Optimism and pessimism around youth, pop culture and texts

By Derek Jensen (Tysto) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As our unit on Youth Pop Culture and Texts draws to a close, I am in a reflective mood.  I have been thinking about how teachers, parents and the general public view some of the ideas we’ve discussed in our unit.  I started to consider whether a person’s personality shapes their views about technology and social media. Are optimistic people more like to view the internet and technology and social media with rose coloured glasses?  Are pessimistic people more likely to see risks rather than rewards?

It is easy to be pessimistic regarding young people and their engagement with social media when all you hear in the press is reports of cyber bullying and the effects on young people’s self esteem and mental health.  It is seen as dangerous territory and something to be avoided and to warn children against.  I have been involved in a number of cyber safety sessions from a couple of schools, both as parent and as a teacher.  Some session are more positive and practical than others, but all have had an overarching emphasis on the dangers. Recent media coverage was given to the supposed link between IPad use at home and kids being easily distracted in class.

On the other hand, I’ve encountered parents and teachers who have a very positive view on the wonders of modern technology and can only see the advantages.   I’ve seen many parents of very young children, encouraging IPad use as soon as they are old enough to stare at the screen, perhaps believing they are giving their children an advantage through early adoption of technology.  There are also many parents who are happy for their kids to be involved in any social media, regardless of guidelines from the sites themselves.

Where do I sit?  On the fence, probably!  I think greater engagement with anything helps to remove some of the fear, and this is also the case with social media and technology.  Obviously there are pitfalls, but if we are aware of the way social media works, we have an advantage in identifying those earlier and establishing some guidelines for students to follow that are practical and helpful.  Also, much of the advice we give students in other areas are just as relevant.  In regards to bullying and harassment the general guidelines we give students can be readily transferred to the online world.  In text production, we already encourage students to consider their audience.  When reading and viewing texts, good teachers ask students to reflect on writers’ motivations, and to consider whose voices we aren’t hearing.  So many of the skills required for digital literacy are already being formed, and I would argue social media can be a helpful platform in developing them further.

So on the whole I’m now more positive about young people engaging with social media and experiencing  the benefits of the big wide world of the world wide web.  Perhaps it all has less to do with personality types and more to do with fear of the unknown.  And the only way to fix that is through greater involvement ourselves.  So I’m off to sign up to Instagram!


Social media, body image and Brandy Melville

I was watching morning TV on the weekend and there was a segment discussing the controversy surrounding the clothing line Brandy Melville.  The controversy revolves around the fact that Brandy Melville only cater to very small women.  Their sizing is generally ‘small‘ or OSFM (one size fits most), and it’s argued that this is giving young girls a distorted view of what‘s a normal body shape.

I’d never heard of the brand, but my ears pricked up when they mentioned that they don’t pay for advertising but instead have gained their market since their introduction into the U.S. through social media, most particularly Instagram. Given that I’ve been advocating for an increased use of social media in education, I thought I should investigate.  I looked at their Instagram site:

A screenshot of Brandy Melville's Instagram

A screenshot of Brandy Melville’s Instagram

There are countless images of relaxed laid back fashion with a beach vibe.  Although it’s a bit too casual for my tastes, I can certainly see the appeal to their teen market.

My next port of call was Pinterest.  I typed the word ‘brandy’ into the search box and straightaway came the  suggestion of ‘brandy melville’, followed by ’brandy’ (and my eye is immediately attracted to the image of Nigella’s Dense Chocolate Loaf with Brandy and Coffee recipe, a sure sign I’m not Brandy Melville’s target market!), ‘brandy melville outfits’, ‘brandy melville diy’ ,’ brandy melville usa’.  Now given that Pinterest is quite popular as a source of recipes and cocktail inspiration I thought that was fairly telling.  There are lot of people searching for this brand.

When you search on YouTube for Brandy Melville the first suggestions is ‘Brandy Melville haul’, part of the You Tube phenomenon of young women showing off their purchases online.  Apparently that’s a thing.

Here’s an example of a Brandy Melville haul on You Tube:

It would be difficult to find a complaint video amongst the many positive haul videos, but apparently much of the discussion surrounding the brand stemmed from a vlogger complaining about her treatment by staff due to her size. There has certainly since been a lot of media discussion of the brand, its marketing and its sizing. There was an open letter  published in The Huffington Post from a teenage shopper, a lot of online chatter, and this column by a business professor.

For a growing number of Brandy critics and fashion activists, Brandy Melville is an oppressive ideological force that supports social evils such as poor self-esteem, distorted perceptions of weight, social exclusion and eating disorders.

This sounds serious, and many might see it as yet another argument against the increasing use of social media by young people, along with the thinspo phenomenon, online bullying  and the like.

However, you could argue that social media has given a voice to many who don’t fit the usual image of fashion followers.  Plus size blogging (examples include The Plus Side of Me and The Curvy Fashionista) has been one of the successes of blogging in the last few years. The New Yorker’s Lizzie Widdicombe covered this year’s Full Figured Fashion Week in New York and spoke to many in the plus size fashion industry:

The blogger Nicolette Mason pointed to an “information gap”—the lack of media coverage devoted to plus-size fashion and the fact that, for the most part, fashionable plus-size women aren’t represented in the engines of mainstream consumerism: celebrity magazines and television.

So it seems social media can provide a range of views, images and ideas that mainstream media doesn’t, and it’s up to young people to choose which ones they focus on.

My daughter are 9 and 11, and not yet on social media.  When I do let them join Facebook, Instagram, read blogs, etc.  My hope, reflecting that of the commentator on Weekend Sunrise, is  that fashion and beauty don’t make up a large part of their self worth or their online experiences.  I hope that they will find inspiring role models who try to make the world a better place.

I think that’s why I’m a fan of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at the Party.   While I’m not a regular watcher of the YouTube channel, I like seeing the links to great news and ideas in my Faceboook feed.   Recent links have included Istagram ‘shelfies’, a TED talk by Isabelle Allende, Malala Yousafzai’s recent Nobel Peace Prize win, and Kid President and Grover’s Socktober Telethon urging people to donate socks to the homeless.  But I wonder if some teenagers might see this as a bit too ‘worthy’or ‘preachy’.

So my questions are: How do we give young people the tools to search for the good stuff? How do we guide them to explore the range of views on social media and not simply those that are popular and fashionable?

I’ve added a resource page of inspiring social media to maybe provide some different areas for young people to explore.

Reference List

Giesler, Markus. “Why Brandy Melville Should Listen to Its Plus-Size Fans.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 17 Oct. 2014. Web. 18 Oct. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/markus-giesler/brandy-melville-and-the-p_b_5994102.html&gt;.

Khrais, Reema. “Showing Off Shopping Sprees, Fashion ‘Haulers’ Cash In Online.” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2014. <http://www.npr.org/2013/03/14/174305909/showing-off-shopping-sprees-fashion-haulers-cash-in-online&gt;.

“Masters of spin – Sunrise.” Masters of spin – Sunrise. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2014. <https://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunrise/video/watch/25290983/masters-of-spin/&gt;.

Renaldo, Lani. “An Open Letter to Brandy Melville.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 Mar. 2014. Web. 18 Oct. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lani-renaldo/brandy-melville-clothes_b_4994923.html&gt;.

“TRY-ON HAUL: Brandy Melville, Victoria’s Secret, Windsor.. | Aspyn Ovard.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1C-tMCIOjUg&gt;.

Widdicombe, Lizzie. “Reinventing Plus-Size Style.” The New Yorker. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2014. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/22/bigger-better&gt;.

Access to new media and the growing gap

I recently organised a private rental of my mum’s home.  She has entered a nursing home and the incoming rent will help pay her high costs there.  When discussing  payment of rent I suggested her new tenants pay directly into her account using online banking.  But the tenants explained they don’t have the internet. Yes, it seems there are still some people who don’t have access to the internet.  Now in this particular case, it’s no big deal, they’ll just make a weekly trek down to the bank, but the discussion highlighted to me the general inequality in access to technology.  It’s not just about paying rent (although obviously that’s pretty important).  It’s the social and cultural capital that stems from an ongoing use of technology, providing young people with knowledge and skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.

A few weeks back in our Youth Popular Culture and Texts readings, I came across this quote from Jenkins (2006) which resonated with me:

Historically, those youth who had access to books or classical recordings in their homes, whose parents took them to concerts or museums, or who engaged in dinner conversation developed, almost without conscious consideration, skills that helped them perform well in school.Those experiences, which were widespread among the middle class and rare among the working class, became a kind of class distinction, which shaped how teachers perceived students.These new forms of cultural participation may be playing a similar role.These activities shape what skills and knowledge students bring into the classroom, and in this fashion determine how teachers and peers perceive these students.

It’s not simply the lack of access to information. In my real estate example, it’s not just paying rent, it’s about knowing how to research your rights as a tenant online, or perhaps starting up an action group for older tenants.

In more general terms, it’s the ability to fully participate and critically engage with the online world that many young people will miss out on, unless we as educators can somehow close the gap.  It’s students building their own PLN.  It’s about making connections with others. It’s skilling students to sift through the enormous unwieldy pile of stuff a Google search generates. It’s about filling their Facebook, Twitter, feeds with inspiring messages rather than those that reinforce stereotypes. Some such as Jane McGonigal even believe that gaming can make people better collaborators, build bonds and ultimately change the world.

Students whose home environments provide them with good technology are at a huge advantage in learning these things.  We obviously can’t address the gap unless we take seriously the role of teaching digital literacy in school.



Reference List

“5 Reasons You Should Be Teaching Digital Citizenship.” Global Digital Citizen Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2014. <http://globaldigitalcitizen.org/5-reasons-you-should-be-teaching-digital-citizenship/&gt;.

Jenkins, Henry. “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Part One).” Confessions of an AcaFan. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2014. <http://henryjenkins.org/2006/10/confronting_the_challenges_of.html&gt;.

McGonigal, Jane. “Gaming can make a better world.” Jane McGonigal:. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world?language=en&gt;.


Technology and commercialism in the classroom


My eldest daughter is in Year 6 and about to head off to a new school for her secondary education.  Schools are currently organising their information  sessions for new students and parents, and part of the discussion between parents is whether the school is allowing students to bring their own device, whether the school has specified the exact device to be brought, or whether there is a laptop hire scheme, etc.  An interesting comment by one parent was that they have to buy an Apple as the school is an Apple affiliated school.

Maybe it’s my Android leanings (in my little part of the world we seem sharply divided between Apple and Android users with much discussion and justification as to why!)), but it started me questioning the commercial creep of tech companies into schools.

Around this time last year it was announced that Queensland secondary students would be able to gain credit toward their leaving certificates for completing units from the Microsoft IT Academy’s suite of 400 online courses.  This raised some questions about the benefits for the company in hooking kids on to their brand, rather than simply providing them with skills.  The Gruen Transfer’s Adam Ferrier commented on this:

 “From a brand perspective, being endorsed by the state education system gives them huge credibility – the implication is that Microsoft’s training program becomes the de facto gold standard,” Ferrier said.

“Obviously the other benefit is a direct relationship with young consumers. The more familiar brands become, the more we like them, the more we like them, the more we buy them.”

The benefits for the retailers are obvious, but there are clearly advantages for the schools also.  Being able to bulk order IPads from Apple, for example would help make it the more financially sensible idea for them, with the addition of a lot of back up support.

It’s not just in Australia that people have questioned the commercialism of software and technology companies in schools.  This Colorado report, as well as discussing soft drink and junk food marketing in schools, discusses the issue of digital marketing and the introduction of Microsoft’s Bing for Schools search engine.  Bing in the Classroom aims to provide an advertising free web environment  and child appropriate content.  But of course, by doing so, they are also cleverly marketing their own product and aligning their search engine as a ‘school approved’ one to parents.  And every time a child searches on Bing they earn points for their school to earn a free Surface tablet.

Earlier this year, the US President Obama announced the ConnectED program, a big push to get improve the provision of technology in classrooms in the US.  It includes partnerships with big corporations such as Apple (providing $100 million worth of Apple IPads), Microsoft (providing ‘deep discounts’’ on Windows) and internet providers.  Some online discussion was given to this in the context of the demise of net neutrality (awesome video on that here), and its implications for poorer schools and school districts.  After spending way too long reading about this, I feel like the advantages of this program will hopefully be greatest in those very areas.

I’m really not a tin hat anti big business conspiracy theorist.  I recognise there are advantages to these kinds of connections, not just from a financial perspective, but also for professional development and tech support reasons.   I just would hope that we carefully analyse and give thought to the best products that will enhance student learning, and not just those that offer us the best deal, or are the most popular.

Reference List






What’s cool in and out of school

Yggdrasil by sunsetagain on Deviantart

Yggdrasil by sunsetagain on Deviantart

My task this week was to curate a collection of youth pop culture pins on a new Pinterest board (you can find that here).  While researching what’s popular with young people, some interesting trends emerged.  Firstly, the popularity of turning popular young adult fiction into movies: The Hunger games trilogy, The Maze Runner, The Fault in our Stars, the Divergent series.  While there has long been a tradition of turning classic children’s book into films (one of my favourites is National Velvet starring the ridiculously beautiful Elizabeth Taylor), it seems to have headed into overdrive following the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter series and Twilight.  It’s costly to write and produce films for any demographic, so I guess it makes sense that movie makers would turn to stories that already have an audience they can build on, but it also highlights for me the lack of original ideas coming out of Hollywood.

Secondly, I was inspired by the creative ways that young people respond to and participate with pop culture. There are examples of fan fiction, memes and You Tube parodies based on film, books and television series.  For many young people, gaming culture also involves more than simply playing the game.  There are gaming fan fictions, online sharing of gameplay, drawings shared on art sites such as Deviantart.  Also, there are many kids proud to be members of subculture groups (such as Bronies, steampunk, and lovers of manga), rather than following the mass pop culture mob.

The rise of participatory culture on the web has allowed kids to get creative, find an audience, and find others who love the same things they do. Which is very cool.

Finding ‘kindred spirits’ in books

Being picked on most of my life, I never had many friends due to my own insecurities and fear of loss, but through the most difficult times in my life, Harry was my best friend when I needed him most and he lent me his world in which to escape my own grief and hurt, and for this I thank you from the deepest part of my heart. To me, it’s like Harry and I grew up together. I have grown a lot emotionally over the years and am now sixteen (as is Harry). Thank you so very much for lending me your hero and his world. He is my hero, and you are my heroine.

This quote is from a letter J.K. Rowling received about her Harry Potter books.  You can read the full letter here at one of favourite websites, Letters of Note, and Rowling’s reply, which references L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.  The letter really moved me and reminded me of one of the reasons I ,and many others, love books.  Reading can be an escape, it can be transformative, but one of the very powerful realisations obtained through reading is that we are not alone, that others have similar thoughts, feelings and experiences to ourselves.

While many young people breeze through their teenage years, some can feel alone and isolated, wanting to move away from their parents influence but not having the confidence or skills to fully connect with other teenagers.  And it doesn’t hurt either group to feel that there are other people like them.

from thereadables.tumbler.com

from thereadables.tumbler.com

James Baldwin was an American writer who knew about difference, being black and gay in the early 20th century.  His quote  reinforces this idea, and the wonder of books:

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.

Another writer who would feel quite comfortable with the ‘different’ tag is John Waters.  A controversial film maker, he has made a living writing, filming, collecting and documenting the unexpected.  He grew up in a middle-upper class Roman catholic family in suburban Baltimore, attending private schooling.  He also reflects this idea of finding your own version of difference in literature, in a 2000 interview:

It wasn’t until I started reading and found books they wouldn’t let us read in school that I discovered you could be insane and happy and have a good life without being like everybody else. I don’t begrudge people who are “normal” like that. I like my family. I like kids. I like my nieces and nephew, though I have no desire to have a kid myself. I have no desire to be married or join the Army or anything like that. I’m not one bit like everybody else. And proud of it!

It may not be exactly what Montgomery’s dreamy Anne had in mind when she talked about kindred spirits, but it echoes the same idea to me.  As a future librarian, I feel the pressure to ensure that the fiction selected for our libraries reflects a variety of voices.  The more voices, the more likely an isolated kid might find one that speaks to them, and feel that connection with a fictional character that bookworms know so well.  I’m not alone in this call.  Cassandra Clare author of the popular The Mortal Instruments series is quoted in an article calling for more gay relationships in young adult fiction.  And there’s a tumbler here advocating Diversity in YA.

So how do we ensure there are diverse voices represented in our libraries? And how do we connect students to them?

What do James Bond, Coldplay and Grand Theft Auto have in common?

An image of writer Ian Fleming by Paul Baack

An image of writer Ian Fleming by Paul Baack

When I recently interviewed a 15 year old student, I asked him what code name or alias he’d like to go by, as I would be publishing his responses about pop culture in this blog.  He said he’d like to go by “James’’, and I’ll admit that had me a little perplexed. Not exactly the exciting pseudonym I was expecting.  Not the coolest, I thought to myself.  It turns out, though, that James has become quite the Ian Fleming fan.

The Fleming books seem like an odd choice for a Year 10 student in 2014.  After a quick glance on Goodreads, it seems that many find the writing dull and dated, and quite misogynistic.  But on reflection,  I guess I can certainly see the appeal of action, espionage and glamorous women to an adolescent boy.  Even Fleming himself described his writings as ‘pillow book fantasies of an adolescent mind’.

James began reading these after watching a Bond movie, and we had quite a discussion about the film versus book issue, and like many of us he prefers the books to the films.  James’ also loved the Harry Potter books and movies.

There was another surprise for me, when I asked James about his music preferences. He explained that he preferred music from the 90s.  The two bands he mentioned were Coldplay and Stereophonics.   He couldn’t exactly pinpoint why.  James and another friend in his year at school have formed a little subculture of 90s music lovers.  His taste in music was not what I was expecting.

James’ gaming preferences were perhaps a little more mainstream than his taste in books and movies. His preferred console is the Xbox, and he likes to play Minecraft, which he’s been playing for about 6 months. He also confessed to loving Grand Theft Auto 5, a game which Commonsense Media describes as ‘an M-rated action game brimming with gang violence, nudity, and extremely coarse language, and drug and alcohol abuse. It isn’t a game for kids.’  He wasn’t keen to elaborate on why he likes this game.  He also explained that he plays this one on his own.  If he has friends over, he’ll play something more kid friendly, such as FIFA, partly as it’s a one player game but also as he knows not all parents of his friends would allow them to play it.  He also liked finding random games on  the Miniclip site through the web browser of his Xbox.

I asked James about his use of social media and he explained that he doesn’t use it much.  He has a Facebook account, but he says he doesn’t post much on there, but uses it for chat, and to keep in touch with relatives overseas.  He mentioned that most other kids he knows are on Twitter, but he’s not that interested, so doesn’t have an account.

James’ taste in pop culture were interesting to me.  He happily acknowledged that his tastes are different, but ‘different in a good way’. He has mined the pop culture of the past to find books and music that appeal more than the current offerings, while still enjoying the more mainstream pleasures of XBox and Minecraft.  I’m pretty impressed actually with his lack of concern about what’s popular (or not).

As a potential librarian, my main thoughts about my interview with James were about what books I could recommend to him in the thriller genre.  He hadn’t read the Jack Reacher books, but then neither have I so I felt a bit like a fraud suggesting them.

So over to you, dear readers.  What other books would appeal to someone in Year 10 who enjoyed the Bond books?

Reference list