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The, not-so, secret lives of Irish teenagers

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SNOG BRACELETS: The name on the bag of perhaps 20 brightly colored, thin rubber bracelets was as menacing as its insanely cheap price tag: 1 EURO.

I saw the little pouch dangling from a shelf in a local discount store, and I immediately decided to investigate what these bracelets are all about.

“Oh Shag Bands, you mean,” a teenager named Aoife tells me. “You wear them and if somebody snaps one, that means you have to do whatever the color means.”

I find Aoife and her three girlfriends while they are walking along the Liffey collecting donations for a charity.

They inform me, through nervous laughs and euphemisms, that the bracelets are symbols of sexual prowess. They insist that nobody actually ever complies with the rules of the bracelets, even the yellow one, which means hugging. “It’s just a trend.”

I notice that lemon-haired, cherry-cheeked Aoife has two delicately interlaced bracelets: a black and a green, wrapped around her tiny wrist. Her friend Jess pipes up, “The black one is for sex.”

And the green? Awkward glances and snickers abound. The girls’ eyes dart back and forth, between each other and the floor, before Jess mockingly presses her, “Aoife, tell her what the green one means.”

“The green one stands for... well, you can look them all up online,” Aoife snaps.

Aoife’s green band has a visible repair in it, from where she burned it back together after it “got snapped while I was walking down the street in Bulgaria.”

Even though she says the bracelets are virtually meaningless, she chooses to wear one with an obvious brown lump where the bracelet was fused back together, rather than just buy a new, excessively inexpensive green bracelet.

The bracelets have been around for years, and most youngsters agree that they don’t actually comply with the ‘rules’ of the shag bands. But the bands are at least a symbol of a deeper, colder truth for Irish teens: physical affection has become all but meaningless.

15-year-old Jess explains frankly.

“It’s like, it used to be this big thing to lose your virginity, but it’s not really that big of a deal anymore,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It’s like whatever,” she adds, with a nonchalant shrugging of her shoulders to emphasize those last two words: “like whatever.”

My heart sinks as I hear those words coming from a cherub-cheeked little thing with hot green eyeliner, braces, and that quick, breathless type of speech that children get when they’re excited.

According to a 2005 report by Crisis Pregnancy Agency, between 20 and 30% of teenagers in Ireland have reported having sex, with the average age for the first experience being 15 years old.

For both females and males, peers(and most assuredly, peer pressure) play a large role in decision making; they admittedly “ thought about their friends’ reactions when they were making decisions about sex, relationships or contraception.”

One teenage boy I find in the Jervis shopping mall, Jack, 15, brags to me about how he once kissed 23 girls in one night. He smiles proudly, blushes a little at this achievement.

I ask him how he feels at the end of a night like that. So many exchanges of affection, with so little actual affection exchanged?

“Uh, that it was a good night,” he responds sarcastically, brimming with all the silly arrogance of youth.

A pair of young girls in that same mall explain to me what an ordinary night at a local disco might look like: “A guy would tap [a girl] on the shoulder, wouldn’t even talk to them, kiss, and then he’d just walk off.”

These two girls, Aoife, 16, and Sally Ann, 15, along with my 19-year old friend, Bríana, introduce me to the cruel world of teen dating.

First of all, there’s no such thing as dating.

“It’s called meeting,” Aoife explains. Meeting, in my interpretation, is when two teenagers date, but neither expects exclusivity.

Rules are: you can be with one person, emotionally connect with that person to a certain degree, and yet also date other people at the same time. “It’s cheating but it’s not cheating,” explains Aoife, and Sally Ann jumps in, “It’s cheating but being allowed to get away with it.”

“I think it’s so much cuter on tv, you know, first date and everything,” Aoife muses. “When you’re younger, it’s like oh wow,” she says, of looking forward to dating someone special, “but now you’re just like, this is shite.”

Nobody says, “Let’s go steady,” Bríana says in an mock American accent, after which, all of the girls laugh. And then sigh.

When I ask about issues with jealousy, Aoife reasons, “Depends on who it is. If you really like him, then it’s like, I really hate this.” But Sally Ann counters, “If you don’t know if you really like him, then you don’t have to go out with him straight away.”

It’s like the dating version of having your cake and eating it, too.

And what of the boys? Bríana and I find a group of four teenage boys in the mall, and ask to talk to them about dating. One of them immediately asks, “what’s dating?”

Even after they agree to talk, each one paces around, walks in and out of the group at different times, afraid to commit even to the conversation we’re having.

They confirm the rules of “meeting” as described by the girls, although they vary slightly.

When I bring up the concept of being able to see other girls while seriously “meeting” one girl, 16-year old Dillon chirps, “they can’t say anything to you, it’s great.”

But when I ask about girls seeing other boys, Tadhg, 16, immediately strikes back, “I’d tell her to F- off.”

Dillon, the most thoughtful in the bunch, thinks for a moment and then reasons, “If you’re just meeting, there’s nothing you can do.”

Jack, their serial-kisser friend, chimes in, “you’d still just batter your man, anyway.”

So nobody seriously commits to anyone? At all? And everyone’s okay with that?

When I press the boys more about this noncommittal dating culture, Dillon admits, “If you really like a girl, you wouldn’t[be with another girl].”

And Tadgh, perhaps the most mature of our fellows(and the only one who dated a girl exclusively), insists that romance is not entirely dead. “I bought my ex-girlfriend CoCo Chanel.” But as soon as he mentions the perfume, Jack begins making a whipping motion.

Who can blame teenagers like these for thinking there’s nothing special about affection? They’re surrounded by music and movies that disparage the idea of making anything but physical connections.

If I was a teen today, I don’t know how I’d respond to the likes of the Ke$ha song Blah, blah, blah:

“Cut to the chase kid. I know you don’t want to know what my middle name is. I’m gonna be naked and you’re wasted... Think you’ll be gettin this, nah nah nah, Not in the back of my car if you keep talking that blah, blah blah.”

It’s no wonder her album is entitled, Animal: she sells herself, and members of the general listening public, as little more than such.

While writing this, I saw an advertisement for a film called Easy A. Under images of an unpopular high school girl, who we then see change into sexier clothing and walking down a corridor with everyone looking at her, the narrator recites the tag line: “When you pretend to go all the way, you’ll never know how far it will take you.”

In many ways, I feel sorry for the teens of this generation.

But all is not totally lost. My friend Bríana – very much a teen, wearing a hundred different colors and shapes, but also very much an individual(her head is shaved on one side, despite having flowing light-red hair that shines like a wheat field at sunset, all the way down to her waist) – says she has consistently refused to conform to the societal norms set out for teenagers.

“I waited to have my first kiss, to be with someone special,” she says. “Everyone thought I was crazy.”

I suppose teens like Bríana, and to some extent Dillon and Tadgh, present some sort of silver lining: there are individuals, and strong ones at that, who, despite peer pressure, will still keep some things sacred; who will respect themselves and one another, and won’t play with others’ trust, just because the rules say you can.

Before we part ways, Bríana offers one last hopeful truth.

“It’s a teenage thing,” she says. “You grow out of it.”

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