Smells like teen spirit Meet the new pi­o­neers – teenage girls

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - WORDS SYLVIA MCKEOWN

anew type of role model has marched into town. She runs businesses, cham­pi­ons hu­man rights, faces bul­lets and har­nesses the power of sci­ence for so­cial de­vel­op­ment, even though she and her peers are rou­tinely marginalised. She’s grown up with the in­ter­net. She is smart but may not legally drink or drive just yet. She’s a change agent and she’s only 17. She’s a teenager. The last few lines al­most sound like the mus­ings of a Tay­lor Swift song ‘IMHO’. (In my hum­ble opin­ion, for those of you who aren’t down like that.)

Now, more than ever, teens have a plat­form to change the world. Be­yond re­cod­ing the English lan­guage with ab­bre­vi­a­tions like IMHO and a myr­iad oth­ers in­clud­ing ORLY (oh, re­ally) and SRSLY (se­ri­ously), they’re ci­pher­ing the world’s dis­or­ders. Well, they’re try­ing to, at least. Ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in The Econ­o­mist, for those born be­tween, roughly, 1980 and 2000, ‘grow­ing up with the in­ter­net… has trans­formed their ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tion, work and pol­i­tics’. The ac­cess to some form of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy has al­lowed them to ‘ex­er­cise closer scru­tiny’ of gov­ern­ments – theirs as well as oth­ers’ – and given them the free­dom to ‘use new, dig­i­tal ways to ex­press them­selves’. These dig­i­tal na­tives are scorned for chal­leng­ing and chang­ing the way we com­mu­ni­cate: Snapchat­ting in­stead of call­ing, con­nect­ing via Twit­ter or Face­book rather than pen­ning letters, hand­ing over their pri­vacy with YouTube up­loads or selfie up­dates.

Teenagers have never been taken se­ri­ously though. In fact, break­outs and tantrums aside, they never re­ally ex­isted as a sub­set un­til the end of the Sec­ond World War. They’re a com­pletely 20th­cen­tury in­ven­tion. The first time the term ‘teenager’ was de­scribed as a new type of so­cial class was in an ar­ti­cle writ­ten by El­liot E Co­hen in 1945 called ‘A Teen-Age Bill of Rights’. The birth of the phrase de­scrib­ing the tran­si­tional pe­riod of life called ‘ado­les­cence’ was a re­sult of the time when child labour laws be­gan to be en­forced dur­ing the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion. Newly de­fined, the West sought to cre­ate ways to try and con­trol these pubescent graces (rag­ing hor­mones and risky be­hav­iour) through re­form such as the Boy Scouts or, more heinously, the Hitler Youth. In the new doc­u­men­tary film by Matt Wolf called Teenage, based on the book of the same name by Jon Sav­age, he cel­e­brates in par­tic­u­lar the young women who fought against these so­cial re­stric­tions. A lot of the po­lit­i­cal ag­i­ta­tors in the film are teenage girls: The Swing Kids (a group of young­sters be­tween 14 and 18 years

old from Ger­many who loved and lis­tened to jazz and swing, which were banned dur­ing Nazi rule and were the neme­sis of the Hitler Youth); the Wan­der­vo­gel (an­other Ger­man youth move­ment es­tab­lished in 1901 but with a fo­cus on re­turn­ing to na­ture); Bright Young Things (a group of young bo­hemian aris­to­crats and so­cialites in the 1920s) led by the so­cialite Brenda Dean Paul; the fa­mously re­silient Anne Frank, who wrote her war­time mem­oir The Diary Of A Young Girl. And her po­lar op­po­site, Melita Maschmann, who be­came a jour­nal­ist and, af­ter her de-Naz­i­fi­ca­tion, tried to make sense of her life. She wrote a book, Ac­count Ren­dered, about her vic­tims, ex­plain­ing why she, against her fam­ily’s wishes, be­came a Nazi who later ex­posed the Re­ich for all the wrongs she will­ingly took part in.

Long ac­cused of let­ting their hor­mones rule their chancy out­look on life, it turns out it may not (al­ways) be such a bad trait af­ter all. The great­est com­mon ground that all these teens have shared across the century is their will­ing­ness to take risks. The tie that binds Malala Yousafzai, who stared down Tal­iban bul­lets in 2012 to fight for equal ed­u­ca­tion, with Sofie Scholl, who faced un­just ex­e­cu­tion in 1943 for her par­tic­i­pa­tion in the anti-Nazi White Rose Move­ment, is a part of the brain called the lim­bic sys­tem. The lim­bic sys­tem, ac­cord­ing to cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist Sara-Jayne Blakemore, is an area deep in­side your brain that height­ens the re­ward from do­ing fun things, in­clud­ing tak­ing risks. And wouldn’t you know it, it is this part of the brain that is hy­per­sen­si­tive in ado­les­cents when com­pared with adults. To top it all off, the pre­frontal cortex (the area at the front of your brain), which is known to stop us from tak­ing ex­ces­sive risks, is still in de­vel­op­ment when you’re a teenager. Says Blakemore, ‘So what’s some­times seen as the prob­lem with ado­les­cents

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