The first and second authors of this blog post were teens in the the middle 2010s and the early 2000s, respectively. We experienced a media landscape vastly different from each other as well as the present day. Media devices were more limited, Internet connections were constrained; user-generated content or social media was barely on the rise. Compared to today, it was more difficult to stay in touch or instantly communicate with friends far away, let alone have the media affordances to seek information, express our opinions on the films or television shows we loved, and connect with other like-minded people online. There were few opportunities to see the representation we needed more of on screen, and even fewer opportunities to constructively voice out our thoughts about the content we consumed.
In thinking back to those times, we wondered just how beneficial and significant it would have been for our younger selves and others our age to have been able to encourage the creation of more diverse and inclusive entertainment media. From authentic LGBTQ+ representations to more nuanced stories of marginalized groups based on their race and ethnicity, our generations of teens would have probably felt more represented and delighted by content that was deeply connected to us and had an immense power over our worldviews and self views.
Images from CSS Teens & Screens 2022 Report
Extensive gaps between teens and the larger society remain. Content creators in Hollywood have started making considerable efforts to reflect teens’ latest trends in the past decade, but teens’ voices have still not been centralized in content creators’ agendas given a lack of in-depth and regular conversations between teens and the industry. Schools and classrooms are important structures of pedagogy and scaffolding to help students build critical thinking and citizenship skills. Yet, educators have often fallen behind in understanding teens’ culture and popular media consumption, with additional constraints in media literacy skills and school support.
The media environment has also drastically changed within the last two decades. The old, top-down business model of putting rigid content in fixed places and making audiences come to it has been upended. Our society has been witnessing the new, bottom-up creation and spread of user-generated and social media content with creative forms of audience engagement.
Teens are no longer passively receiving pre-determined content. They have transformed the media system by producing and remixing content, curating and sharing content with their choice of audience, and socializing and collaborating with one another to give rise, reflect on, and sustain socio-cultural shifts. They are learning not just from the media, but also from their peers and virtual friends, as fans and prosumers, within their interest-based networks, online and offline.
We at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers (CSS) believe the first critical step in understanding storytelling for teens is to truly hear and learn from them on the issues that they think matter. As adult researchers, the authors of this piece have moved beyond their teen years. But our care for and commitment to researching teens remains. Every generation of teens will have their own thoughts on various emergent issues of their times that require careful unpacking and in-depth conversations. This is why our team was motivated to conduct a survey, CSS Teens & Screens 2022: #Authenticity, that did just that: listen to teens.
We first worked with teens (ages 13-18) through our Youth Media REPresentation Team to help design our survey questions. Conversations occurred between the researchers and the teens to refine the survey items, topics, language, and scope in the survey design’s beginning stages.
With the finalized survey questions, we then surveyed 662 teenagers (ages 13-18) from across the United States. We directly asked the surveyed teens what topics they wish to see in entertainment media, and which kinds of media feel more authentic to them.
Our most interesting findings include the following:
- When asked whether they’d prefer to see escapist or more true-to-life movies and television shows, teenagers across all demographics resoundingly rejected aspirational content that valorizes fame and financial gain that Hollywood used to popularize. Instead, they opted for fun and escapist content (37.8%), real-life issues that impact society (21%), and relatable content (19.6%).
- Teens’ top two choices of topics were hopeful, uplifting stories about people beating the odds, and stories about people with lives unlike their own. Also in the top five rankings of preferred topics were superheroes, mental health, and family life.
- An imaginative casting question had the majority of our respondents casting a Black male as the hero of a TV show or movie (23.6%), and a White male as the villain (34.9%).
- American teens spent the majority of their time on social media (52.7%). Social media was the content they perceived to do the best job in offering authentic and diverse content (55.1%).
Our findings have been covered by various news outlets including Deadline Hollywood, IndieWire, and Kidscreen Magazine. We believe in the value our findings will provide to content creators and educators committed to bridging the gaps between Hollywood and schools with teens. We aim to conduct this survey annually as our research knowledge continues to grow alongside incoming generations of teens, and as we find more ways to involve teens in this process.
Continuing our Youth Media REPresentation program, we hope to expand our existing working relationships with teens and integrate them more into various research and outreach processes.
Listening to teens is more than just understanding teens’ media habits or choice of media. It should also incorporate teens’ diverse perspectives throughout the whole research procedure: from co-brainstorming the research topic, co-designing the survey items, co-consolidating the research goals, and teaching and learning from teens just as much as teens will teach and learn from us researchers.
Actively listening to teens’ opinions to craft genuine storytelling paves the way towards the co-creation of interactive spheres with teens. Teens deserve to be part of conversations on entertainment media that concern and impact them directly.
Guest post by Stephanie Rivas-Lara, Becky Pham, MA & Yalda T. Uhls, PhD – Center for Scholars and Storytellers
Stephanie Rivas-Lara (she/her) is currently a first-year graduate student working to obtain her Master of Social Welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she also received her B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Spanish. She currently works as the research coordinator for the Center for Scholars & Storytellers, where she focuses on providing support on varying projects focused on diversity and representation.
Becky Pham is a Fellow at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers (CSS) based at the University of California, Los Angeles where she works on projects that bridge the gap between academic research and content creators for positive youth development. She is a social science researcher in communication and media studies. She is working on her Ph.D. at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, specializing in digital media use and popular culture consumption by parents, young people and immigrant communities. Her writing has appeared on Psychology Today. She has appeared on ABC7 Eyewitness News and her work has been covered by DEADLINE, IndieWire, Kidscreen, and SBS Evening News. For more information, visit https://beckypham.com/.
Dr. Yalda T. Uhls is an internationally recognized, award-winning research scientist, educator and author, studying how media affect young people. Her peer reviewed research has been featured in many news outlets including NPR and the NY Times. In her former career, she was a senior movie executive at MGM and Sony. Uhls is the founding director of The Center for Scholars & Storytellers, a research organization based at UCLA, which bridges the gap between social science research and media creation to support authentic and inclusive stories for youth. Uhls is also an adjunct professor at UCLA where she does research on how media affect the social behavior of tweens and teens and teaches a class on Digital Media and Human Development and is the author of the parenting book Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact not Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age. Dr. Uhls knowledge of how media content is created and the science of how media affect children inform her unique perspective.