On Christmas Eve, an American teenager exchanged gifts with her family. Then, she took to Twitter. "I HAVE AN IPAD BUT I'M GOING TO THREATEN TO KILL MY MOM BECAUSE SHE DIDN'T GET ME A NEW ONE,” she wrote. Then: “Mom got me a black iPhone 5 and I told her I wanted a white one. Being an upper-middle class suburban kid is so rough.” Then: “Only got $800 for Christmas this year ): my parents suck!!!!!1.”
A few minutes later, the teenager revealed the joke. “Just kidding you guys, I know how to fucking appreciate what I already have,” she tweeted. Then, she filed a sincere assessment of her Christmas haul: “I got so much more than I was expecting. Honestly this blanket that my aunt got me is the softest shit ever and I love it.”
But when BuzzFeed compiled its list of “22 of the Most Ungrateful Teens This Christmas,” it placed this teenager’s sarcastic iPad tweet at the top of its list. It followed it up with 21 more bratty meditations on Apple products from other teens (many of them curated by the Twitter user @fart). Nearly 44,000 people viewed the post. Commenters have reacted by threatening violence against minors (“I would personally just like to slap them all”) and instructing them to commit suicide (“For every teen who threatened to kill themselves, just do it. The world is better off without you”). Others took directly to the teenager’s feed, calling her a “bratty child,” an “attention whore,” and an “ungrateful slut.” She’s been forced to publicly clarify that she has neither an iPad nor a mother in her life: “GUYS I DON'T EVEN HAVE A MOM HOW DO YOU THINK IM GONNA THREATEN TO KILL HER,” she tweeted.
BuzzFeed’s list is the latest entry in a new online journalism tradition: Scour social media for offensive commentators, then list the worst offenders on a major website—full names and all—to give them a round public shaming. Previous iterations have deployed the tactic to out racist teens—in one instance, Jezebel even reported those teenagers to their school administrators—and to ridicule young people who don’t know who Osama Bin Laden is or are unaware that the Titanic sank IRL.
Plenty of adults say racist things, revert into ungrateful brats during the holidays, and demonstrate a tenuous grasp on world history. And yet these public shaming exercises tend to focus exclusively on teenagers. That’s partly because we see teenagers as redeemable, and adults as beyond help—Jezebel undertook its expose in the hopes that school administrators would “teach” the teens “about racial sensitivity.” But we also criticize teens because we feel that we can control them, either by sending them to the principal’s office or just asserting our generational superiority over them. As one BuzzFeed commenter wrote, “Thank you Generation Y for making me grateful I have dogs and not an ungrateful brat!” When adults shame teenagers on the Internet, we feel like we can separate ourselves from American racism and consumerism by pinning the problem on this new, amoral generation. We all got out fine, but these kids? Worse than dogs.
This impulse to mock and distrust teenagers is so strong that some journalists don’t even bother to investigate whether their assumptions are correct before forever branding teens as spoiled jerks. And so adults have reflexively shamed an “ungrateful brat” who actually shares our distaste for ungrateful brats. A couple of days ago, I alerted BuzzFeed to the full context of their “ungrateful” teen’s comments, but her joke still tops the list. Meanwhile, adults are still using the story as a roadmap for locating teenagers' social media accounts, then calling them whores and sluts who deserve to die. Who should really be ashamed?