Teens need malls. Malls need crowds. Why are they pushing kids away?

It’s lunchtime on a rainy Saturday at Westfield Garden State Plaza, New Jersey’s oldest and second-largest shopping mall. The food court is packed, with families in booths, clusters of teens at high-tops, and a long line at Chick-fil-A where Gael, Odell and Katie, teenagers from over the border in New York state, have just bought their food.

Their local mall hosts mostly small businesses, so when Katie had an eye appointment nearby the rest were happy to tag along and check out all the Garden state has to offer. “Aritzia, Pink, I really like the Body Shop,” Katie says; Gael and Odell are in search of Funko-Pops, big-headed collectible figurines, from a favorite anime, Jujutsu Kaisen.

Nearby, eating Wetzel’s Pretzels, sit Adriana and Belle, 13-year-olds who live an hour’s drive away. Belle’s mother drove them and is off shopping on her own for birthday presents; the girls plan to browse Garage, Lululemon and Sephora. “If something comes along, we will buy it, but we’re not looking for anything,” Belle says. They come every week, laughs Adriana. Belle agrees: “We do come here a lot. My family likes to spend time together, and at home we get bored. So we come to the mall to go to the movies.”

interior of mall with lit-up, bridge-like structure along ceiling

In many ways, this scene could be straight from an 1980s coming-of-age movie – a continuation of the decades-long tradition of American teenagers using shopping malls for their first taste of independence. And yet as teenagers navigate the space, and spend their dollars, they are faced with multiple signs that the mall does not really want them here.

“Parental Guidance Policy”, the square, tasteful signs read in capital letters. “Fridays & Saturdays after 5PM. Visitors under 18 years old must always be accompanied by a chaperone 21 or older.” That policy went into effect on 18 April, following what the mall describes as “an increase in disruptive behavior that violates the center’s code of conduct by a small minority of younger visitors”. Those events, specifically, were a reported brawl in the food court in 2022, and a documented fight in March 2023. If it were dinnertime, Gael, Odell and Katie, participating in such disruptive acts as smelling bath products and shopping for anime figures, would be escorted out; Belle and Adriana would have to stick to Belle’s mom, rather than having the freedom to browse and eat pretzels without her.

Westfield Garden State Plaza is one of dozens American malls that have introduced or expanded curfews or parental escort policies since 2021, in response to reports of crowding, fighting and unruliness. One California shopping mall even announced that unaccompanied minors would be required to wear lanyards with their names and parents’ numbers (so cringe) after 5PM. Garden State Plaza said it would create a pickup area outside the mall for unaccompanied young people who are no longer allowed inside, creating a visible walk of shame for teenagers.

Mall managers say these curfews are introduced with good reason: an uptick in rowdiness among young people, often blamed on social media, with online invitations leading to large crowds, and fights posted on TikTok.

In truth, there are no figures to confirm whether there has been a pandemic-era increase in mall violence, and whether teenagers are specifically to blame in all cases. The digital connection is unclear, too. Frequently, when a specific reason is cited for a brawl, it has nothing to do with TikTok. A summertime brawl in South Boston, for example, was sparked by large teen crowds at a movie theater offering $4 tickets.

This is an ironic time for the mall to be making headlines for being too rowdy and crowded. Most coverage of shopping malls over the past decade has been about their decline. In an age of internet shopping, bankrupt department stores, and Covid-19, the mall’s appeal as a teenage hangout has long seemed under threat, too. The number of malls in the US is certainly shrinking: 17 malls closed in 2022, and the analyst group Green Street Advisors projects 15 to 20 more will close per year in the near future. But top-tier malls like Garden State Plaza have seen their occupancy rate rebound to pre-pandemic levels, and sales at malls increased more than 11% between 2021 and 2022.

The problem, for teenagers and shopping mall managers alike, is not TikTok: it is the lack of physical spaces where teens can be together, blow off steam and learn the rules of engagement – a problem that is perhaps worse than ever.

The idealized mallgoer of the 1950s was a young, married white woman, likely with children in tow. Victor Gruen and Elsie Krummeck’s striking modernist design for Milliron’s Department Store in Hawthorne, California, a fast-growing aerospace suburb, included a nursery next to the rooftop parking deck, while Park Central Shopping City in Phoenix was rated “best in class” for its four-room Old Woman in the Shoe playhouse for children. Mothers who spent more than $3 at any store in the mall could validate their receipt for one free hour of babysitting.

During the 1960s, when 240 regional malls opened within the decade, those babies turned into toddlers, then children, and finally into teens. The on-site nurseries and carousels that mall managers were urged to provide during that decade of expansion remained in use, but owners also started thinking about entertainment for those older children.

black and white image of mall exterior

NorthPark Center, in Dallas, played host to a live teen dance television show, called Sump’n Else, from 1965 to 1968, welcoming local bands and dancers to the mall to perform. Crowds watched the live broadcast through the television station’s large, soundproof window, and a local boutique called Pois’n Ivy sold the most up-to-date clothes, in an echo of the teen acts, from Tiffany to Debbie Gibson to Britney Spears, who performed at malls in the 1980s and 1990s, wearing clothes and accessories that could easily be purchased after the show. Stores like Hot Topic, founded in 1989, courted the fickle teen market, selling band T-shirts, hair dye, video game apparel and, today, anime merchandise, as mainstream adolescent tastes changed.

In a 2012 interview, Tiffany remembered the moment record executives pitched her on a mall tour. “I thought it was great, because that’s exactly where I did hang out. My girlfriends and I, that was the safe place to be.”

As late as 2009, the young stars of the Twilight movies did a mall tour, co-sponsored by Hot Topic, meeting fans where they were already hanging out, signing posters and T-shirts and headlining performances by the bands on the films’ soundtrack. Meanwhile, in movies like Clueless and Mean Girls, and the more recent, nostalgia-infused Stranger Things Netflix series, the mall itself plays a prominent role in the plot, serving as a catwalk for the popular girls and makeover opportunity for the ugly ducklings.

cover image of the book “meet me by the fountain”, with picture of mall interior

While the popular kids hung out in the atrium, screaming for their favorite stars and using the escalator as a runway, the 1980s brought a darker, nerdier space to the mall: the video game arcade. Initially, video game consoles were standalone units, installed in the hallways and back corners of bars, pizza restaurants and laundromats. But after Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and co-creator of the first runaway arcade hit, Pong, conceived of the idea of the indoor midway-slash-family-centric-fun-palace known as Chuck E Cheese, the consoles moved out of the back hall and into their own location: typically, a dimly lit, crazily carpeted storefront off the main drag of the mall. Five thousand arcades were opened in malls between 1980 and 1982, and thousands more would be added throughout the 1980s.

In the book Neighborhood of Fear: The Suburban Crisis in American Culture, the historian Kyle Riismandel charted the shift from malls courting teens, via arcades, to protecting themselves from teens, via mall cops and closed-circuit cameras throughout the 1980s and 1990s. What had once seemed like harmless entertainment was now made out to be sinister and addictive, an on-ramp, as one local news report had it, to sex and drug use. Teenage gamers were “terrorizing” senior citizens with their loud groups, and making adults uncomfortable with their “fast remarks”.

If this is all sounding very familiar, it should. All of the 2023 unruly behavior stories sound suspiciously like an earlier era of mall panic. In 2009, thousands of teenagers responded to a flyer posted on a social networking site inviting them to a meetup at the Buffalo Wild Wings at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Center Mall. Those numbers, too large for the restaurant or the mall’s modest public spaces, caused most of the crowd to be turned away. While nothing happened at the mall, a stabbing and two shootings on nearby streets prompted the mall to institute a blanket “parental escort policy”, outlawing groups of four or more people under 21 years old without a parent at all times of day.

Aerial view of the Mall of America, Bloomington, Minnesota.

The Brooklyn mall’s policy was more sweeping than most, but it was not alone. The New York Times reported in 2010 that, of the 1,418 malls in the United States, 66 had some separate policy for youth – most, like Garden State Plaza today, restricted to weekend nights. The enormous Mall of America was the first to create such a policy in 1996. “We had essentially become a babysitter,” the mall’s director of public relations told the Christian Science Monitor in 2005. Current policy requires youth under 16 to be accompanied by an adult any day after 3PM.

When a Massachusetts mall instituted a similar policy that year, a 15-year-old attempted to change the facility’s mind with an online petition, eventually signed by more than 1,000 people: “There are not that many places where teenagers can go and socialize,” the teenager, Mike Lemme, said at the time. “Instead of banning all teenagers, they should find a way to get the people causing the trouble out.”

Today’s teenagers agree: “If you are a respectful teen, you don’t really need your parents,” says Belle. She knows a teen that was kicked out of the mall “because he’s loud and annoying. He was screaming and running around.”

“It shouldn’t be all teenagers,” says Tatiana, 16. “Some of us want to shop.”

“I’m 14 now, and I think I’m reaching peak mall age,” says Bess, who makes a monthly trip with friends to the massive King of Prussia mall in Pennsylvania to spend the day shopping and eating in the food court. “I wasn’t as much of a fan when I was younger because I didn’t have my job as a camp counselor. I had $20, and there is not much you can buy for $20.”

“There are a lot of wineries around here but that is, like, an adult thing,” says Kaylee, 15, who lives in Santa Rosa, California, and does, in fact, mostly go to the mall with her mother. In her town, “There’s a skating rink but that’s kind of it: the movies, the skating rink, or the mall.”

Unsaid in these policies is how, and on whom, they will be enforced. In articles on the Atlantic Center, a spokesman said enforcement ramped up at the beginning of the school year, at the end of each school day, and close to the holidays, when more (adult) shoppers could be expected at the mall. Parental escort policies are also the younger siblings of the New York City police department’s “stop and frisk” program, which allowed police to temporarily detain civilians on the basis of “reasonable suspicion”. In practice, this policy was shown to disproportionately target people of color, especially young Black and Latino men, and was found unconstitutional in 2013. It has always been the same with escort policies.

New Jersey state troopers patrol the American Dream Mall after a bomb scare in Rutherford, New Jersey, last month.

“The mall is a central component of what I call the youth control complex,” says Victor M Rios, MacArthur Foundation professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “They’re seen in stores as either suspects or too poor to be treated with proper customer service, even when they have money. The mall also teaches white teens that they are premium consumers, as they witness their Black and brown peers pay a skin tax upon entering the mall.”

Mall of America was also sued over the parental escort policy on constitutional grounds. The American Civil Liberties Union targeted it as infringing on the rights of young people in general. In a 1996 article in the New York Times, 18-year-old Marcus Wilson called the policy “a little racist” because mall workers always handed him, a Black teen, a copy of the mall’s code of conduct as he walked in, skipping white teens nearby.

The difference in treatment of white teens versus teens of color is even visible in supposedly light-hearted teen entertainment. Teen movies with white stars, like Clueless and Mean Girls, feature young women shopping and strutting, the queen bees of the mall, while numerous Black television shows, from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Black-ish to Everybody Hates Chris, feature young people being followed and detained by mall security on trumped-up shoplifting charges.

“The mall is where teenagers go to display their youthfulness and their energy, to look for potential romantic partners and show off their style,” says Rios. “They have this flourishing of themselves as human beings. You can imagine them walking in a little group at the mall, where a security guard stops them and searches them and humiliates them. They are being socialized: ‘You don’t belong in this space.’”

While malls read as public space, they are privately owned, and even in states where malls count as public for the purposes of protest, such as New Jersey, they have their own codes of conduct. But as Slate’s Henry Grabar has written: “Even after more than a century of curfews in thousands of US municipalities, no one seems to agree that they reduce crime.”

Kids play in a fountain in a mall

Malls seem to want to have it both ways: accepting teens’ money by providing that rare thing in the suburbs – indoor, inexpensive hangout space – but preventing them from having the kind of gentle, independent experiences that will allow them to become self-regulating adults. There’s so much concern that kids spend too much time online, including on TikTok, and too little concern for the provision of physical spaces where they can spend out-of-school time with other kids.

“Malls have these destinations, like the food court – food is a big part of everyone’s experience in public space – and they also have affordable places to sit, to eat, to have a conversation,” says Chat Travieso, an artist, designer and founder of the collaborative Yes Loitering project with South Bronx teens. “There aren’t a lot of places where teens can have autonomy.”

Besides, as Katie says: “Kids are going to do what they want anyway, whether at the mall or somewhere else.”

Testing limits is part of growing up. A recent commentary in the Journal of Pediatrics argued that the rise in mental disorders among American youth could be attributed, in part, to a loss of opportunities for independent play and roaming.

In other words, the depression and isolation that American teens are facing could, in part, be alleviated by more opportunities to go to the mall – or to more spaces that have the kind of lightly supervised, all-weather, car-free space that malls offer. There is more danger in towns with a lack of options, lack of transportation to those options, or with half-dead malls that lack “eyes on the street”.

If kids aren’t given space and time to grow up, it should be no surprise that they get frustrated, turning inward, turning online, or turning to antisocial behavior. From its earliest days, the mall has been a miniature Main Street, where kids were initially encouraged to play, to shop, to eat, and to form their own identities and social groups in the process. To deny them that space now is both ahistorical and counterproductive. Take a hint from the title of Anthony E Wolf’s 1995 parenting book: Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?

  • This is an expanded extract from Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall by Alexandra Lange, out now from Bloomsbury

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