Teens And Mall Culture: The Fading Love Affair

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For half a century, the mall was the place to meet and hang out for teens and tweens. It was also a source of jobs for youth. There were about 3 million retail jobs for 16 to 19 year olds in 1990, but today, it’s closer to 1 million according to the Department of Labor. In addition to dwindling jobs, the rise in technology is making it hard to even get teens to spend time in malls.

I went out looking for teens in an unscientific search to see if they are hanging out at the mall.

I didn’t have much luck.

I hit two popular malls in Atlanta. First – Lenox Square, a traditional indoor mall that’s been around since 1959. I wound up at Urban Outfitters where I met Nicole Sullivan. She looked like someone I might find at my high school.

“This is my first job, but I really like it — I enjoy it,” she said.

The numbers show not many teens working in malls. But here at Lenox Mall, I didn’t even see many teens hanging out. And that has nothing to do with the job market.

I asked Sullivan – she’s actually 20 — does she see many teens?

“A lot of younger kids, maybe just touching 13. They’ll be in huge groups and they’ll buy stuff, but it’s always like ‘okay, where are your parents?” said Sullivan.

I got a similar response from Ashleigh Berglund, also in her 20’s, who works in the junior section of Macy’s. “I see a lot more pre-teens in the mall. Teenagers not so much actually.”

Okay, so maybe for tweens, this mall has some staying power, but teens are another story.  My next stop: Atlantic Station. It’s one of the newest malls in Atlanta, opened in 2005.

Maya Pines, 17, lives and works in a mall called Atlantic Station in Midtown Atlanta, that gets its name from the steel mill that operated there in the early 1900's.
Maya Pines, 17, lives and works in a mall called Atlantic Station in Midtown Atlanta, that gets its name from the steel mill that operated there in the early 1900’s.

It’s outdoors with sidewalks and has apartments above the shops. I lived in Atlantic station for a few years, and my friend Maya Pines still lives here. She’s 17. We used to hang out together with our friends in the mall. But that’s changed.

“Over time, movies would be the only thing that made me want to hang out,” said Pines. “Then also, the officers, if they didn’t know me, after a certain time they’d start asking me, ‘Where’s your parent? Where are you going?’ That would get pretty annoying so I would not want to come outside.”

Atlantic Station is strict with teenagers. After 8, no one under 17 can buy a movie ticket or walk around without an adult. After 11, people between 17 and 21 aren’t allowed on the property. These rules make it pretty hard for teens to have much fun at Atlantic Station, especially since none of us are ready to turn down by 8 o’clock.

And although I did find a few teens hanging out here, I also got asked to stop recording because a story about teens and malls didn’t fit the company’s branding.

So where are the teens? Pines says her idea of fun with friends doesn’t include malls. “It’s usually something simple like going over to their house rather than hanging out outside.”

On a recent Saturday night, I was hanging out at my house with my friend Allison Rapoport after watching Monsters Inc.  I spend a lot of my free time like this. And my mom, Renae Veira, says she prefers it that way.

“As a parent, I personally don’t like the idea of you going to the mall,” she told me. “The more time you spend at the mall, the more likely you’ll spend money at the mall. I’d much rather have your friends at the house and I can keep an eye on you. I don’t have to worry about predators out there.”

I don’t really care for going to the mall with friends. I asked my mom if she thinks technology has anything to do with it.

“I would definitely say that technology is the number one factor affecting the mall culture today. Moreso than the danger of going to the mall and the waste of time,” she said.

It’s true – my friend Allison and I both spend a lot more time with technology than at the mall.

“I definitely will sit in the house watching TV or Netflix for several hours straight and just be like ‘I feel fat and like I need to go move.’ But then again, Netflix is so wonderful,” she said.

To be fair, Allison likes doing active things too, like going to the park to play Frisbee or soccer with friends. But the stereotype of teens hanging out together while on their devices isn’t totally off the mark.

“We are all constantly on our cell phones,” said Allison. “That’s true. But, that doesn’t mean we don’t speak to one another. We still talk to one another. And sometimes we talk about things that are happening on social media. For example, Twitter fights are very entertaining to observe and so are Facebook fights. It’s great entertainment. Free entertainment. I don’t think it’s laziness. It’s just inconvenient to go to the mall. Why would you go to the mall? It’s unnecessary.”

As for shopping, Allison does it online.

But does that mean malls are dying? Hard to say. I still visit the mall every once in a while to shop. And I’m not alone. Teens spend an average of $165 dollars a month at malls. That’s according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

I definitely made one mall visit before school started. I can’t have a lame wardrobe my senior year.

Additional reporting by Dani Tarver and Rafael Johns. 


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