Not that long ago, a teenager made a pretty big mistake online. After seeing a tweet that had been intentionally removed from its original context by a right-wing provocateur on Twitter, they decided to immediately react and call for a well-known antifascist researcher to be deplatformed (or “cancelled”). They had, as they and others have stated, misinterpreted the tweet and didn’t know its context, assuming an entirely different meaning. Without looking into the situation further, the teenager had prompted harassment of the antifascist researcher.
But normally these things don’t blow up to the point they become viral enough to even be a blip on anyone’s radar. But this kid? They were put on blast by that antifascist researcher, a person with a five-digit follower count. Initially, many people who currently follow that researcher had come to her defense and explained to the teenager that they had misunderstood and gave context for it.
Others decided to engage in a form of dog-piling and harassment aimed at the teenager. Some sent the teenager, who is Jewish, anti-Semitic messages through their Curious Cat. Others engaged in queermisic jokes, referring to them as a “tenderqueers.” (Note: This particular piece of vocabulary is something that I personally, as a genderqueer person, find inappropriate. As there’s not a clear etymology for it, its proximity to ‘genderqueer’ leaves its history and intended use to be quite debatable. Using it downplays what could be better termed “toxic softness,” which highlights how white supremacy often weaponises vulnerability in order to deflect responsibility for inappropriate behaviours or criticism of bigotry.)
Though this teenager clearly engaged in negative behaviours (which led to adding to the harassment that the antifascist researcher already endured), the response of the adults in question was clearly disproportionate, horrific, and wildly inappropriate. By doing this, those adults have effectively ruined any chance that the teenager might actually learn from their mistakes and learn how to avoid being ‘weaponised’ by far-right provocateurs masquerading as concerned citizens. In effect, they taught them nothing and have probably made it more difficult for them to trust adults in the future.
It’s worth noting that the antifascist researcher in question had recently doxed a cop and helped to have him terminated from his position due to white supremacist beliefs and tendencies toward vigilante justice, opening people up to questioning the motives behind this sudden call to deplatform her. It’s also worth noting that adults who continued to harass a literal teenager made a conscious decision to not go after the far-right provocateurs who instigated the whole event but focus on “making the teenager(s) learn a lesson.”
The whole situation is largely disgusting for an incredibly wide variety of reasons.
But I don’t want to rehash the situation further. What I want to discuss is another element that kept leaping out to me through the following comments:
“I would like to hope that someday there is a separate internet for teenagers.”
“I quit teaching because of the politics and being tired of wrangling teenagers all day. It’s unfortunate that we have to share the same internet with them.”
“Someone taught the Tumblr teens to pull ‘I am young and my voice should be heard and taken seriously’ and then ‘I am just a child’ when they fuck up. Listen: if you are so young that a literal Nazi can feed you misinformation and you believe it, log the fuck off.”
“Nobody signed up to raise you.”
“If you are not capable of navigating adult problems, get out of adult spaces.”
“I think you’re great and I’m sorry that teenagers are on our internet…”
All of those comments, insinuating that teenagers do not belong in public spaces, including a social media platform where children 13 years and older are legally allowed to sign up, makes me wonder:
Where do teens belong?
The simple fact is that kids, including teenagers, should belong in almost all spaces, with very few exceptions. The development of society into a place where kids are barred from participating is a relatively new ‘invention’, and it has largely been one that has been propagated by making child labour illegal (which is a good thing) and instead siloing children into public schools and other so-called “kid-friendly” areas.
The historical definition of ‘youth’ has been constantly shifting and largely dependent upon class, race, and gender. Adding more difficulty to this has been the way that the definition changed based on time period and culture.
In the West, many of the things we associate with ‘youth’ come from the ‘rites of passage’ for bourgeois boys. These boys were often considered ‘youth’ for as long as they were in school. The majority of these boys completed secondary school, and they frequently attended university to obtain prestigious positions (or, at the very least, acquire titles that afforded them prestige, like becoming a lawyer). Another aspect associated with moving from youth to adulthood for many of the bourgeois boys was having sex.
Both of these, in many places, still seem to be some of the stereotypical ‘markers’ of moving from youth to adulthood and have been translated across the board in some aspect (though we seem to be shifting away from the bit about ‘having sex’ as a marker of adulthood).
This wasn’t always true, however. For bourgeois girls and children of the nobility, their passage from youth to adulthood was most frequently tied to when they were ‘introduced to society’. Instead of entering secondary school, noble boys would move into positions of importance that they obtained through networks cultivated by their family and status, which meant many of them may have been less educated than their bourgeois and clerical peers (in terms of attending a formal institution).
For the working class, the concept moving between ‘youth’ to ‘adulthood’ wasn’t as immediately apparent. The lines that separated ‘youth’ and ‘adulthood’ were pretty blurred, sometimes relying upon whether or not the person in question was capable of working or whether they’d completed their First Communion. Though they were generally able to complete primary schooling, which had been made compulsory in some form for all children in Europe and North America between the late 18th and early 20th centuries, the youth of the working class had extremely limited access to secondary schools or universities, which really only culminated in the “lucky few” being provided that access by some elite benefactor or scholarship. While their bourgeois peers were allowed a period of time where they could explore their place in society, the youth of the working class usually moved straight into working in order to provide for both themselves and their families.
In fact, as a result of this, a lot of children and young people often existed in and participated in spaces that we consider “adult.” Children worked in a number of professions, ranging from domestic positions to a variety of shops to factories; many worked in precarious jobs, such as newsboys and flower sellers. In some places, many boys worked in mines alongside their fathers and other male family members. Those in rural places worked on farms. Some boys became apprentices and learned a trade, while others would run errands or deliver messages for a variety of businesses and people.
And all of that denies the fact that children of colour, especially Black children in places like the United States, are not afforded the same kind of ‘youth’ as their white peers. Even today, many Black children are seen as older than their same-age white peers, and they have to deal with far more ‘grown up’ issues, such as police brutality and being on the receiving end of systemic racism.
But the ‘youth’ have always been there. They have always been part of our communities, but it has only really been a recent belief that they should be siloed into schools until they’re ready to join the “real world.” Perhaps, as we’ve seen during the pandemic with politicians claiming to be “so concerned” for the social and academic development of our youth, this has been to our detriment.
A common claim I see these days is that “the youth are more engaged now than they ever have been.” Even when the media praise young people for their work, they still manage to talk about them in ways that are condescending; this praise even seems to be quite rare, considering the number of people (including educators and politicians) who think children have no right to strike because it “interrupts their education” or “incites behaviour problems.”
I’d argue that all of these claims are largely unsubstantiated and, honestly, require far more research into the history of youth.
For example, why not look into the actions of youth in terms of the labour movement? They were certainly there, and they had a rather large impact in many moments of history. In 1932, textile workers in Melbourne and Tasmania went on strike for two months to get better conditions and stop the reduction in their already low pay; the majority of these people were young women under the age of 24, with a significant portion (almost 25%) of them being 15 to 19 years old.
In 1911, a significant number of Jewish and Italian migrants, many of whom were young girls and women between the ages of 14 and 23, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. This fire was one of the catalysts in improving workplace safety, to say the least; many of the other people in the industry across the United States mirrored the same sage, and they all engaged in acts of collective action around the same time to improve the standards of their work environment.
What about young women like Kate Mullany who was 19 when she helped start the Collar Laundry Union in 1864? The textile strike in Paterson, New Jersey in 1835? The London Matchgirls’ Strike in 1888? The Newsboys’ Strike in 1899? All of these involved young people, many of whom would be looked down upon for speaking out and daring to raise their voices to demand something better (or, at the very least, that things don’t get worse).
Teenagers and children have always been there, and we’ve largely written them out of our history alongside constantly removing them from our communities and hiding them away in schools.
When I was a teenager, I felt incredibly isolated from the world. It was strange for me as an only child. I regularly interacted with adults to the point that so many adults thought I needed to “interact with children” because I “acted like I thought I was an adult.” The adults around me didn’t like that I had ideas and opinions of my own, and they weren’t fond of me setting my own boundaries.
I thought I belonged with the people I was around and that I was a valuable member of the community, just as others should’ve been. This clearly wasn’t true. What their actions and words told me was that all of those things were “for adults” and that I wasn’t allowed to have them until I “entered the real world.”
I didn’t agree with that at all. It was frustrating and othering.
And that alienation continued with the destruction of spaces that were ‘for’ teenagers. The putt-putt courses, arcades, bowling alleys, and roller rinks all disappeared as I got older; the city happily replaced them with Home Depots and Targets, which they claimed “brought in more taxes and more jobs.” Parks and public spaces where you could sit comfortably and chat were locked up or highly policed; no longer could you just sit and talk until midnight because the city insisted on a curfew, even on weekends, with the excuse that the sorts of people who were there that late were nothing but trouble.
I didn’t remember being trouble; I just remember being bored and feeling excluded, never having a space to go other than home or school.
That’s a view that I know still exists among children and teenagers because I regularly see it when I’m working in schools. I see the kids who are annoyed by their parents being too controlling over their lives or feel like they just have no space at home, and I listen to the kids who feel like the school doesn’t care about their needs because it always seems like everything they want to do is off-limits or shoved onto a list of maybes for the next year.
And honestly, I have to agree with them for the most part, especially when it comes to the schools. As a collective institution, they don’t genuinely care about the needs of the students in them. Hell, they barely care about the adults in them.
But at least we can voice our dissatisfaction and often have the choice to leave. Kids don’t have that choice, and a lot of families don’t have that option even if they wanted to give their kids that choice because unschooling and homeschooling can sometimes be too expensive and time-consuming for them to feasibly do.
And then there’s the world outside of the home and school, which is often structured for adult-focused consumerism. Our cities have largely removed anything that young people would be interested in (often entirely neglecting everyone between the ages of 12 and 20), increasing the numbers of shopping centers and restaurants but either making anything of interest entirely inaccessible due to the cost of admission or removing it entirely.
We make it impossible to just sit around the cities. We get rid of free benches, which also impacts the elderly and disabled; we make it more uncomfortable to hang out in plazas and city centers because it’s “undesirable” for people to just stand around. We yell at people for sitting on their stoops (if they even have one) or for sitting around the edges of fountains or on the stairs of popular buildings.
My own students have complained of this; I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard from students how they were harassed by police for simply standing around outside and talking to their friends, and I know I’ve seen restaurant and shop owners threaten to call the cops on them for loitering if they didn’t buy something.
So where are they supposed to go if we’ve used hostile urban developments that often end up targeting them more than others?
It’s absurd how we’ve just entirely denied them access to society and expected them to exist in these “incubators” until they’re ready to exist in “the real world.” This isn’t how the world has been for most of human history; children have frequently engaged with their own families and communities, learning with them.
And this learning was never simply a one-way transmission. Adults also learned from the youth, improving and building upon their own knowledge. And our communities were, in large part, healthier for this.
It’s fine to have our own personal boundaries about whether or not we want to interact with minors; it’s fine to have spaces that are for adults only, just as it would be acceptable to have spaces that are only accessible to other ages. However, it’s another thing entirely to sort them into buildings away from their communities and cultures, forcing them to wait until they’ve aged enough to participate in “the real world.”
Perhaps that’s the path we should forge.
Levi, Giovanni & Schmitt, Jean-Claude. 1997. A History of Young People, Volume 2: Stormy Revolution to Modern Times. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.