My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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teenager repellent

At the back of Ms. Magazine, there’s a section called “No Comment” where they re-post advertisements of various sorts that are just so wrong it hurts. They don’t analyze them but they know their audience will get it given their voice in general. Well, given my actively pro-youth culture voice, check this out:

What’s the Buzz? Rowdy Teenagers Don’t Want to Hear It

::sigh::


November 29, 2005
Barry Journal
What’s the Buzz? Rowdy Teenagers Don’t Want to Hear It

By SARAH LYALL
BARRY, Wales – Though he did not know it at the time, the idea came to Howard Stapleton when he was 12 and visiting a factory with his father, a manufacturing executive in London. Opening the door to a room where workers were using high-frequency welding equipment, he found he could not bear to go inside.

“The noise!” he complained.

“What noise?” the grownups asked.

Now 39, Mr. Stapleton has taken the lesson he learned that day – that children can hear sounds at higher frequencies than adults can – to fashion a novel device that he hopes will provide a solution to the eternal problem of obstreperous teenagers who hang around outside stores and cause trouble.

The device, called the Mosquito (“It’s small and annoying,” Mr. Stapleton said), emits a high-frequency pulsing sound that, he says, can be heard by most people younger than 20 and almost no one older than 30. The sound is designed to so irritate young people that after several minutes, they cannot stand it and go away.

So far, the Mosquito has been road-tested in only one place, at the entrance to the Spar convenience store in this town in South Wales. Like birds perched on telephone wires, surly teenagers used to plant themselves on the railings just outside the door, smoking, drinking, shouting rude words at customers and making regular disruptive forays inside.

“On the low end of the scale, it would be intimidating for customers,” said Robert Gough, who, with his parents, owns the store. “On the high end, they’d be in the shop fighting, stealing and assaulting the staff.”

Mr. Gough (pronounced GUFF) planned to install a sound system that would blast classical music into the parking lot, another method known to horrify hang-out youths into dispersing, but never got around to it. But last month, Mr. Stapleton gave him a Mosquito for a free trial. The results were almost instantaneous. It was as if someone had used anti-teenager spray around the entrance, the way you might spray your sofas to keep pets off. Where disaffected youths used to congregate, now there is no one.

At first, members of the usual crowd tried to gather as normal, repeatedly going inside the store with their fingers in their ears and “begging me to turn it off,” Mr. Gough said. But he held firm and neatly avoided possible aggressive confrontations: “I told them it was to keep birds away because of the bird flu epidemic.”

A trip to Spar here in Barry confirmed the strange truth of the phenomenon. The Mosquito is positioned just outside the door. Although this reporter could not hear anything, being too old, several young people attested to the fact that yes, there was a noise, and yes, it was extremely annoying.

“It’s loud and squeaky and it just goes through you,” said Jodie Evans, 15, who was shopping at the store even though she was supposed to be in school. “It gets inside you.”

Miss Evans and a 12-year-old friend who did not want to be interviewed were once part of a regular gang of loiterers, said Mr. Gough’s father, Philip. “That little girl used to be a right pain, shouting abuse and bad language,” he said of the 12-year-old. “Now she’ll just come in, do her shopping and go.”

Robert Gough, who said he could hear the noise even though he is 34, described it as “a pulsating chirp,” the sort you might hear if you suffered from tinnitus. By way of demonstration, he emitted a batlike squeak that was indeed bothersome.

Mr. Stapleton, a security consultant whose experience in installing store alarms and the like alerted him to the gravity of the loitering problem, studied other teenage-repellents as part of his research. Some shops, for example, use “zit lamps,” which drive teenagers away by casting a blue light onto their spotty skin, accentuating any whiteheads and other blemishes.

Using his children as guinea pigs, he tried a number of different noise and frequency levels, testing a single-toned unit before settling on a pulsating tone which, he said, is more unbearable, and which can be broadcast at 75 decibels, within government auditory-safety limits. “I didn’t want to make it hurt,” Mr. Stapleton said. “It just has to nag at them.”

The device has not yet been tested by hearing experts.

Andrew King, a professor of neurophysiology at Oxford University, said in an e-mail interview that while the ability to hear high frequencies deteriorates with age, the change happens so gradually that many non-teenagers might well hear the Mosquito’s noise. “Unless the store owners wish to sell their goods only to senior citizens,” he wrote, “I doubt that this would work.”

Mr. Stapleton argues, though, that it doesn’t matter if people in their 20’s and 30’s can hear the Mosquito, since they are unlikely to be hanging out in front of stores, anyway.

It is too early to predict the device’s future. Since an article about it appeared in The Grocer, a British trade magazine, Mr. Stapleton has become modestly famous, answering inquiries from hundreds of people and filling orders for dozens of the devices, not only in stores but also in places like railroad yards. He appeared recently on Richard & Judy, an Oprah-esque afternoon talk show, where the device successfully vexed all but one of the members of a girls’ choir.

He is considering introducing a much louder unit that can be switched on in emergencies with a panic button. It would be most useful when youths swarm into stores and begin stealing en masse, a phenomenon known in Britain as steaming. The idea would be to blast them with such an unacceptably loud, high noise – a noise inaudible to older shoppers – that they would immediately leave.

“It’s very difficult to shoplift,” Mr. Stapleton said, “when you have your fingers in your ears.”

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12 comments to teenager repellent

  • metamanda

    The best part of it is that the idea came to him when he was 12. Traitor to his kind, that guy was.

    Actually, I can still (at 26) hear those high frequency noises, and for that reason don’t really like having a TV on in the room.

    “Using his children as guinea pigs, he tried a number of different noise and frequency levels”

    It’s like he’s Willy Wonka’s evil twin, finding the perfect formula for the Everlasting Yobstopper(TM).

    I can’t believe I just said that.

  • mark

    Of course, if ‘someone’ were feeling quite ant-consumerist, they would plant some of these outside ‘yoof’ oriented consumer outlets and drive away their customers, thereby reducing sales of …… whatever it is those crazy kids are spending their money on these days.

  • Heh heh… I saw this yesterday and just KNEW you’d be putting this on your blog 😛

    My opinion of the Mosquito? It’s pretty stupid. I much prefer the blasting of classical music… because in that case, only CULTURED teens will loiter 🙂

  • op

    “I saw this yesterday and just KNEW you’d be putting this on your blog :P”

    me too! when i was reading it all i could think was ‘how long before danah posts this?’

    the digg.com’ers scare me(overstated for effect): “i hate those pesky kids. always killin’ an’ robbin’ an’ stealin'”

    my how quickly we forget our own childhoods!

  • Liz

    You know, I swear, I thought I was crazy, but I can hear those frequencies and other people can’t. I thought there was something wrong with my hearing for awhile… turns out I just have… young ears? Whatev.

    That’s a bit much, testing the product on your children? Cruel man.

  • Adriane

    I speak for the teenage population. And I honestly think for you to classify all teenagers as trouble makers is pathetic and pety. Let me guess the trouble makers you picture have long hair and are of the “strange” type (meaning skateboarders, goths, punks, rockers, etc.) That opinion makes you sterio typical. Honestly were you people never once kids/teens. Have you never hung around stores for shear lack of something to do? Have you never caused a little mischief just to test your boundries? Have you never had a little stupis fun just to past the time? If you say no then you were never a true adolescent or you are lying. Think about you childhood…

  • I guess “No Comment” only works when your audience consistently knows you…

    Adriane – the reason that i posted this was to voice a big phat ::GROAN:: If you look at my previous posts, you’ll find that i’m outraged by society’s efforts to classify teens as troublemakers and that i think it’s problematic that adults are terrified of youth.

  • Adriane, I’m also on your side, believe it or not. And, as the father of a skateboarder and graffiti artist, whose work I consider both creative and political, I’m all for ‘kids’ doing what kids do.

  • I don’t like Mosquito, but it doesn’t mean that I consider that nobody like it. Tastes differ.

  • Anonymos

    Why are you doing this? You ageist fools. You really need to stop this before America and England completely turn into a “big brother society”.

  • DH

    Take a look at this:

    http://www.teenrepel.co.uk

    Its a much cheaper alternative to the highly priced Mosquito. I have one and can vouch for it as a very effective device. It looks alot nicer too.