Thinking Outside the Youth Media Box

It is no secret that mainstream media plays on the fears, hopes, and anxieties of young people to sell products. As a result, young people are inundated with archetypes and negative stereotypes in mainstream media that affect how they form their identities, make decisions, and create their own media.
Youth media, from its very inception, was designed to counter mainstream messages by empowering young people to express their stories. However, it seems young people are increasingly drawing on negative archetypes from mainstream media and producing media messages that support the status quo.
Youth media practitioners need to critically analyze how young people internalize and reiterate mainstream ideologies and how our sometimes-formulaic youth-produced work can evolve in order to compete in a media saturated environment.
Resisting the Re-invention of the Wheel
Youth arrive at Community Television Network—our after school program in Chicago—plugged into their i-pods, texting on their cell phones, and clicking over to visit MySpace and YouTube when they have an opportunity. Theirs is a media savvy generation, raised on hundreds of cable channels, video games that seem to mirror reality, and the endless possibilities of the Internet.
Yet the young people we work with do not lack the capacity to tell new stories that eschew mainstream ideologies. Though as few as 1% of Internet users contribute content to sites where they consume content, youth media makers are perfectly situated to fight against the forces of consumer culture, stimulating the instinct to create.
While traditional youth media narratives tend to—ostensibly, at least—counter mainstream images of violence and sexism, the end product sometimes works to support the status quo. As youth media workers, it is our daily challenge to find creative ways to engage youth in the telling of their own stories, as independent from the mainstream as possible. So instead of gangsta’ and pregnant teens, we ought to focus on activist teens, artist teens, honor roll teens, or college-bound teens. To paraphrase a colleague of mine: as media makers, we (and our youth) are privileged with the capacity to hold a magnifying glass to our society. It is up to us to decide where to point it. As practitioners, we must nurture critical perspectives, stress positive solutions, and interrogate negative archetypes.
The Plight of the P.S.A.
The public face of any youth media organization is the content it creates and distributes, but this content needs to please funders. Traditionally, funders of youth media tend to favor messages that are immediately recognizable as being socially conscious. There is no better example of this kind of work than the Public Service Announcement (P.S.A.)—narratives that many youth media organizations produce because they often come with funding. P.S.A.s are explicitly cautionary tales that discourage negative behavior. But this in fact, reaffirms the “pregnant teen” or “gang member” archetypes that populate such narratives, stripping our videos of their capacity to foster social change—inadvertently restraining young people’s impulse to tell new stories.
At a panel discussion about youth media at the recent NAMAC conference in November 2007, the P.S.A. was called out. A brief but spirited discussion ensued; some youth media practitioners argued for the demise of formulaic, message-laden videos. After all, if these videos bore the adult youth media workers to tears, then imagine how quickly the eyes of teen audiences would be glazing over. Other youth media practitioners argued that these 30-second commercials-for-a-cause are practical production exercises—lighter fare that won’t stretch shrinking attention spans.
Of course, making socially conscious work doesn’t have to entail making a P.S.A. From hip-hop videos to an amateur-wrestling match, to a video blog from a Brazilian tango fanatic, the content on YouTube spans the globe and encompasses every interest.
While recent technological advancements like YouTube have revolutionized the production, distribution, and consumption of amateur video content, the overtly didactic, socially conscious videos that are the legacy of the early youth media movement continue to dominate the landscape. By restricting the scope of our youth-produced work to the trusty P.S.A. (and other similar content), youth media practitioners risk alienating our increasingly media-savvy audience, many of whom were seemingly born with remote controls in their hands.
However, socially conscious does not necessarily mean routine or boring. For example, a colleague of mine purchased 15 “disposable” video cameras (he reformatted them to be reusable), distributed them to his sixth-grade youth, and asked them to shoot 30 minutes of new footage of their own lives every week. This footage was later used to create personal documentaries. As this kind of technology becomes more accessible, the practice of youth media will expand beyond the walls of our organizations. Youth media practitioners and funders need to facilitate this kind of exploration.
Recommendations to the Field

As youth media practitioners, we need to reflect on our approaches to empowering, supporting, and training young people to make media. And we cannot fall prey to the pressures of funders or re-emphasize negative archetypes of young people in the mainstream. The following recommendations will be useful as the field evolves in synch with an ever-increasing digital age.
Train young people in media literacy education, civic and problem solving skills to think outside the box. Training young media makers involves more than just instructing youth how to focus a camera or hold a microphone. Cultivating independent voices requires extensive media literacy education that fosters critical thinking, problem solving, and civics training. With the right support, young people are eager to investigate issues and nurture a critical eye. Models for this kind of personal development are widely available, and should be implemented in any youth media curriculum.
Rid youth media of archetypes that are perpetuated in the mainstream and challenge them in the youth media process. For example, find creative ways to engage youth as they tell new stories as independent as possible from the mainstream. If youth media is to continue to empower young people, it will need to cultivate rich and diverse perspectives. We must engage our audiences with compelling messages that truly reflect the hopes, anxieties, visions, and dreams of their generation.
Encourage youth-created solutions to issues that young people face every day. If our goal is social change, then achieving this goal necessarily involves young people and their inventive ideas. Presenting social ills without providing insightful solutions is like whining into a megaphone. However, when young people devise and present solutions to these problems, they challenge the dominant ideology of the mainstream that too often stigmatizes issues like poverty and racism as endemic.
Follow young people’s footsteps. Young people may be bored by the P.S.A., but what captures their attention are sites like YouTube and MySpace. The youth media field would benefit greatly from a site modeled after YouTube that allows youth to post their own videos in a space free from advertisements and adult intrusion. Such a site could also integrate social networking components like those on MySpace. As this kind of technology becomes more accessible, the practice of youth media will expand beyond the walls of our organizations.
What Next
When youth create media, they are not the only ones who benefit, and the potential for social change is enormous. As practitioners, it is in our best interest to serve young people, by encouraging new and innovative media approaches and actively re-generating our own institutional approaches to youth media. We need to be brave and honest about youth media and whether our work meets the true needs of the young people we serve. In a media saturated society, supporting young people to produce and capture alternative representations of their identities and culture is paramount to keeping true to our roots. As for finding the financial resources for this work, we must encourage funders to join us outside of the box and trust that they will follow our lead.
Tom Bailey is the program director for Community TV Network in Chicago. He also makes narrative and documentary films and teaches media studies at Harold Washington College.
Arthur, Charles. “What is the 1% Rule?” Guardian. 20 July 2006.