At shopping malls, teens' hanging out is wearing thin

More mall managers say unescorted teens are bad for business.

Speeding through the corridors of the South Shore Plaza outside Boston, a pack of baby-faced teen boys clad in jeans and baseball caps draw angry stares from store clerks and customers. But they don't seem to care: They're hip, they're loud - and they like getting in trouble.

Hanging out at the mall for teens is as traditional as Friday night football games or the annual prom. It's an escape from chores at home and a chance to flirt and cut loose under artificial lights.

But some malls are saying, "No more." In an attempt to cut back on rowdy behavior and loitering that many establishments say has become unbearable in recent years, malls are implementing policies that require teens to be accompanied by adults after certain hours, effectively putting an end to a weekend routine long memorialized in classic flicks like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Mallrats."

The latest example is Eastfield Mall in Springfield, Mass., where as of Sept. 6 teens under 16 will not be able to cruise the mall without adult supervision in the evenings. Eastfield is following the lead of the nearby Holyoke Mall at Ingleside, which also has an escort policy. Both centers join a growing number of US malls enforcing such guidelines, from Chambersburg, Pa., to Chattanooga, Tenn., according to the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC).

Mall managers say that packs of teens deter families from choosing the mall as their Friday night outing. Many complain they have become de facto baby sitters. And some invoke a moral principle: Parents, they say, no matter how frazzled and frenzied, should not be dropping off their kids unsupervised in such an unstructured setting for so long.

But some kids and parents are challenging the new policies. In Chicopee, Mass., 15-year-old Mike Lemme, who says he hangs out with his friends every few weeks at the Holyoke Mall, started an online petition that has gathered more than 1,000 signatures. The site also lets teens air their thoughts. Some teens declare they would never set foot at the mall with their parents; others say the plan is downright misguided - that malls aren't places where teens cause trouble, but where they are kept safe.

"There are not that many places where teenagers can go and socialize," says Mike. "Instead of banning all teenagers, they should find a way to get the people causing the trouble out."

Experts say that interest in escort policies owes much to the changing nature of malls, as Internet shopping, specialty stores, and large discounters have fueled fierce competition in retailing. "What has happened today is that the mall is working harder than ever to be a social experience," says Roger Blackwell, a retired professor of consumer behavior at Ohio State University.

But Dr. Blackwell says that malls should weigh their options - including creating teen-friendly experiences that engage them as potential consumers, not shun them as loiterers. After all, teens spent $169 billion in 2004, and 78 percent of teens reported shopping in a mall in the past 30 days, according to the marketing research firm Teen Research Unlimited, in Northbrook, Ill.

Activities that malls offer for teens, however, can backfire if teens deem them "uncool." At the Eastfield Mall, where general manager Arlene Putnam says parents will often drop their children off at 4 p.m. and pick them up at closing time, the mall tried opening up a center strictly for teens, but interest dwindled after the first weekend. Later memos were sent out to parents advising them not to drop their kids off for the entire evening. That didn't work either. "We just have to put our foot down," she says.

The ICSC is compiling data to pinpoint exactly how many of the nation's 1,130 enclosed malls have escort policies. Mall of America was among the first in 1996. Julie Hansen, the director of public relations there, says they were trying to prevent problems. "We had essentially become a baby sitter," she says.

Ms. Hansen says there was resistance at first from parents and kids and even from retailers who feared business would wane. But nearly a decade later, business has perked up as shopping families replaced the unsupervised teens.

Teens say they would be angered if escort policies were put in place in their nearby malls. Bobby Lowe, who sat with two friends in the food court of South Shore Plaza recently, says he and his friends get kicked off the local basketball courts and out of the 7-Eleven nightly. They sometimes hang out at each other's homes, but that gets boring. "There is nowhere else to go," he says. "Everyone is kicking us out of other places. We're not the ones doing anything."

Loitering has long been a teen rite of passage. The 1950s song "Standing on the Corner," in which composer Frank Loesser evoked young men watching the girls go by, still captures the spirit of today's teens who ogle from a distance, Blackwell says. "Where to go on a Friday or Saturday night for teens is generations old," he says. "Years ago they stood on the corner; now they are standing in the mall."

But a mall experience with parents is, well, not quite the mall as teens know it. Joe Donovan, who stood tall among the pack of 10 friends on a recent afternoon, says his group spends most Friday nights at South Shore Plaza - which he simply wouldn't do with Mom or Dad. "I mean, if I had to buy presents at Christmastime, I would," he says - in other words, if he had actual shopping to do.

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