YA Strike Zone February 2018

The Damaging Myth of “Teen Behavior”

Anthony Bernier

There is no such thing as “teen behavior.”

Using that term is peddling a library–specific version of “fake news.”

In our current “me too” moment, powerful individuals and entire institutions exhibiting adult misbehavior are being called into question every day: religious institutions, entertainment, law enforcement and corrections, education, government, and sports. As in the recent internationally respected gymnastics doctor at Michigan State University abusing young patients and athletes for decades – sometimes with parents in the room at the time. Trusted adults, respected professionals, and powerful institutions daily visit illegal and immoral abuses upon young people.

When examined rationally, such epithets as “teen behavior,” however, look nothing so much as the profession’s incessant punching–down on youth instead of defending or advocating for them. Moreover, libraries are supposed to be the advocates.

The list of rational questions calling attention to this fake news appears endless, and none of the answers make libraries look good. Let’s look at a few of these questions: First, what does “behavior” even mean? Does it mean violence in the library or just a shove? Does it mean disturbing everyone or anyone? Does it mean yelling at staff or simply using a swear word?

Why do we never refer to positive behavior? Why, in other words, is “behavior” always code for anti–social?

How is it that “behavior” only refers to youth? What do any of these behaviors have to do with age? Is “teen behavior” more disruptive simply because young adults are involved?

How can such sweeping generalizations be made of an entire social group? Substitute such a sweeping claim for another social category: “women’s behavior?” Try substituting in an entire racial group’s “behavior.” Now try a religious group. How are these claims so clearly examples of bigotry except when hurled against young people?

How do libraries commonly respond to so–called “teen behaviors?” Typically, they swat them away like so many flies—rarely taking them seriously. Young adults are banished and thrown–out of libraries across the country every day for any number of arbitrarily, ill–defined, and unevenly–enforced infractions. These institutional responses, because they involve teenagers, are not considered important enough to document or record in “incident reports”—preventing any systematic study so that we cannot even answer basic questions.

So, what resources do libraries have to better inform or change this mischaracterization? Best not look to YALSA. Despite the empty admonition in the recent “Call to Action,” to “avoid common . . . negative stereotypes about teens,” the nation’s most important YA association engages a nearly endless supply of unfair, imbalanced, and unsupported anti–youth stereotypes—in workshops, on panels, in “guidelines” and articles, and at webinars on “Teen Behavior,” “Behavior Management,” “Managing Difficult Behavior,” “Risk Behaviors,” “Behavior Problems,” “Out–of–Control Behavior,” and in promotion of such unqualified and outright lies as “Teenage aggression is on the rise in the country.”

For all of YALSA’s guidelines, top tips, and “best practice” claims, the association offers precious little evidence that these training recommendations do anything at all—except endorse and reproduce age–based bigotry.

Thus, without evidence and facts to learn about patterns of actual “teen behaviors,” without proper associational support and development, several negative consequences follow. First and foremost, without taking any of these issues seriously, the profession continues to lack justification for making any generalizations—positive or negative—about anyone’s “behaviors.” What remains is the uncritical perpetuation of the library’s fake news about young adults.

Another consequence of perpetuating the “teen behavior” myth is that good and pro–social experiences of the vast majority of young people in libraries never receive the air–time they deserve. Facts somehow never correct the stereotype. No amount of “good behavior” can un–ring that bell.

While we do not have any data or analysis about the young adults thrown–out of libraries every day, we do have facts about the historical record they are mounting outside of libraries. YouthFacts.org investigates and debunks such anti–youth myths and contrasts them against authoritative sources (such as the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports). At YouthFacts, we find claims of worsening behavior trends among youth, (crime, depression, gay teen suicide, bullying and cyberbullying, internet predation, truancy, narcissism, “sexting,” gun violence, girls’ violence, dating violence, smoking, media–inspired violence, “hooking up,” “incivility,” among others) either cannot be documented or are subject to such vague definitions as to be meaningless.

A stronger contrast to library assumptions and myths could not be starker.

A third consequence of not confronting the “teen behavior” myth is that at least one of the roles distinguishing credentialed professionals from paraprofessionals goes unaddressed. Aside from understanding our profession’s foundational ethical commitments, and our qualifications to serve at any level in any information agency, one of the most distinguishing qualifications of the professional is responsibility for supervision and training of library staff. Without confronting the bigoted stereotype of the “teen behavior” myth during staff development professionals effectively reproduce it for the rest of the library community.

Indeed, the co–founder of VOYA herself, Dorothy M. Broderick, was famous for stating it plainly: “In all but the most exceptional circumstances, persistent discipline problems can be traced to poor attitudes by the staff . . .” Broderick’s quote raises the specter of how libraries and their staff often create the very contexts in which normal youth experience becomes the library’s equivalent of criminal or aggravated enhancement.

Is it only ironic that libraries reserve these exaggerated reactions for the very group it claims to serve?

When was the last time your library security staff were trained, and evaluated, for demonstrating understanding and respect for young library users? Increasingly, we farm–out those responsibilities to “let Security handle it.”

Instead, our role should be to safeguard and protect young people from being unfairly characterized and victimized by library policy and daily practice. It ought to be squarely in the strike zone of information professionals, especially those considering themselves “youth advocates,” to confront such injurious claims against young adults.

We have so much more to be proud of than to fear.

Anthony Bernier is full Professor at San Jose State University’s School of Information where he teaches, conducts research, and publishes on the administration of equitable services with young people. A fourteen-year YA specialist librarian and veteran administrator, he is a former chair of YALSA’s New Directions Task Force, served a four-year term on ALA’s Committee on Accreditation (COA), and published a Festschrift honoring VOYA co-founder Dorothy M. Broderick. He lives in Oakland, California, and rides a BMW R1150RT.

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