Understanding Teen Culture
Working with young people requires that we understand their culture and that we understand them. We cannot understand them outside of the cultural context they live in.
If we are listening, we should be able to hear what is going on in the teen world. Truly the adolescent is screaming for help. We just are not listening very well. We need to stop and listen before we speak.
Teenagers and their stories. Wow. So much is going on in their lives. Have you stopped and listened to them? In the face of so many negative behaviors, we must promote positive development of social, physical, emotional, and spiritual health in our teens. Take a look at what’s going on in American adolescent life.
Here are some statistics that should wake us up as youth leaders:
More than 64% of teens lose sleep because they have too much to do. And 39% feel pressure to do more. Look at the growing bullying issues in their world, no one knows how many are bullied because so many go unreported. Research suggest 77% of students have experienced physical, verbal, and mental abuse before graduation. Even social media bullying happens. And 15.5 million teens live in an abusive home – either mentally, physically, or emotionally. These statistics should create action on our part as youth leaders.
Most teens with an eating disorder go untreated and continue to a vicious cycle of sadness, pain, and suffering alone. And even self-hate. We have to identify these signs that lead to eating disorders. And we must deal with some of the things that take place and move students along the way of bullying, addictions, and disorders.
Another stat says 1 in 200 teens self-injure. And most students who self-injure also take part in risky sexual behaviors. Many of these signs are simply triggers to a new action or addiction. So we have to deal with the causes and not just the reactions. Cutting and other self-harm behaviors are simply behaviors from other issues we will look at below.
All of these behaviors lead to physical death for some but they can also ultimately lead to spiritual death for all who are overcome by these things. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 1 million teens die every year. Many of these deaths are preventable by medical treatment, mental health interventions, or life skills training, or spiritual intervention.
Look at the causes of death among teens in the U.S.
1. Accidents (Accidental deaths are the leading cause of teen mortality in the U.S.)
2. Suicide has now risen to the second most common leading cause of death among teens
3. Homicides are rising
4. Drug Overdose/Addictions continue
If we are going to be able to understand teen culture we must be attentive to these hot topics.
You can reference the GenZ and Barna Trends 2018 studies to see some of these stats. These kind of stats are discouraging and should give us a passion for teens. Because this generation needs hope. And that may look like a conversation, or a one on one, or a donut, or even a movie. Time equals love to some teenagers.
I love to get suicidal teens to think about hope. To think about the next day. Get them thinking and focused on what’s next. That can often lead to escaping the moment of crisis or emotional stress.
They Are Trying To Tell Us Something
Most teens don’t wake up one day and want to get addicted to drugs, sex, gambling, or other addictions. We can see the signs if we are observant and stay involved in the life of a teen. These behaviors take time and the spiral doesn’t happen overnight. These flags are important to notice because they lead to other destructive behaviors.
Here are a few flags that we should be looking for:
Anger, hostility, aggression, or rage
When you see these things it requires immediate attention, personal care, and even referral to a professional if needed. A referral is not a failure on your part as a youth leader. It is actually often the right thing to do in extreme cases of teen or adolescent behavior. The void in our teen’s lives cannot be filled with drugs, sex, violence, or selfishness. What they really need is a relationship with God, our creator.
So how do we understand the teen world?
Here are 2 ways to stay current with the youth culture:
Be Relevant: Time In Teen Culture
We must be involved in teen culture. And we must understand what their world is like. If we don’t understand teens and their world, we will not be able to communicate to them with the right language, we won’t be able to identify the right problems to solve, and we won’t be able to develop a ministry that has the right answers. Nobody wants all of the right answers to all of the wrong problems!
The concept or being relevant means that we are up to date and current in knowledge. It is important to be relevant. Because it gives us an edge in the fight to help teens cope.
Here are a few things you can do to stay relevant:
· Magazines like ‘17’ or ‘Teen Vogue’ will give you great insight into the adolescent culture, fashion, trends, and the pressure they are under. These are progressive liberal magazines but offer great insight into youth group think.
· MTV programming, content, and VJ’s can give you indications of the youth culture in one week of listening and watching
· Top 40 or hit radio stations will be a good resource for the kind of language and world the teens are living in. I think you know that a teenager can memorize 4 minutes of a song but have a zero percent chance of memorizing 4 verses from the bible!
· Movies and books are a window to the pop culture message toward the teen world
· Social Media posts, threads, and videos give you a quick reference of a teen’s world when you see who they follow, what they like, and how often they are on all formats. The stats are clear – 7 hours of social media daily, and about 10 hours of total screen time daily (phones, TV, games, computers, etc.). No wonder we affectionately call them ‘screenagers’. That is a lot of influence we will never have as a youth leader.
Be Relative: Time With Teens Themselves
Not only should we be spending time in the teen culture, but we should be spending time with teens themself. Being relevant and current in teen culture is important. I think we’ve seen that and how to get involved and understand teen culture.
But, here is another important concept. We must also become relative. This simply means we cannot just have the information but we need to have a relationship with teenagers. It is the difference between the demographic understanding of culture - one that is just information, and, the ethnographic understanding of culture - one that is relational. I don’t want all of the information in the teen world if I do not have a relationship with them.
Too many of us think we know exactly what young people need. But, if we aren’t in their world or in relationship with them, we are fooling ourselves. I don’t want all of the right answers and not have anyone to share them with.
All of this is important because I can take the concepts and the understanding of data (relevance) and relate it to teenagers that I am in relationship with (relative). I’ve watched youth leaders who understand culture but have no relationship with teenagers. That is the difference between being relevant and relative.
So how do we stay in relationship with teenagers? Let me give you 5 ways to help you with this:
· Spend time talking directly with teenagers - this will give you firsthand information and empathy
· Spend time talking to their peers. When you listen to a circle of friends or a crew of teenagers, you get a holistic understanding of how they react to each other.
· Look for coding. These are rules and conducts or behaviors the teens allow in their sub-group. But you’ll have to look closely, because they will switch the codes often.
· Listening to a teenagers story - this will get you a lot of information about the things that have shaped them and you will be able to relate to them better. What is their family like? What is their favorite subject in school? Who is their closest friend? How are things going with their coach or their team?
If we isolate ourselves from teenagers and their world, it will be very difficult to communicate to them. A greater understanding of their context will give us a greater communication of our content. We must be both relevant and relative.
This is exactly what Jesus did as a first century revolutionary. He was aware of the human context and it made Him elite in communicating his heavenly content. And Paul said that we should understand all things so that we could win some with that knowledge.
Try these practical things to understand teen culture and to understand teens themselves.