1. Zyn Trouble
What it is: Oral nicotine pouches are being advertised to teens through influencers. They are far from harmless.
What’s happening here? Zyn pouches contain nicotine powder, not tobacco leaf. Other brand names include On! and Velo. That means the FDA can’t classify them as a “smokeless tobacco product” the way it would with dip or e-cigarettes. This classification wrinkle has meant marketing regulations of this product are more lax than they are for similar products. Zyn’s other qualities make it an easy habit to conceal: the pouches dissolve under the lip, so they don’t require spitting. Reporting in the New York Times discusses an entire class of meme-driven accounts on social media, dubbed “Zynfluencers,” who are advertising Zyn products. Hundreds of thousands of young followers seem at least aware of what tobacco pouches are, with sales figures skyrocketing. Many parents, on the other hand, remain still blissfully unaware that Zyn pouches even exist.
Continue the conversation: Have you heard of Zyn pouches?
2. Musically Mean
What it is: “Mean Girls” is a new movie, based on a musical, based on an old movie. The fish-out-of-water-tale has a broad audience, but maintains a certain special appeal for homeschooled teens.
Why homeschoolers relate: The new version of the movie has been 2024-ified with explicitly queer characters and some language, but as far as the main storyline goes, things are pretty much the same as they were twenty years ago; queen bee Regina George battles high-school newcomer Cady Heron when they share a crush on the same boy. (Another crucial difference: Cady and Regina sing now). Unlike many representations of homeschoolers in popular media, Cady isn’t portrayed as someone with a hyper-conservative or unusually religious background. Instead, her struggle to navigate the ins and outs of a foreign, unpredictable and, at times, savagely cruel teenage culture are meant to make her all the more relatable. “Mean Girls” opened last week and is already a commercial success, pulling in $32 million over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. It’s a safe bet that lots of teens will be watching and talking about the film.
Continue the conversation: Do you feel like homeschoolers get an odd or unfair portrayal in movies and TV shows?
3. Gypsy Breaks Out
What it is: Gypsy Rose Blanchard served several years in prison for plotting the murder of her abusive mother. Now she’s been released and the cult of social media celebrity around her is building to a fever pitch.
Why Gen Z finds her fascinating: #gypsyrose is about to hit 5 billion views on TikTok, with many teens referring to her as an icon of courage and hope in the face of parental abuse. But even before her release, Blanchard was already a very famous person and, in a way, primed for social media stardom. A six-hour Lifetime series called “The Prison Confessions of Gypsy Rose Blanchard” was broadcast the first week of January, taking an extremely sympathetic view of her life so far. That was just the latest media installment of her story, which was previously fictionalized in a Hulu series (“The Act”) and a Lifetime movie (“Love You to Death”), in addition to multiple true crime documentaries. Blanchard is an adult woman who has served time for an awful crime, but she’s also lived a very sheltered and micro-managed existence and is not yet finished “growing up.” Blanchard attributes her appeal to Gen Z to relatability, saying she’s figuring out her identity while teens are figuring out theirs, too.
Continue the conversation: Have you heard of the case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard?
Song of the Week
“yes, and?” by Ariana Grande: The weeks after the holidays are often a bit of a drought for new music. That ended last Friday, when Ariana Grande released a new single. Grande has carved her niche in pop music with what some would call a self-empowered feminism, and “yes, and?” is no exception. The song is about sticking up for yourself, having self-confidence, and being your “true self.” It’s well-trodden territory, for both Ariana and our modern culture, so the song ends up feeling cliché. Musically, the song leans into the “house” style popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a sound that’s having a revival at the moment. For lyrics, click here (language and sexual lyrics).
Over the past several years, TikTok’s #booktok community has made quite an impact on the literary world. #booktok has racked up over 217 billion views, and publishers and retailers alike have leaned into the subculture’s power as a marketing phenomenon. Libraries and bookstores prominently place their “BookTok picks” on curated display tables, and new authors are encouraged to engage on the platform to boost their sales. The current number one and number two books on the New York Times bestseller list are BookTok darlings “Fourth Wing” and “Iron Flame,” both by Rebecca Yarros. Searching the word by itself will bring up articles with recommendations for BookTok books from Today, USA Today, and Books-a-Million, among others.
This may seem encouraging. Thank goodness, the kids are reading! Unfortunately, the content of these books often veers into downright salacious territory. Many of the most celebrated BookTok books contain extremely graphic descriptions of sexual encounters. These explicit books are shamelessly presented as the thing to read, especially for young women. The X-rated content would be troubling on its own, but these books also tend to present a twisted, toxic version of romance. In the world of BookTok, abusive behavior within a relationship is often excused as a symptom and perhaps even a requirement of true love.
Scripture firmly warns us to be wise and discerning about the sources we engage with. When we read Philippians 4:8, violent video games, TV and movies with sexual content, and other things along those lines may come to mind first. But the truth is that everything we engage with leaves an impact on our minds. When we read books that promote unhealthy views of life and love, we are training our minds to follow these patterns.
As Christians, we are called to model Christ in all we do and say, as well as how we think. As the Son of God, Jesus’ thoughts were and are righteous and pure; as sinful humans, we won’t be able to perfectly live up to that standard on this side of eternity. But we can choose what we meditate on, and what we allow to teach us about how we are meant to be.
For a more in-depth conversation about BookTok and its effect on teens and their reading habits, check out this Wednesday’s Deep Dive on our Culture Translator podcast. As you think about these ideas, here are three questions to help spark conversation with the teens in your life:
- How do you think social media is changing the way people read? Do you think it’s a change for the better or for the worse, or a bit of both?
- What do you think about when you’re deciding what kind of media you interact with? Do you have anything you want to see or don’t want to see when you’re reading?
- Who or what teaches you how to think? What makes someone or something a trustworthy teacher?