The OTT phenomenon of the 'dark side' of teens

When we look at adolescents in 'gritty thrillers' that topline streaming and TV shows, they give deviant grown ups a run for their money — in the name of 'adulting': violent, scheming, lying, blackmailing, sexualised, manipulative — and even murderous. How far removed is this from reality?



by

Sushmita Bose

Published: Fri 17 Jun 2022, 10:39 PM

It was while reviewing Netflix shows for Khaleej Timeswknd magazine that I stumbled upon the trope: noir has come home to roost in an abiding sense. But that apart, what was intriguing was that every other “thriller”, especially ones qualified with adjectives such as “twisted” or “mind-bending” or “ominous”, had an ensemble cast of teenagers… mostly high-schoolers. These shows are rated 18+ (or at least 16+) — a.k.a., will not show up if one hits the “kids” setting — but they all feature characters below the ‘adult’ threshold (Stranger Things, with a PG rating of 16+, has pre-teens playing pivotal characters ).

It’s a trend that’s also given a new twist to “adulting”, the textbook definition of which is “the assumption of tasks, responsibilities and behaviours traditionally associated with normal grown-up life, along with the implication that the individual in question does not particularly identify as an adult and that acting as one does not come naturally.” What sets the damaged brand of adulting showcased in OTT serials apart — high schools being the fertile breeding ground and, at times, the vortex of action — is the fact that it comes from a heart of darkness… and a flying kick on the face of traditional civilisational “coming of age”.

Let’s cue in to Riverdale, Pretty Little Liars, The Mess We Leave Behind, Elite, One Of Us Is Lying, Hold Tight, 13 Reasons Why... and others of their ilk.

Lies and deceit. Check.

Questionable relationships. Check.

Manipulation. Check.

Normalising violence. Check.

Murder (visualisations count). Check.

The list goes on.

This trend is getting written about. A lot. On nylon.com, for instance, in a piece titled ‘Why are teen TV shows getting darker and darker’, it’s put across that “It’s a noir world for Gen Z, and their favourite series reflect that”: “There has been a trend, in recent years, of teen dramas becoming darker, adding an element of mystery and noir. In many ways, one could argue that this is reflective of our political climate — a direct response to the struggles of teenagers today.”

For teens, the ‘adulting’ depicted by these dramas isn’t actually too far off themes they are exposed to or are aware of in their lives, points out Dr Tara Wyne, clinical director and clinical psychologist at the Dubai-based Lighthouse Arabia. “They have a frightening level of exposure and access to the whole messy spectrum of life — from strife at home [family or marital dysfunctions], health issues, money problems, unemployment, absent [unavailable] parents, divorce, mental health and addictions. Teen life is a melting pot of their contextual issues and also their own experiences of developmental angst, body image struggles, relationship issues, academic woes and popularity battles to name but a few. Teens engage with the help of personal, experiential learning, and vicariously living their friends’ life stories… And schools are ecosystems where you come across it all.”

The question is: how much is life really imitating reel craft?

Our schadenfreude and Machiavellianism

Once upon a time, there used to be teen dramas like The Wonder Years and Beverly Hills 90210, and — not too long ago — The O.C. There was teenage angst and rebellion, and the word ‘precocious’ acquired a whole new dimension. Those, however, pale in comparison to what is being doled out today on noir-fixated streaming platforms.

Some of the content has adults driving narratives, but these too are (usually) hinged on disturbed teenagers’ murky trails: one of them goes missing, or, worse, is found murdered, and these are triggers that dovetail into the twisted lives of the entire fraternity. Even if the plot is not actually hinged on Gen Z-ers, there is bound to be a slippery slope of downward spiral starring the younger catchment. Significantly, they are not victims of domestic circumstances because their guardians are — seemingly — doing their best to get inside their wards’ heads, putting in checks and balances… and yet drawing a blank.

Inference: having a dark side and being complexly manipulative comes naturally and is par for the course.

Kayla Chanthavisith, in a piece for 
hercampus.com, writes she finds it funny when adults “voice their weird fascination and obsession with watching teen shows featuring high schoolers and acknowledge that these shows are problematic, overly dramatic, or downright cringey at times. Platforms like Netflix and networks like the CW are content-making machines that constantly pump out dark, edgy television shows about teenagers dealing with real-world, hard-hitting issues like sexuality, drug addiction, mental health issues, and more… So why has this media trend become so popular, and more importantly, why are adults creating this kind of content for teenage audiences to consume, that are oftentimes so out of touch with how teenagers actually think or behave?”

Dr Wyne weighs in here. “It’s not just teens who are watching teen dramas. Many adults watch them because they appeal to the Peter Pan in them and let them engage with fantasies around teenage life — or their own unlived teenage life. Therefore, the content being OTT, intricate and messy don’t pose a problem at all… in fact, it hits all the right notes.”

She then goes on to say that the current crop of teen dramas probably taps into the schadenfreude and Machiavellianism in us all. “We seem to enjoy watching the misfortune of others and are endlessly entertained by the callous and manipulative ways people can operate. Literally, these shows allow us to indulge in some darkness guilt-free.” And even if we may not “be inspired to behave that way”, it certainly is a familiar theme in any psyche. “We can’t deny that we enjoy others being taught a lesson, being cut down to size, not always winning and sometimes mercilessly losing and failing.”

The alternate (happier) reality

Juno Biswas lives in League City, Texas, and she works with teenagers. “I do think all these shows are excessive… I deal with school kids firsthand, and I find them mostly very focused… [they are] either into sports or trying keeping up their grades. Many of them work part-time. I know kids who wake up at 4.30am, go for their swimming practice, go to school and then go to work… I do see high-schoolers, at times, being forced to be ‘responsible’ and ‘mature’, and play ‘adults’ in the family — but that’s because the parents fail them.” She adds that she has witnessed ‘love affair’ dramas, crying in the corridor — “honestly, I cannot imagine I could have done that when I was in school!” — but that’s about it.

Her daughter Royina — now 21 — knew classmates in high school who hated shows like Riverdale because they were “too much”, and way too removed from reality. A friend’s teenage daughter told Juno “these shows are not realistic in the sense that the kids in the show do not act like how kids act in real life. In real life, they are not adulting. Yes, they have ‘boyfriend’ — or ‘girlfriend’ — issues, they have home responsibilities… but most kids are busy figuring out their lives”.

A few years ago, researchers at San Diego State University and Bryn Mawr College conducted a study on teenage behavioural patterns, and came up with an interesting reveal: they are less likely to engage in adult activities — like driving a car, have an after-school job, and date — than their counterparts from previous generations.

Speaking to Bret Stetka for scientificamerican.com, Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State and the lead author on the study, is quoted as saying: “Our results show that it’s probably not that today’s teens are more virtuous, or more lazy — it’s just that they’re less likely to do adult things.”

In Riverdale, Archie’s mother Mary tells him (something along the lines of), “I don’t recognise the person you have become — who are you Archie Andrews?”

Fortunately, the alternate reality on the ground is quite different. Dubai-based Nevin George, at 13, is remarkably level-headed. He watches Riverdale, but views the content with a sackful of salt. “I really doubt that teenagers — in real life— are confabulating about hiding dead bodies,” he chuckles. But he admits he’d have a problem if adults try to stop youngsters from watching a “series like Riverdale” assuming it’s a “bad influence”. “I think they need to recognise that we teenagers already know and understand — and are exposed to — a lot of complexities.”

Another Dubai teen, 16-year-old Faisal Abuinnab, feels that “when teenagers take adult decisions in these shows, they are more like plot devices”. Besides, “I don’t care much about the complicated relationships [showcased] in these serials!”

The mess we leave behind

In the end, however, troubled teen dramas do represent cautionary tales. “When kids watch teen dramas,” says Dr Wyne, “clearly, the content portrayed is heightened, but it’s not a million miles away from their actual knowledge and experience. I think kids feel a resonance with these shows and also find an escape in the revved-up storylines and plots. We certainly aren’t a society that is shielding our younger generation from content they aren’t ready for.”

The clear downside is that teen dramas are contributing significantly — or potentially can contribute significantly — to glamourising ‘adulting’ and paving the path to a premature loss of innocence.

Away from the screen, in real life, Dr Wyne has encountered the “getting too big for their boots” phenomenon many times across her years in clinical practice. “Some of this is about permissive parenting where everything goes and nothing is off limits and kids are meant to learn the right way by being allowed to do as they wish and then somehow magically figure out their moral compass and limits… Too much power and a free rein can be destructive for children as they don’t have the cognitive maturity to know what is best [for them] or healthy, or, critically, when to stop — literally, frontal lobes used for decision making, judgement and reasoning don’t form fully till about 24 years of age.”

Children don’t just set out to be bad because they can, she summarises. “They may have zero intention to behave inappropriately, but without guidance, values and limits as an anchor, they often find themselves in situations where they face challenges they aren’t ready for, and experience an impact on their emerging psyche that endures.”


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