chapter  39
Media and peer culture: young people sharing norms and collective identities with and through media
BySun Sun Lim
Pages 7

As children and adolescents develop, they are socialized by their peers as well as by adults. These peer groups play the critical socializing functions which imbue in children a sense of their peers’ norms, values and behavioral patterns (Handel et al., 2007). While young people imbibe the adult cultures that surround them, they also absorb the peer culture that underpins and sustains their interactions and relationships with other young people (Brown and Klute, 2003). Peer culture encompasses norms and conventions, shared interests and activities, social and instrumental interaction and the unique modes of communication deployed in all of the aforementioned elements. During the periods of adolescence and early adulthood in particular, peer culture assumes an important role in young people’s lives because their emotional center shifts away from the family (Arnett, 2010). Key constituents of young people’s peer culture, given the priorities of their life stage, often include shared interests and involvement in leisure pursuits such as play, sports, shopping and media (Larson and Verma, 1999). Print, broadcast and online media constitute an increasingly important part of young people’s lives in both industrialized and developing countries and are invariably woven into their peer culture (Arnett, 2010). The ways in which young people integrate their media consumption into their peer culture is the focus of this chapter. Specifically, this chapter will discuss how young people incorporate media content into their peer interactions and appropriate a variety of communication platforms to socialize with their peers, thus generating distinctive traits, norms, practices, codes and shared identities that make up their unique peer culture(s). The chapter is structured according to the three salient ways in which young people around the world today interact with one another: face-to-face, via the mobile phone and over the internet’s myriad communication channels. The chapter then provides a closer examination of youth subcultures that are media based and media facilitated. Throughout the chapter, effort has been made to draw examples from as wide a geographical scope as possible.

Face-to-face interactions with peers are a key facet of youth development as they gradually mature and shift from the social world of their families, towards that of their peer groups. As Pasquier (2008) observes, “[c]ultural preferences and practices are at the very heart of the organization of youth sociability, the base on which one elaborates individual and collective identities”(p. 457). Indeed, extensive research has gone into how media content and devices

are appropriated by young people for socialization with peers, as both material for conversation and as a platform for communication. Prior research has found that as young people interact in school and in leisure settings, media

content is often commandeered as a topic of discussion. A qualitative study of young people in Finland, Switzerland and Spain found that media content lubricates conversation and play, with older children chatting about popular television programs and computer games for example, while younger children engage in role-play where they model themselves after characters drawn from popular culture (Suess et al., 1998). Notably, the teens who were studied felt compelled to watch every episode of a popular television program so that they could participate in discussions about the programme that were likely to take place in school the next day. Indeed, alongside parental mediation of young people’s media consumption, peer interaction about media content also generates norms about what constitutes acceptable content for the group and determines which media they should consume (Nathanson, 2001). Similarly, Pasquier (2008) observes that the enjoyment of music assumes a crucial role in the lives of young people, and by implication, peer approval of one’s musical tastes is key to peer acceptance. For example, she found an active disavowal of classical music which has a dated image amongst young people in France, in favor of trendier genres such as rap and grunge rock. To avert marginalization by their peers therefore, adolescents tend to subscribe to peer-endorsed musical cultures and the accompanying standards and injunctions. Media content’s ability to traverse different social milieu and technological platforms is what

makes it an excellent source of connection for young people in their peer interactions. In analyzing the worldwide popularity of Pokémon, Buckingham and Sefton-Green (2003) discovered that children could engage with Pokémon via television cartoons, computer games and trading cards, and translate this knowledge into social interaction, be it of a playful, friendly or competitive nature. This “portability” (Buckingham and Sefton-Green, 2003, p. 388) of children’s knowledge about the cartoon thus entrenched Pokémon as a prime ingredient in their peer culture. With growing convergence across media genres and platforms, the portability of media content will become even more palpable, further enlarging the roles that media will assume in young people’s peer cultures. Shared media use is another important way in which media content infuses young people’s peer

culture. With the rapid diffusion of portable media devices such as mobile phones, MP3 players, laptop computers and hand-held video games, as well as media devices that encourage shared usage such as multi-player video game machines and tablet computers, face-to-face encounters with peers are likely to involve a physical convergence around these devices, and a joint viewing of media content. As observed by Suoninen (2001) of European youth, visiting friends to play electronic games or watch videos is a popular activity, with some teenagers planning special video nights where they watch a series of movies that may not have met with parental approval, thus fostering a thrilling sense of shared deviance. The rising ubiquity of smartphones with location-based services and always-on, always-available internet access in some countries has also introduced a culture of documenting face-to-face peer interactions and sharing amongst the peer group. Singaporean teen girls, for example, take camera phone photographs during outings with friends and share them on-the-spot via Bluetooth or Facebook for their friends to view and access (Lim and Ooi, 2011). Through this instantaneous capture and dissemination of peer encounters, these young people construct shared memories that serve to enhance their sense of group identity.

Another dominant mode of peer interaction amongst young people today is mobile phone communication. Conventions and trends in peer-to-peer communication via text, voice or

photos constitute the cultural dimensions of young people’s mobile phone interactions with their networks of friends. Mobile phone peer culture comprises idiosyncratic communication practices and linguistic codes in the form of truncated, alphanumeric text-ese, which come with their own tacit rules of adoption and standards of social acceptability (Thurlow and Brown, 2003). On an instrumental level, young people’s use of the mobile phone to identify their friends’

whereabouts and micro-coordinate serendipitous gatherings has created a peer culture where “mobility and flexible scheduling are central” (Castells et al., 2007). Ling and Yttri (2002) noted from their study of Norwegian teens that this practice of vaguely specifying where to meet before progressively firming up appointments, while not unique to young people, is especially developed amongst teenagers. Such flexibility hinges on always being accessible to others, which in turn creates an always-on intimate community that keeps in perpetual intermittent contact, with its members constantly updating one another on all aspects of their personal life, from the mundane to the weighty (Ito, 2004). This culture of communication also enables young people to engage in a live, stream-of-consciousness narration of daily events that enables them to live out and share in each others’ lives, as seen in a Canadian study (Caron and Caronia, 2007). Clearly, these communication processes are of more than instrumental value, and serve to fortify the socio-emotional aspects of relationship-building amongst young people. Indeed, Taylor and Harper (2003) identified the “gifting” function of text messages amongst young people in Britain. While not laden with meaning in and of themselves, text messages are exchanged in a process of performativity where young people display their commitment to friendship, thereby seeking to cement social ties. For instance, the communication culture within a peer group can comprise forwarding text messages from one peer to multiple other members of a peer group network, with an expectation of reciprocity within the network. Such activities help to establish shared conventions and meanings amongst a group of peers, thus forging a sense of collective identity (Green and Haddon, 2009). Apart from the communicative functions of mobile phone communications, the mobile

phone’s role as an item of signification is also important amongst young people. With its constant presence, portability and ease-of-adornment, the mobile phone is ideal for this purpose. Young people have been observed to personalize their phones through physical embellishments or the use of accessories, as noted in a US study (Katz and Sugiyama, 2005). Among close-knit peer groups, there is a culture of embellishing phones in a way that marks a shared peer identity as evidenced for example in Japanese street youth practices (Okada, 2006) and amongst young Korean females (Hjorth, 2009).