re laughing at people. We’re taking their misfortunes and dwelling on them. Snarking the crap out of them. Schadenfreude to the extreme. An article I read recently had a woman who said that our culture is, “looking for train wrecks,” and I think that’s an incredibly astute way to phrase it.
I can’t say I’ve never laughed at someone else’s expense, but man I wish I could. It would make me a much better person. However, I can still see the pervasive meanness and understand that it’s wrong. I can still empathize with the people at the butt of the joke. But then again, I didn’t grow up in this culture. Would I be the same person if I had grown up in the aughts instead of the 80’s? Would my teen years be unrecognizable? Am I totally neglecting issues that current teens would have just because I never experienced them?
Ultimately, how much do you think your generation defines how you write about younger characters? How much of your own experience is transferable to modern young adults?