The Unrealistic Portrayal of Teenagers in Movies and Shows

Elizabeth Grimes

If you say that you haven’t found yourself mirroring the amazing glamorous lives of the people you see on screen, then you’re lying. We’ve all wanted to be smart like Rory Gilmore, rich like Blair Waldorf, or adventurous like the Pogues and live the same as so many other popular characters. From the millions of TV shows and movies available to watch, some really stand out and make a large impact on our generation. Teen-oriented series have grown to be incredibly popular over the last few decades. These media can have amazing plotlines, actors, and representation, but very few do a good job of illustrating realistic teenage lives. 

Many issues arise when shows and movies attempt to portray teenage lives, such as unrealistic involvement of substance use, the hypersexualization of underaged people, and glorifying highly inappropriate and oftentimes illegal relationships. The majority of shows that teens watch don’t accurately depict adolescents, and as a result of this, immense amounts of stress and anxiety are put onto actual teenagers to try and mimic the lives that they see on screen. 

It isn’t a shock that substance use is a part of some teenagers’ lives, but many shows take these experiences way too far. In popular shows such as Skins, teenagers are shown using hardcore drugs such as heroin and prescription pills, causally and with very few consequences. This promotes relaxed drug consumption and reinforces the common thought that youth are invincible, and cannot possibly become addicts. In the popular drama, Euphoria, the main character Rue (age 17) suffers from a crippling drug addiction that consumes her life and all of her relationships. 

While this show acknowledges the issues and effects that come from substance use, it fails to account for the fact that realistically, teenagers don’t normally have access to, and/or experiment with hardcore drugs and hallucinogens. Showing “average” and “simple” characters using radical drugs leaves teens with the impression that using narcotics should be a stepping stone in their path to maturity and adulthood, which simply is not the case. 

Another major issue in these types of dramas is the hyper-sexualization of children. It is common for shows and movies to cast adults to play minors, due to strict child protection laws that limit the number of hours that a child actor can work. As this becomes more habitual, so do the repercussions of the hypersexualization of teenagers. Actors with more mature body types are meant to be seen as children. This can lead to a lot of issues. 

The concern of shows portraying children as more sexually active than necessary is also present. Sex and scandal are a large part of the dramatic aspect of film, however, some films cross a line when it comes to the sex lives of teenagers. In popular shows such as Shameless, Euphoria, and Skins, “teenagers” are shown having intercourse on screen. This adds a level of sexuality to children, when it really shouldn’t be there, and again, sets unrealistic standards as to what is expected of teenagers. In Euphoria, one of the leading characters, Kat, has a storyline where she goes into sex work as a way of self-empowerment. There are a lot of ways for the media to promote the empowerment of young women, but encouraging underage girls to go into sex work is not one of them. 

Additionally, there is an alarming amount of horrifically inappropriate relationships that are glamorized in television and film. It is sickening how overused the teacher-student relationship plot is used in movies and shows, and the ways in which they are applauded by the other characters in the films. In Shameless, Lip, a college student, becomes very intimate with his professor and they begin a relationship that lasts almost two whole seasons. His friends and family members even seem to cheer him on for being in a relationship with an older woman. They also fully breeze past the fact that Lip is 19 at the time, and the professor is 40, and an authority figure. 

In the heart-warming classic, Gilmore Girls, there is an inappropriate teacher-student relationship between Paris (the main character’s friend), and Asher Flemming, a professor at Yale University, where Paris attends school. Paris, a freshman in university, finds herself in a relationship with a 62-year-old man, and their relationship is still rendered as romantic. This scenario is acted out in countless mainstream shows and movies, such as Pretty Little Liars, Riverdale, Gossip Girl, 30 Rock, Friends, Election, Mean Girls, and That’s My Boy. 

While some shows offer so much, many offer so little. A great number of teen dramas that many of us have watched (and loved) actually send twisted ideas into our brains about what our lives as adolescents should look like. We should not have our views manipulated by shows that are supposed to help us feel seen. The problems I expressed in this article can be lessened or even fixed entirely if a few simple steps are taken. Casting children to play children even though there are more regulations adds authenticity in shows and movies. Doing legitimate research on standard parts of current teenage years can help shows avoid adding in unrealistic aspects of life, where they aren’t necessary. Allowing the characters to show a little bit more common sense when another person is in an inappropriate relationship, rather than having so many characters hype up the storyline can help enforce the much-needed stigma around student-teacher relationships. If these films and shows can easily maintain viewer interest and drama while steering clear of advocating for dangerous and harmful teenage lifestyles, why aren’t they doing so? 

If you are looking for some shows and movies that do a great job (in my opinion) of portraying teenagers, then watch: 

  • Sex Education
  • Everything Sucks
  • One Day At a Time
  • Atypical
  • Booksmart
  • Perks of Being a Wallflower 
  • Edge of Seventeen