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Tying teenagers down

Why does the UK government want to stop young people 'just hanging out' with their friends?

Stuart Waiton

Topics Politics

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The UK government’s current youth initiatives increasingly focus on monitoring young people’s relationships with one another. This is developing within the youth service, where more individually focused client-based relationships are emerging between youth workers and young people. It has also impacted on schools, with the various bullying initiatives and the emergence of relationship education.

Behind all of these ‘caring’ and ‘supporting’ developments is a concern with what is loosely described as ‘peer pressure’. Young people developing unmediated relationships with one another, something that in the past caused little concern – indeed, was often seen as crucial to the rites of passage young people go through in order to grow up – is today seen as a problem.

So the forthcoming government youth Green Paper reportedly contains plans to ensure that young people have more structured out-of-school activities, rather than being left to their own devices in youth clubs. Citing research carried out by London University’s Institute of Education, which examined the impact of youth activities on young people born in 1970, children’s minister Margaret Hodge explained that ‘just hanging out’ not only does nothing for young people but ‘it can have negative outcomes’.

Whether or not studying the activities of young people who were born in 1970, and were therefore teenagers in the 1980s, can tell us much about young people and the youth service of today is questionable. How the myriad activities, economic pressures, political, social and cultural developments that impact on a young person’s life can be reduced to a critique of ‘hanging out with friends’ is even more dubious. Regardless of this, Hodge has argued that ‘if young people spent time in places without some kind of focus and organisation…they were more likely to have poor educational outcomes, more likely to offend and more likely to end up as smokers’.

Organised activities can no doubt be useful and enjoyable for young people. Ideally, all children would have access to the widest, most challenging array of experiences. In this respect Rupert and Tiffany’s piano and skiing lessons hold definite advantages over Bif and Manny’s ‘hanging out’. However, I suspect that even if Rupert and Tiffany had simply hung out as kids, they would still be low down on the government’s target list of the socially excluded – although you never know, they may have turned out to be smokers!

The government may well want to improve the number and variety of organised activities available to young people, and this could be a good thing. However, Hodge’s pronouncement that the young people who hang out on the streets and in youth clubs ‘would be better off at home watching telly than spending their time with others in this way’ tells us more about the children’s minister’s view of children than about her love of organised activities.

At a time when children just ‘playing out’ has become less and less common, Hodge’s concerns about young people hanging around seems somewhat wide of the mark. Today, for example, only around a fifth of parents describe their children as ‘outdoor kids’ compared with almost two thirds in the mid-1970s. In terms of addressing social problems associated with young people, Hodge would do better to address the problem of ‘cottonwool kids’ than to inflame further public concerns about young people hanging about with each other.

But then this panic about teenagers hanging out has less to do with the real world than with the increasing political and professional preoccupation with young people’s informal relationships. Fundamentally what is being argued here by Hodge is that young people should simply not be left alone together. Rather than Hodge having discovered the benefits of focused youth work for developing young people, her concern is a negative one, based on the presumed need to regulate teenagers’ relationships.

The notion that it is the role of government to monitor and regulate young people’s interactions with their peer group is a new one. In the recent past, society felt able to embrace the sense of freedom and independence often experienced by teenagers hanging out with friends. Today, by comparison, young people having free time to themselves is increasingly understood as a social problem. Rather than encouraging young people’s desire for independence, the government prefers to swamp them with ‘activities’ or let them sit at home with their parents.

New Labour can only imagine the free association of adolescents in a negative way, and consequently feels the need to keep them busy. This approach risks undermining further the development of young people into independent adults. And ironically, the promotion of activities for activities’ sake, coupled with the move to justify these activities through issues of health, educational outcomes and crime reduction, also risks undermining the more positive inspirational aspects of good adventurous youth work.

Stuart Waiton is a director of the youth research group Generation Youth Issues.

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Topics Politics

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