Talk to Teens—They’re Still Listening
A powerful, no-tech social and civilizing medium: Conversation
Posted Mon, 10/10/2011 - 08:01
About a decade ago, libraries were talking to teens about what would make the public library a cooler place. The results of these conversations were captured in Elaine Meyers’s article “The Coolness Factor” (American Libraries, November 1999) and informed the focus of the Public Libraries as Partners in Youth Development project. That world—without Facebook and before most teens had cell phones—seems a simpler time.
In 1999, teens were asking libraries to provide the latest technologies. No one anticipated the future described by the Kaiser Family Foundation’s January 2010 “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8–18 Year-Olds.” The report, which made the front page of newspapers across the country, added fuel to a conversation about the impact of technology on teen development. The report was both relevant and shocking; almost all adults were surprised at the large chunks of time young people were spending as consumers of various media. Commentators wondered if technology was replacing important conversations and the reading of literature that has traditionally helped us understand what it means to be human.
The report confirmed librarians’ suspicions that teens spend a relatively small amount of time with print media (about 38 minutes a day). By contrast, young people were found to be consuming various electronic media for 7 hours and 38 minutes every day, seven days a week. Moreover, since these young media buffs are often engaged with more than one medium at a time, they are able to cram 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media into their nearly eight hours of daily media time.
Stimulating or stupefying?
A front-page article in the November 21, 2010 New York Times, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” warned that schools were fighting to keep students focused amid a flood of texting and technology. The article recognized the need for students to be tech savvy in order to acquire 21st-century work skills, but lamented the unknown effect of so many hours spent in front of computer screens on the wiring of the brain. The article proposed a “healthful digital diet” that would limit multitasking and entertainment while studying and also vet the quality of sites accessed.
One of technology’s more damning critics is Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Tarcher/Peguin, 2008). Bauerlein predicted dire consequences for the intellectual condition of young Americans who have embraced the trappings of the digital age to the apparent disregard of the cultural and civic heritage taken for granted by previous generations. He documented the decline in reading and lamented the superficiality of online learning. Bauerlein reserved some of his most scathing criticism, however, for the social networking that so captivates teens.
He observed that teens now have unprecedented contact with each other through various social networking media, e-mail, and instant messaging. While some adults are advocates for the potential for empowerment and learning that Web 2.0 makes possible, Bauerlein noted that research shows that teens are much more likely to go to sites such as YouTube and Facebook to see what their friends are up to than to spend time browsing the Library of Congress or Smithsonian websites. What especially worried Bauerlein is that this focus on peer-to-peer interaction reduces the opportunities for vertical modeling—developing relations with older people who can provide another point of view, life experience, or perspective as well as broaden the knowledge needed to really understand an issue.
The need for vertical or aspirational models was a core finding of Public Libraries as Partners in Youth Development. Teens told librarians that what they most valued was someone who could really talk with them about their concerns and provide realistic advice. They especially favored a college student or someone closer in age who intimately knew the terrain of their neighborhood, family, workforce, or college. They also said they valued library staff who listened to them and made them feel safe in the library. We know from research on youth development that not having a caring adult in a teen’s life puts that young person at risk.
While technology will continue to reshape all aspects of education, commerce, art, and culture, a youth-development perspective provides a stable context in which to think about adolescence. What does it mean to spend 7 hours and 32 minutes in a day interacting with an electronic device? Teens who send and receive 800 text messages in a day are certainly keeping in touch with their peers—and maybe with their parents—but are they missing the kinds of conversations that will help them develop the skills and competencies they will need as adults?
In the past year, our interviews and informal conversations with teens have confirmed our belief that one of the most valuable activities library workers can provide is real-time conversation. We asked teens to tell us about themselves—their school, work, family, friends, hobbies, favorite books, music, and movies. We asked what they did for fun and what was hard about being a teen and how they handled it. We asked them to describe themselves in five words and about adults who have influenced their lives. Finally we asked about libraries.
What struck us in these conversations was how open teens were to talking and how genuinely delighted they were for the attention. We had the advantage of not being a parent or teacher, but just an interested adult. This is still one of our critical roles, even as the pressure is on for us to connect virtually in new ways with our customers.
In our book Teens and Libraries: Getting It Right (ALA Editions, 2003), we used Theodore Zeldin’s Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives (Hidden Spring, 2000) as our model for effective talk with teens. Zeldin believes that conversation is more than sending and receiving information. Conversation can be transformative; it can change the way participants see the world and even change the world itself. We agree.
Zeldin ends his book with a list of 36 topics of conversation. We would like to suggest our own list, based on our recent conversations with teens.
Let’s talk about your life: Great for informal conversations at the service desk or for getting to know groups of new teens in an advisory group or book club.
- I’m thinking about writing a blog about friends. Can you tell me the most important thing about friends? Is there a book or a movie about friends that I should know about? Can you tell me a story about a friend—a good one or a bad one?
- I have to create a list of great places for teens to go in our neighborhood. What should I be sure I tell teens about the places in our community?
To game or not to game: A possible topic for a conversation corner that you set up in the library. Create a schedule for staff to be present at a posted time to talk about current activities or topics.
- I’ve been reading a book about gamers in the library. Is gaming fun? Why or why not?
- We have new money for Wii games. What is the most fun game? What is lame?
Being a teen: Teens love to talk about themselves, their challenges as well as their pleasures. Questions like these help them to reflect on their lives and provide you with information that could change the kind of resources you offer.
- What is the hardest thing about being a teen? How do you handle it?
- If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?
- What five words best describe you?
- Can you tell me about any adults who have been especially influential or supportive during your teen years?
What about the library? Questions for focus groups or similar settings.
- Tell me about your experiences with the public library.
- When did you begin using the library—and why?
- What do you do there now?
- What do you like? What do you hate?
- If you ran the library, how would it be different? How would it be the same?
Public librarians can do a great service for teens by simply talking to them, listening to them, and encouraging them to talk to each other. It could create a habit that will outlast the next New Thing.
ELAINE MEYERS is a public library consultant with expertise in youth services planning, evaluation, and staff training. VIRGINIA A. WALTER is professor emerita in the Information Studies Department at UCLA and coauthor, with Elaine Meyers, of Teens and Libraries: Getting It Right (ALA Editions, 2003).
Tips for Great Conversations
Take time to walk around the library and strike up conversations with young people. Go beyond the reference interview or traditional reader’s advisory gambits.
- Encourage teens to talk to each other as well as to you. Include discussion time at programs.
- Post a provocative or humorous question of the day at the ends of stacks or on tables. If teens don’t spontaneously start talking, you be the facilitator.
- Do regular interviews with random teens in the library to find out what they think is important and interesting. Get them started talking, and they will find it hard to stop. Use what you learn from them to develop good teen services and collections.
- Remember that you are the moderator or facilitator, not the expert.
- Humor is the secret weapon in bonding conversationally with teens. Enjoy their sarcasm and irreverence, and be a little corny yourself. Laugh together.