Urban youth culture:
Forging a new identity
bing potrait

In all developing countries, the certainties of rural traditions are giving way to urban life, with its opportunities and risks, its individual freedoms, and its more complex social demands and frameworks of support. Whereas in traditional rural communities, the extended family and established customs used to guide the transition to adulthood, in the rapidly changing urban environment, young people learn much about what to expect and how to behave, from their peers, and increasingly from mass media. This has led to the creation of a youth culture, that is urban in nature and that serves as a reference point for young people developing their identities, often while challenging their ascribed roles at home, school, and work.

Young people in urban settings often develop a sense of self and identity from their surroundings. (1) These surroundings usually offer far greater social, cultural, and ethnic diversity than rural environments. The close proximity and frequent interactions of young people in urban areas facilitates the creation, adaptation, and dissemination of an urban youth culture.(2) As became clear in Angelo’s story, the interactions with the urban environment can have an intense impact on the socialization of young people, exposing them to a multitude of influences as they develop, experiment, question, and assume roles in their societies.

The collective identities of urban youth are shaped by – and expressed through– music,
dance, fashion, art, and other cultural forms. Music genres such as hip hop, which originated in poor urban African American neighbourhoods in the United States and represents the lifestyles of impoverished youth, have provided young people with a new form of expression and have influenced their clothing, language, and outlook on life.(3) Other aspects of youth culture are reflected in certain risk behaviours that are especially prevalent among young men in urban areas, including alcohol and drug consumption and engagement in violence.(4)

Globalization has enabled youth culture to become a global phenomenon. Young people are growing up in a world in which goods, capital, technology, information, ideas, and people move swiftly across borders. With the rapid expansion of fast food restaurants, homogenous shopping malls, and young people who dress alike and listen to the same music, city centres throughout the world increasingly resemble each other. Mass media are especially influential in imparting knowledge to young people and socializing them to particular aspirations, values and attitudes, often in contradiction to the traditions of their culture.(5) Watching television, listening to the radio, or surfing the Internet are important not only for the effects they have on a young person’s attitudes and behaviours, but also for signifying inclusion and access to knowledge in an increasingly interconnected world.(6)

Access to the media and information and communication technologies (ICTs) varies
significantly by geographic region, social class, and place of residence. Youth living in cities are far more likely to have access to television, radio, and newspapers than those living in rural areas. From 2000 to 2003, more than half of the 269 million new Internet users were between the ages of 15 to 24,(7) with the majority of them living in urban areas. The use of new technologies is often a communal experience, since many youth do not have computers at home, instead they access the Internet at school or in Internet cafés. Though Internet usage and mobile phone ownership are highest among youth in urban areas, many urban youth still do not have access to these new ICTs.
Education and socio-economic status are key factors affecting access. In Indonesia, for example, only 16 per cent of urban youth have used the Internet and only 27 per cent use mobile phones for short message service (SMS), whereas 59 percent of university students have used the Internet, and 95 per cent use SMS.(8) Furthermore, in some countries, young women’s access to the Internet is far more limited than that of young men.(9)

Urban youth are targeted as a new generation of consumers who can be heavily influenced by popular cultural icons and media messages. But media messages are not transmitted and received in a vacuum; young people have many resources that allow them to interpret and reshape these messages without completely abandoning their identities.(10) Superficial similarities in youth culture may obscure the huge differences in family structures, behavioural expectations, and patterns of sexuality, marriage, and reproduction.(11) The impact of greater exposure to the media largely depends on the local culture and its response to imports. In many parts of the world, the resurgence of religious movements has acted as a countervailing influence to the more permissive attitudes sometimes purveyed by the media.(12)

A project that positively incorporates youth culture is Dance4Life. This international
collaboration uses dance as a way to raise awareness and actively engage young people in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. The project, which is still expanding, currently runs in secondary schools in ten countries. It uses a life-skills approach and consists of numerous activities throughout the school year, culminating with the worldwide Dance4Life event on the Saturday before World AIDS Day. In 2006, nearly 100,000 young people in ten countries took part in the project. The Dance4Life event involved local artists and bands and connected youth in participating countries by satellite. The
project aims to have at least one million young people dancing all over the world by World AIDS Day 2014, making a powerful statement of hope. Dance4Life includes all aspects of young people’s culture: their icons, their media, and their favourite music and dance.(13)

Youth cultural understanding, needs and values have an important impact on the social capital of urban communities and neighbourhoods. Youth-specific public spaces should encourage social integration with the other parts of the community and promote the recognition and validation of youth culture.(14) Priority should also be given to decreasing the digital divide and providing greater youth access to media and ICTs. In addition, sports activities, music and art instruction, and recreational pursuits should
be promoted to help youth develop a positive self-image and essential social skills. When youth living on the margins, like Angelo, are able to develop a public sphere of their own, they gain a sense of self, personal competence, and a network of peers, which can serve as sources of social capital for a safe and successful transition to adulthood.