Teen Services 101: Foundations – Understanding Teens Today
I’ve been working on doing some training in various avenues with staff that are new to working with teens in public libraries. I recently outlined what I think is necessary to make a comprehensive and successful teen services plan here, and now I’ve been working on pulling out some of those pieces and fleshing them out. Today I’m going to be talking about understanding who teens are, the foundations. I believe when we understand who teens are, break down our personal biases and truly flesh out what motivates teen behavior, we better serve them. In subsequent posts I will be talking about what teens want from public libraries, the challenges we face in serving teens, and going over some programming fundamentals. We’ll wrap up with a brief overview and timeline of YA literature – I’ve been working on an inforgraphic! But for today, let’s delve into the life of teens and see if we can serve them well by understanding who they are.
The Foundations: Understanding Teens
In general, teens make up around 13.2% of the population. Though that number is expected to decrease in the next few years, the overall number of teens will still grow because the population is growing. A failure to serve teens and serve them well means that we are failing more than 10% of our local communities. And like any population, teens are not a monolith, they are diverse and complicated and always changing. Knowing some basic statistics about teens helps us better understanding who they are and how to serve them. Some things we know:
- 46% identify as a person of color and that percentage will keep growing
- 10-20% identify as LGBTQIA+, though recent polls suggest that number may be much higher
- Around 1 in 5 faces food insecurity, meaning they aren’t sure where there next meal is coming from and they often go to bed hungry
- Around 1 in 6 teens of all genders will be the victim of sexual violence by the age 18
- Around 1 in 4 struggle with a mental health issues
These are just a few of the statistics that help us identify who our teens are. More importantly, what they remind us of is the fact that in one way or the other, in ways that we often will never know, our teens are struggling with a wide variety of issues that can influence behavior. It never hurts to have compassion for the teens walking through our doors.
You can find more statistics here: see https://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2015/01/serving-full-t-i-l-t-making-the-case-with-demographics/)
Basics of Adolescent Development
In addition to having some basic statistical knowledge, we know that adolescence having their own unique challenges in terms of development. When we talk about adolescent development, here’s what we know:
- Teens are social and relationship oriented
- Identity formation is an important task during this period
- Teens are working on gaining independence and often straddle two worlds and receive conflicting messages about who they are and what is expected of them.
- Hormones and body changes take a lot of physical energy and teens often need a lot of sleep
- Teens are under intense pressure, literally & peer pressure
For more information on adolescent development, see
Teen Brain Science
We now know through teen brain science studies that the adolescent brain functions differently then an adult brain. In fact, young adults don’t begin to think like adults until the age of 24 or 25. Teens don’t utilize their frontal lobes in the same ways that adults do. Since the frontal lobe is responsible for things like complex decision making, impulse control and understanding potential consequences, we find that teens are often impulsive and act in ways that don’t make sense to most adults, especially those who have forgotten what it is like to be a teenager. It is critical that those working with teens understand how the teen brain differs from an adult brain and adjust their expectations accordingly.
For more on teen brain science see:
The 40 Developmental Assets
Research from the Search Institute focuses on a concept known as The 40 Developmental Assets. These are 40 assets, or attributes, that researchers have identified that benefit teens and help them to grow into healthy, successful people. The more assets a teen can check off of the list, the less likely they are to engage in risky behavior. Risky behavior is defined as things like drug use, drinking, unprotected sex, etc.
You can read more about the 40 Developmental Assets here: https://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2015/02/serving-teens-full-t-i-l-t-asset-building-101-how-using-the-40-developmental-assets-can-help-us-plan-and-evaluate-teen-programming/ and https://www.search-institute.org/our-research/development-assets/developmental-assets-framework/.
Understanding Generation Z
Defined: Born between 1995 – 2014
Largest group of teens yet: Roughly 60 million
Life Defining Moments: 9/11, Recession of 2018, Today’s group of teens have never lived in a time when the United States was not involved in multiple wars in other countries
•Digital Natives – Multi-taskers, visual, less focused (average attention span is 8 seconds)
•Entrepreneurs (want to turn interests into $, but they are bargain hunters)
•Prefer quality over quantity and do most of their shopping online •Socially conscious and engaged (March for Our Lives, Little Miss Flint, Climate change protests)
•Like making money but saving it (they are bargain hunters)
•Although they are online, they care about privacy and personal contact
•More diverse and accepting than previous generation
For more information on Generation Z, check out these 5 Infographics on Gen Z.
What else do you think we need to know about teens today? Drop us a comment and add to the discussion. Next Time: What do teens want from public libraries?
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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