In, Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption, Murray Milner argues that the teenage behaviors which provoke adults do not arise from hormones, bad parenting, poor education, or the media; rather from young people’s lack of power over the direction of their lives. Most teenagers have little say over the school they attend, their courses of study, and their classmates. Even fewer still do not have voting and drinking privileges and are not financially independent.
What teenagers do have is the power to create status systems and symbols that not only frustrate adults, but also hinder learning and maturing. Ironically, parents, educators, and businesses are, unintentionally, major contributors to these outcomes. Put simply, while teenagers wield little economic and political power, they can control and evaluate one another. Teenagers do this through a series of accepted norms such as clothes and style, speech and language, including body language, music tastes, money, who and how often one dates and/or hooks up, and various accessory items such as one’s car or phone.
Milner is careful to point out that American high schools do not cause teenagers to behave in competitive and sometimes cruel ways, but rather it provides the ideological framework for a particular type of social system based on status and lifestyle differences. It is this framework, not immaturity or poor parenting, that unsuspectingly refines some of the least desirable features of America’s consumer society, encouraging adolescents to become hyper-sensitive to these status hierarchies, and obsess over who sits with whom in the lunchroom, dating protocol, and what people are wearing.
Gaining high status not only means conforming to the ideal, but paradoxically also requires the careful elaboration and complication of social norms. For high school students, the informality of their status system encourages students to strike out against and create social distance from the strange or students who may potentially threaten their own position.