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Just yesterday, I attended a Focuscope, Inc. focus group. My mother had registered me years ago and I rarely ever got calls from them. However, just this past Sunday, I was called for a phone interview. The interviewer asked me my age. I said I was eighteen (which is true). He then asked me if I frequently visited social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Tagged, etc. Although I do not have a MySpace, Facebook, or Tagged profile, I lied and said that I did and that I checked my profile every day. I knew enough about the sites to talk about them for an hour an a half and make seventy-five bucks.

Then he asked me about video games. Although I hadn’t really played a video game hardcore in about a year, I lied again and said that I was a frequent player. He then asked me how often I played video games, I said about 10-12 hours a week. I figured it wasn’t so much a lie as I had done so in the past. He then brought up cell-phone use. He asked me if I had a cell phone and I said yes. This was something I didn’t need to lie about. I use my cell phone for business and personal use. Text messaging is huge thing among teenagers and I happened to text message all the time.

It was after this short interview that I was told I met the requirements to attend the focus group and be paid seventy-five dollars. The meeting was, thankfully, in Oak Park and not in downtown Chicago. When I arrived, a walked down to the lobby behind the book store on Lake St. There was pizza, sandwiches, and ice water laid out for the guests. I, however, couldn’t consume any tasty items because I had just gotten my wisdom teeth pulled that morning. After glancing around, I found that I was the only person there who didn’t come with a parent. I happened to interpret that as a lack of maturity in my peers.

As we waited, a short, stubby man in a white dress shirt and black pants came into the lobby and asked that we pay attention to the African American woman who was going to be asking us questions. She went into the back of the lobby and called us down there one by one. I heard my name called and I made my way down there. She sat me down and said:

“If you could be any animal in the world, what would you be?”

“Is that a serious question?” I asked.

“Yes,” she laughed, “yes it is.”

“I dunno,” I said, “a dolphin, I guess.”

“Really, why?”

“Because they’re the second smartest organisms on the planet, quite possibly even the smartest.”

Then I went back to my seat and tried to figure out exactly why she asked me that question. The odd part about it was that the subject had never come up again. It seemed a little odd that the company that hired Focuscope wanted to know what animal each member of the focus group wanted to be.

When the woman was finished questioning every member of the group, she walked back to the reception desk and the short, stubby man called out eight of our names. I happened to be one of the eight. There were two left in the lobby and I can only guess that they were sent home. Whether that had to do with how they answered the animal question I do not know.

The short, stubby man led us into a conference room with eight chairs; four on either side of the table. There was a ninth chair that was at the far end of the table; a young woman sat in it. Behind her was a wall covered with three large mirrors. We all sat down and placed our name tags in a position so she could easily see them.

I looked around me at the group of my peers. I didn’t fit in at all; most likely because I was dishonest on the phone interview session. One of the guys was a white rapper who just finished high school and needed to complete some of summer school in order to graduate. He talked about how he was arrested a few times and how his interests were parties, cars, and girls; basically. Another guy was an African American guy from the West Side of Chicago. He was the most polite guy there and he didn’t talk much unless he was asked a question directly. Another guy, the guy sitting next to me, was a Junior at a high school in Chicago. He seemed like your normal teen male complete with a polo, khaki pants, and acne. Across from me was your average Abercrombie male; fake tan, sunglasses, and white baseball cap on backwards. Next to him was a foreign (I would imagine Lithuanian) guy; possibly first generation. He was the party type. He claimed that’s really all he did since he got his license. He had spiked hair, piercings, and wore mostly black. He said his favorite movie was Fight Club (what a surprise). Next to him was a similar guy with a deeper voice and no accent. He was mostly interested in cars and he claimed his cell phone went off almost every five minutes. And, lastly, next to him was a guy in a red shirt, who was essentially a carbon copy of the last two guys. He didn’t talk much and usually just nodded his head at what everyone else said.

Then there was me; looking nothing like your average teen. As opposed to my peers, I wore regular fitting jeans that were actually pulled up to my waist, a blue buttoned-down shirt, black shoes and socks, and my glasses. I have been told on countless occasions that I look like I’m forty. I sat there holding my pen as if it was a pointer; waving it around in my hand as I made arguments. I could have been mistaken for a teacher.

The woman smiled at all of us and asked us how we were doing. We all gave an unenthusiastic “good” and she asked us to look to the person next to us and exchange information. I’ve found that to be a common icebreaker teachers or group leaders use at the beginning of a session. They make their students or pupils turn to a peer, introduce themselves and then, when everyone is finished, they have to present their peer to the rest of the group. It’s a cheesy, dull way to start things out.

After that was finished, she asked to see our “homework”. Our homework was given to us through e-mail. We were supposed to create a collage of pictures that expressed what technology meant to us and how it effected our lives. The African American guy misunderstood the prompt and, instead, simply answered the series of the questions the picture collage was supposed to address. When I looked around me, I saw that most of my peers simply cut out magazine images of iPods, Playstation and Xbox consoles, computers, and MySpace/AIM screenshots. I think I was a bit of an overachiever. I photoshoped an image of 2advanced.com in the background, a picture of a man on a computer I took from Inet Interactive, and a picture of a Sony HD camera. To me, technology meant many things. Firstly, it meant human advancement; specifically in the medical field. It also meant cleanliness, sophistication, and sleekness. However, on the flip side, it meant the slow decay of humanity.

Most were puzzled by my analysis of technology. Instead of focusing on me, the young woman realized I wasn’t really fitting in and decided to focus her attention on everyone else. She asked:

“How would the world be to you without technology?”

She went around the room and most everybody responded with a “I would be extremely bored” answer. Most of the teens exclaimed that they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they didn’t have a computer. The teen in the red shirt said that he always finds himself on AIM; nearly 100 percent of his free time.

When I sat back and thought about it. I realized I was somewhat the same. Not with using AIM or MySpace or anything like that. However, I find myself on photoshop, editing software, blog sites, etc. I’m on the computer a hell of a lot. But when she came around to asking me the same question, I began to realize how much of technology has been a distraction to me. I said that although I am in love with many aspects of technology, I find that it distracts me from some important things in my life. I said that there were many classic books I would love to read, however, I can never find the time to read them. And, I realized that it was because I spend so much of my time on the computer. I thought about the exercising I said I as going to eventually do and realized that technology also prevents me from doing those things as well. Not saying that I have no fee will; I do. And, no one’s forcing me to sit in front of a computer. However, when I actually thought right down to it, I may not necessarily be happier, but I would sure be better off without some forms of technology.

Most, again, were puzzled by my answer. The Lithuanian teen said he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if the he didn’t have his Xbox 360. Another said that he wouldn’t know what books to even read if he had the time to read them. It was the Abercrombie guy that said he multi-tasks when it comes to technology; having his computer and television side by side.

It was then when the woman focused her attention on gaming. She asked:

“How many of you play video games?”

I was the only one that raised my hand. For some reason, all the teens in the room were very embarrassed by the subject. Although I had raised my hand, I hadn’t actually played a video game hardcore in about six months to a year. It was then when the woman said:

“C’mon, you don’t have to be embarrased.”

Then the Abercrombie teen said:

“Well, I only play games as a last resort, but I usually play them about twice a week.”

With more and more time, every teen in the room began to confess that they played many video games. I was completely shocked by the response. Why were so many teens embarrassed about playing video games? I didn’t see any problem with it. The video game industry is a growing, innovative, and exciting industry for young people to follow. It was then when some of the teens exclaimed that gamers were usually characterized by nerd-like, boring people who “didn’t have lives.” When, in fact, everyone in the room was a gamer. It was evident that, for all of these teens, the popularity contest was still on.

Then the young woman asked:

“What elements does a game need to have in order for all of you to like it?”

Graphics. That was the first thing that came out of everyone’s mouth except mine. They all wanted graphics. They all wanted their games to look ultra-realistic. That was the number one thing. I would have to agree that graphics can have a huge effect on a game, however, I was a bit shocked at how graphics seemed to be the most important thing.

“Why graphics?” the young woman asked.

They all exclaimed that graphics is the key element to making a game fun. They wanted their games to look and feel like the real world. If they were playing a game where they were blowing someone’s head off with a 9mm, they wanted to see their opponent’s brains and blood smear the wall behind him.

It was then when the young woman abruptly switched the conversation over to MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking sites. She asked:

“Why have a MySpace?”

Most answered because it was simply the “cool” thing to do. Some went into more detail saying that they enjoyed being connected to everyone else in their life through one source. They talked about how MySpace provides a tool for them to create an alternate life for themselves. Not completely alternate (I don’t mean creating a profile of a different identity), but, MySpace allows its users to build a separate social reputation that they wouldn’t necessarily have in real life. Some respond well to it; some don’t.

The Abercrombie teen was the one who didn’t. He hated MySpace because it caused him trouble. He claimed that someone put pictures of him wasted on their profile and it got him in a lot of trouble with the deans at this school. As he told the story, most of the other teens laughed as they all have pictures of themselves wasted on MySpace.

The ones who stick with MySpace are the ones who find that it works extraordinarily well for them. The white rapper exclaimed that he could post his beats on his MySpace music profile and sell them for a good amount of money. The music profile also helped him find venues in which him and his group could rap at. On MySpace, he was able to establish a reputation. He quickly stated, however, that he had two separate MySpace accounts; one that his girlfriend knew about, and one that she didn’t.

It was then when the young woman brought up dating and sex in regards to MySpace. Surprisingly, all the teens in the room except for myself were willing to search for potential “mates” on MySpace. The white rapper exclaimed:

“Shit, I don’t know, I found plenty o’ ladies on dat site.”

“Aren’t you nervous that they may have false pictures or that they’re lying about their age?” asked the young woman.

“Well yeah,” he said, “that’s why you tell ‘em to pop up at the mall or somethin’ ‘fore you just give ‘em your number or anything. I always make sure I see ‘em first.”

Everyone had a agreed. They had met many instances where they had met girls through MySpace; some being good situations and some being bad. Throughout the discussion, I kept thinking back to all the times I’d heard about sexual predators that worked through MySpace and kept wondering why none of these teens were worried at all. Of course, I would imagine that females were much more worried, but most of them seemed completely oblivious to it.

Then the young woman asked about what kinds of things we were willing to reveal online to other people. All the teens said that it depends on the gender. Apparently, guys are much more willing to give away their information to girls then they are to guys. When the Abercrombie guy started to think about it, he realized that he doesn’t even talk to many guys online at all other than his closest friends. They all agreed that things like MySpace and AIM were tools for them to communicate with girls much more.

It was then when I realized that so much of AIM and MySpace were driven by sex. With simple words that you can use on AIM without actually saying anything, and, with being able to have some sort of security on MySpace with good-looking pictures and a different reputation, these forms of technology play a big role in a sense that they give many guys the courage to approach girls in a way they would never usually do in real life.

It was the same story for many females as well. There are so many so-called MySpace “whores” who have profiles consisting of half-naked pictures and sexy descriptions of their lives. For them, MySpace provides an environment for these young girls to break free of normal social restraints while still feeling somewhat protected.

However, the protection seems to be only a false-sense of protection. When it came down to actually discussing what things we were willing to reveal on MySpace or online in general, the only things they wouldn’t reveal were social security number, address, and home phone number. Most were perfectly fine with giving away their screenames, e-mail addresses, the state, city, or town they lived in, the school they went to, and even where they worked.

Just from hearing the conversation, I would probably be able to go on each of their MySpace accounts and track them down easily. Doesn’t that frighten them? Doesn’t that make them feel just a little uneasy?

Obviously, through much of this, I wasn’t saying a whole lot as I disagreed with almost everything that was being said. I began to realize something as I sat there. It dawned on me that almost everyone in the room didn’t seem like a real person. They were all trying to fit into a crowd and be something they weren’t.

That was when I realized that teens simply want to live false lives. Just look at the technology around us (primarily entertainment technology), almost all of it is a misrepresentation of reality. Consider this: there’s a game called football. It’s played in a field with real men running around, throwing a ball, and tackling each other. But now kids play the Madden video game series. It’s not real football, it’s a representation of football.

Take a look at AOL Instant Messenger. For many teens, this is a primary source of communication. However, if someone were to come up to you in person and say “hi”, there are thousands and thousands of different ways in which that “hi” could be communicated. But, if someone was to type in “hi” in an instant message, it would sound the same no matter who typed it. AIM isn’t real communication, it’s only a representation of communication.

Look at MySpace, the huge social networking site. Many teens’ social life is determined through this site. Users have a “friends” list and a “comment” list. They build reputations, meet people, join groups; almost anything that could be done in real life. But MySpace isn’t real life. MySpace isn’t real social networking, it’s only a representation of social networking.

As a I looked around the room, I realized that the reason all of this technology is so appealing is because teens are completely bored with their real lives. They’re at a point when they’re not adults and they’re not kids. They have some respect, but not enough. They have some responsibilities, but not enough. They’re all trying to find ways to make their lives interesting; trying to find things to do with themselves. They’re not happy with the lives they have, so they make fake ones.

At first I was angry at them for being so ignorant; for living fake lives. But as I thought about it, I realized that it’s no wonder they live the lives they do. There’s nothing in the real world worth getting interested about. Any job a teen can get is pretty much a mindless retail job that offers almost nothing in the future. Middle school and high school is more of a daycare than anything else. It’s no wonder teens are so bored all the time.

I really don’t think technology is the problem. I don’t believe that things like video games and MySpace corrupt teens. I think it’s society that has things wrong. Maybe if teens had legitimate things to do, they wouldn’t spend so much time with illegitimate things.

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