Teens and the Media: Documentary Comparative Essay

The 2001 documentary Merchants of Cool shows how marketers research teen interests, and then use this information to sell products. This seemingly sounds like the power is in the hands of teens. With this system they control what gets sold to them. However, the media has become so powerful and influential that it has, and I don’t believe this is too strong a word, brainwashed society’s needs and interests. This is scary to think about, when teens are very much targeted by marketers. The question then becomes, as stated in the documentary, who’s creating whose culture?

The 2014 documentary Generation Like presents the shift in media that occurred once technology boomed. Teens today have more power than ever before. With social media and ease of content sharing, teens can easily express what they like and are interested in. This is very different than in Merchants of Cool, when marketers once needed “cool hunters” to research what teens liked. Teens have the world at their fingertips. With social media platforms, they can make their voices be heard. With enough likes, followers, and shares, they can influence their peers. However, once again it becomes a question of whether or not teens are really in control of their media. Marketers have found ways to get their audiences to sell the products for them. The question of who’s creating whose culture is once again asked. It becomes evident that in some ways so much has changed, and in other ways nothing has changed at all.

The prompt for this documentary reminds me of the article we read earlier in the semester, which also talked about how popular culture is constantly changing. The article agrees with the documentaries in that teens aren’t really in control of their media. In fact, Haddix, Garcia, and and Price-Dennis (2017) add, “Looking at the covers of YA novels, the posters of the latest Hollywood blockbusters, and the images pasted to articles (both in print and on popular online media), “popular” can be often distilled to key cultural designators: White, thin, able-bodied, heterosexual, wealthy” (p. 23). They suggest that not only do educators need to be aware of the media that teens consume, but they also need to be aware that the media is exclusive to only the most privileged groups of teens. Also, while it’s true that some celebrities like Bethany Mota, who became famous when she was a teen, can find success through YouTube, it’s worth noting that the majority of teens are not going to find nearly as much success. Teens can influence others and use their voice, but it’s difficult to find an audience when the internet is so large.

As a librarian, I agree with Haddix, Garcia, and Price-Dennis. I think it’s important to be aware of many of the problems that come about the media, and to try to solve them with the resources I have. I know I can’t fix everything. I know I can’t save the world, but if I help even just a handful of teens in my community, then I’ll have considered my job well done. For example, the media favors only the most privileged in their representations, and librarians should promote a diverse collection. As discussed in the documentaries, the media is hyper sexualized, and we all know that telling teens to avoid sex has never worked in the history of forever. So one possible solution is to offer nonfiction books on sex education to promote a healthy, safe sex life. I think it’s also important to be aware of some of the downfalls of social media that Generation Like didn’t really talk about. The internet is permanent. That means anything teens post on there can last forever. Even if teens delete their posts, a simple screenshot can come back to haunt them. They have to be careful of the things they say and the photographs they post online. Cyber bullying is also a very real, very scary thing. These issues are more complicated, and can’t simply be resolved with good collection development. Not every teen is going to open up to you about his/her problems, but for those who do want to talk, I believe it’s important that we as librarians should keep our ears open.

Lastly, the media doesn’t mean all doom and gloom for teens. There are many positive impacts that the media has on their lives. While becoming famous from a social media platform is rare, having a voice and reaching out to others isn’t hard to do. Librarians can use social media to advertise programs and connect with their teen patrons. Programming can also implement social media. Through programs teens can create videos, use apps, and share content with each other. The possibilities are endless!

It’s important not to take the problems that the media has to heart. Yes, the media is problematic, but know that those problems aren’t going away anytime soon. Know that being aware of the problems is half the battle, and focus on appreciating all of the things the media can do for teens, rather than the ways it might hurt them.


Frontline (2001). Merchants of cool. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/

Frontline (2014). Generation: Like. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/generation-like/

Haddix, M., Garcia, A., and Price-Dennis, D. (2017). Youth, Popular Culture, and the Media: Examining Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality, and Social Histories. In Hinchman, K. A., Appleman, D. (eds.) Adolescent literacies: A handbook of practice-based research, pp.21-37. New York: The Guilford Press.


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