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Youth and media in Europe

Youth in Europe

Producing a portray of European youth, its mediatic consumptions and the behaviours that the latter may encourage in a single article would be extremely pretentious.

It is common knowledge that the concept "youth" itself is neither fixed nor given but fluid. Even if our research has focussed on a targeted group of youths aged between 16 and 20, the findings showed a heterogeneity that can be understood only by considering many factors.

If childhood can be more easily defined in terms of age and stages of physical development, at the contrary youth, adolescence and adulthood are less clear-cut. The characteristics seem to depend mainly on social and cultural factors. More specifically, they are outcomes of family's situation, economic circumstances, and geographical, historical and social determinants.

Do the youths that we are considering come from the north of Europe, the Mediterranean and what has been defined as Eastern Europe - that is now entering the E.U.? Do they live in a big city, suburbs, or rural area? Do they go to school, have they already entered the labour market, or are job-hunting? In other words, are they still supported by their family, economically autonomous or do they receive unemployment benefits? Specifically, does their family situation reflect conventional paradigms, or it is mono-parental, or "re-composed"? Many more issues can alter even more their portrait...

Nonetheless, these are only some parameters and not necessarily the most important ones. Also, the cultural heritage of a boy/girl will sooner or later influence his/her life and will have a (huge) impact on his/her academic and professional iter. Depending whether s/he is a local citizen, an immigrant or a descendent of immigrants, with legal permits or not, s/he will have different experiences. His/her legal status and the levels of integration/assimilation are most of the times closely linked to an unstable economic situation and little acknowledgment from the local population. Moreover, religious practices or simply religious beliefs are often key components in most immigrants' life, and this often constitutes a further catalyst for their marginalization.

These are just few elements that shape the extreme diversity of European youths, who are searching their identity in a world, which is undergoing profound technological, social and ethical changes. In order to be able to talk about this youth it is therefore important to emphasize in the first place the "patchwork" that represents it.

Within this heterogeneous panorama, it is however possible to find a certain number of common features. One of these is without any doubt the youth's need to acquire an intercultural awareness that allows them to deal with the impellent social challenges that are escalating both within the continent and at a more global level. Another contact point among European youth is represented by the urge to establish their individual identity, and their way of being and thinking. Lastly, another element that cannot be underplayed is the crucial role played by the mediatic landscape that has an impact on our behaviour.

Youth and media

Youth, independently from their origin and cultural habits, cannot escape the media control. Sometimes there can be a proper hypnotic relation between mass media and youth. Nonetheless, it is usually the assiduous utilization of these media that affects the individual and collective imaginary.

In other and more rare cases, youths manage to place the messages absorbed from the media into perspective, and apply their critical thinking. The youth who is able to think critically demonstrates to have received an education that allows him/her to escape the mediatic illusion and realize the relativity of the contents and forms of these messages.

We shall not forget that a young person from western Europe spend more time in front of a TV screen rather than at school's desks, given s/he can afford to attend one. From six to eighteen years old, during primary and secondary school, youths spend 11.000 hours in front of a blackboard and 15.000 in front of the TV. Interestingly, these data do not consider all the other "screens" - i.e. computer, game boy, mobiles, SMS, GSM, reviews, posters... - and all the other visual and audio technologies that place themselves between the youth and reality. Therefore, besides all the challenges entailed in being young and in trying to establish oneself, besides the obligation of living together with other people and other cultures, besides the challenges to fight and obtain the right of citizenship, young people have also to learn to deal with mass media.

As already mentioned, mass media are omnipresent in the universe of European youth. At the top, radio maintains a large audience, specifically thanks to the development of free radio and their musical line-up. Computers are by now pretty widespread in all countries, but economic limits still restrain their diffusion. This shows that computers have not succeeded in replacing TV with its VHS recorder and all the systems of multi-diffusion that allow to diversify the offer and multiply the derived products. Nonetheless, this ranking is temporary and in the near future new mass media will enter the top ten (among these the mobile telephony, whose possible applications have been barely explored). European youth has therefore good chances to benefit from this mediatic competition and its implications. Although youths' economic resources often prevent them from accessing this universe, it is possible to imagine that in the near future - thanks to this competitive system that tends to lower the prices - even European youth will be able to take advantage of the technological innovations introduced in the market and contribute.

An analysis on "youth and Internet" published by CLEMI in 2001 suggested that many young girls and boys surf the web and utilize browsers. They watch extracts of videos, listen to music and are very keen on images "for the sake of looking at them and re-use them". Furthermore, in Internet they also can send sms and play with videogames.

Interestingly, thanks to Internet, music has become more available: people can listen to it online or as their soundtrack as they surf the web. Web surfing or TV zapping are extremely common practices among young people, since they become a way of being and a model of behaviour. Marketing experts are starting to get to know youths' variable nature and advertising politics, and they take advantage of it by advancing themes that mirror youths' thirst for transgression. This is valid for some cloths, drinks, beauty products but also in general for musical and audio-visual productions.

At this point, it is crucial to analyse at much deeper level the relation between young people and mass media focusing on three themes that have already been mentioned: youth, interculture and citizenship.

How do mass media deal with and represent these three themes? Which representations do they present to the audience? How do young people react to these images? Which answers do they put forward? Which alternative (or that could be alternative) productions are realized by the youths themselves?

Youths' representations in mass media

For the purpose of the research we need to limit this discussion to few focal points, which can generate interesting considerations on the matter. This paper will only touch upon the major tendencies, since it does not aim at being comprehensive or claim to provide scientific truths...

The media addressed to all the different types of audience are usually neither soft nor objective when it comes to talk about young people. Young people are usually seen as synonyms of problems, delinquency, violent suburbs, drugs and rave-parties, especially if we are talking about young immigrants. These images appear especially in some documentaries and magazines (both printed and audio-visual) that portray urban culture.

The media that aim at popularity among the young audience sare less strict, but they are still unrealistic. In this instance, we refer to American TV series and soaps like "Friends", but also to a specific European productions like "Hélene et les garçons", which is so light and insignificant that it reassures parents. These productions tackle themes such as emotional education with all the traditional stereotypes, but with little content and nothing that refers to the everyday life of adolescents. C comme ç@, is a good example of the typology of program described above. This series is broadcasted in the TV channel "France 2" and it aspires to be an alternative to American serials, as it portrays young people between school and their first professional internship. Despite their aim, the program does not succeed in faithfully representing the social reality... Nonetheless, many young people watch these productions seeking for paradigms to emulate, or some form of sexual and emotional initiation. It is often the case of those who look these programs that they are deceived: they think they will find answers to the numberless questions that a young person usually has in relation to social life, sexuality, relationship between adolescents and parents, school, the labour market etc...

It is not surprising therefore that many young people are fond of reality shows, as seeking for advices and indirect psychological help. Within the last few years, reality TV has undergone many transformations but it still manages to monopolize the attention of young people with its false promises of easy success and its pseudo-lessons on social and emotional issues.

Many mass media that are addressed to young people - and here we refer in particular to magazines and web sites - are designed specifically for young people as consumers. In France this is rather obvious especially in the magazine "Jeune et Jolie". Yet, in each European country people will find something very similar. The number of copies of "Jeune et Jolie" reach the 350.000 copies in the summer time. It offers columns and articles on society, beauty, music, cinema, entertainment, mails from the readers and tests to measure their ability to get or keep the "guy" that you have chosen. Needless to say, this type of mediatic product can be found for young men too. These media gather information about life and love but also about video games and "crunchier" web sites.

Through mass media, it is easy to get the impression that the "generation with trainers" is taken hostage by brands: once it was the time of Chevignon, and now it has been replaced by Nike, Adidas and Cat. And here we come across another crucial issue often linked to out (lucky) young Europeans: globalisation.

We do not have to become too global too quickly. Cinema and more crucially fiction have maintained an approach that is even more different. We will find superficial representations of adolescents, the relationship between parents and adolescents, school and the labour market. Nanni Moretti's film La stanza del figlio, which has gained the Golden Palm at Cannes Festival 2001, offers an extremely delicate representation of adolescence and of the difficulties of being young or simply of living in today's world.

Many educators often refer to this kind of productions in their courses and in their programs, and they combine their activities with analytical analyses of these works, studying both their content and form.

Intercultural Representation

The intercultural issue and the theme of the dialogue between cultures are not placed under the spotlight by the producers of mediatic programs, and even by governmental authorities. Yet, there are some exceptions in few films, comics and documentaries. Nonetheless, it is usually in songs and novels that the most interesting examples can be found.

If one focuses only on the media for young people, it is clear that ideas of interculture are present but in an extremely limited and artificial manner. The castings for TV series and reality shows, which are addressed to adolescents, inevitably include a percentage of blacks or people from the Maghreb. Yet, people often have the impression that they have been included to construct a good image of the producers. Clearly even these people cannot escape the inevitable process of stereotyping. The black person is generally rather ingenuous but nice. The person from the Maghreb is usually a handsome guy, extremely lively and rebellious, but in the end everything is fine... but this is not an effective way for young people to address issues linked to interculture.

Yet, it is important to underline that the concept starts to be included in academic programs, such as the transversal competence presented equally to citizens. Interculture is becoming the key theme of many novels and essays. Antonio Muñoz Molina's Carlota Fainberg is a good example of a fiction text, which touches upon themes such as migration and its consequences and representations of the "self" and "other". Analysing and discussing a work like this in class allow students to assess critically the stereotypes presented by media destined to the large audience.

Interculture is present in enquiries and researches that target young people. We are here referring to certain activities of analysis conducted by media that include students. These initiatives aim at teaching to put into perspective mediatic messages and warning youths of the impact that the readers' social and cultural origin may have on interpretative reading (for instance of a photo published on printed material).

Multiculturalism is today an important and celebrated value: there are many musical events and public concerts, which are considered real sanctuaries by youths.

Representation of citizens

As mentioned above, those media that are addressed to the larger audience (and in particular TV and print) do not emphasize youth's civic engagement but rather their violent behaviours and their detachment from civic values. Their representation revolves around their acts of vandalism, drugs use, lack of humanitarian engagement and political apathy.

We can imagine very easily that the type of civil commitment that interests the youth of 2004 is not placed at national level, as it was the case in the last century. Youth's political commitment is often emotional and focussed on concrete realities. Their claims are usually extremely precise, but not political or institutional. We are far away from a traditional military attitude, today people act led either by enthusiasm or by their absolute rejection, without forgetting that the culture of transgression plays a determinant role.

Youth's commitment exists, is very concrete and works mainly at a planetary level. Kyoto, Porto Alegre, the no-global movement, Amnesty International, the action of non-governmental organizations are triggers that will mobilize them. It seems legitimate to argue that youths feel citizens of the world, of another world, a different world, more human and more pacific. Nonetheless, the media that are destined to the big public rarely mirror this reality. Similarly, the media destined to youth rarely mention these themes. There are some exceptions in political songs and in web sites that attempt to be "alternative" and advance counter-cultures. Two examples will suffice to provide evidence of that: Manu Chao's Clandestino which tackles universalism, no-global culture and illegal immigration, and Renaud's Manhattan-Kaboul which evokes the Youth taken in hostage by History, with its wars and its interest's conflicts.

An alternative media production

The examples provided above explain why many young people are annoyed with media's representations and indifference towards youths. Accordingly, many youths try to express themselves and describe their own reality by themselves, constructing an alternative production, sometimes clumsy but spontaneous and free from all limitations that are inherent in the media world.

Within this context, we can see the rise of musical groups that want to place themselves in the opposite extreme of programs such as "Star Academy", "Pop Star" and so on. We can find youths - although they are still not very numerous - who create both individually and collectively their own web site in order to explain who they are and what they wish to do to change the world.

Others utilize specific structures of production supported by the public sector to affirm their identity and involve the audience on some aspects of their life in connection with the issue of citizenship. For instance, the production 1 + 1 = 3, which is an associative video realized by seven Maroccan youths based in Bruxelles. The participants of the project employed the video camera to interrogate themselves on their cultural identity and on their possible status of young immigrant, often prisoners of divergent cultures. Interestingly, they are able to enrich this cultural conflict through a new liveliness and advancing a "third way".

These workshops offer training in the realm of audio-visual language, filming, audio, and editing. Furthermore, they offer young people the possibility to make their voices heard and eventually continue their academic curricula. Education has to be particularly careful to provide young people with this possibility.


During the Middle Ages, the clergy that acquired a good knowledge of the written language, was not interested in sharing this skill with the population. On the contrary, it had all the interests to keep this culture elitist and this knowledge as their monopoly. Paradoxically, we have sometimes the impression that this protectionist attitude is maintained till now. Yet, in certain cases economic power can allows people to have access to mass communication.

It is therefore extremely important to react. Crucially, teachers and educators have the task of encouraging youths to express themselves and facilitating their access to the production and diffusion infrastructures of the media. This will aid the development of media productions, contribute to modify their neutrality and eventually have an impact on professional productions.

At the same time, it is now clear that youth's education through media has become today a reality in most European academic institutions. Starting from basic teaching, youths are confronted with images and sounds. Teachers have now the habit of integrating their courses with material that comes from classic means of communication (such as cinema, photo, TV, radio), but also with new information and communication technologies. Media are in these cases regarded as supportive tools to learning processes.

There are always more teachers, educators or animators that move from education through media to media education: the means of communication become also the objects of analysis or means of expression. Analysis and production are fundamental steps so that youths can test all the different aspects of media (language, technology, representations, systems of production...). In this way youths come to be associated with the audio-visual productions that are destined to them. Moreover, they can acquire a certain independence of thought and improve their critical thinking. In order to prevent the creation of unsuccessful documents, they can also experiment associative media. Schools and no-profit organizations can involve youths in the production phases, employing them as actors, witnesses but also assistants and collaborators within video researches, reportage, and documentaries. This type of involvement allows them to get closer to the media world, and realise the impact of using different points of view (in the shooting and editing procedures), since it affects the audience's perception of the content of a document. A credible counter-production can be then compared to professional productions and modify youths' representations, by helping them to construct their self-reflections.

These youths' productions need to be supported by the European politics and policies. From this point of view, Glocal Youth is an important mean through which past attitudes can be questioned and new actions advanced.

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