Do teenagers count as people?

I don’t usually read News Ltd, so I’m afraid I almost missed this story from last week – I only found it because the Conversation yesterday had a piece on the relevant science. But the politics (or ethics) of it interest me a lot more than the science.

Briefly, the Telegraph reports that the state rail authority in New South Wales is planning to test devices that use a very high-pitched “buzzing noise”, inaudible to those over the age of about 24 (whose hearing has lost the capacity to detect high frequencies), to deter young people loitering in “known trouble spots” – who apparently are presumed to be vandals, graffittists or other troublemakers.

The devices, known as “mosquitoes” (read their sales pitch here), are popular in Britain, where high-tech social control is all the rage. But not everyone is supportive. A committee of the Council of Europe recommended in 2010 that “their use in public places should be banned” as “an illegal solution under the terms of international human rights instruments,” although no further action has been taken.

One is compelled to wonder what the reaction would be if the devices discriminated on the basis, say, of race rather than age. It’s not hard to imagine a device that hooked on to a genetic property peculiar to (or significantly more common in) members of a particular race; just such a thing was central to the plot of a 1941 Robert Heinlein novel, Sixth Column. It may not be scientifically possible now, but surely no-one would bet against it being available in the not very distant future.

I suspect such a device might be rather popular in certain circles, offering the ability to keep away Africans, or Aborigines, or some other disfavored group. But would the rest of us be so complacent?

On the contrary, I think it’s safe to predict that race-based “pest control” would produce a gigantic public outcry. It would be said, rightly, that it amounted to racial discrimination of the worst order. Any businessperson trying to market such a device would be lucky to stay out of jail.

Yet is the “mosquito” any different in principle? In each case a particular group is singled out for special treatment – in effect, collective punishment – based on the alleged propensity of some of its members for misbehavior. The difference is that the “mosquito” taps into our deep-seated ambivalence about whether young people really count as fully-fledged citizens. Everyone else has rights, but young people, it seems, only have privileges that can be withdrawn at any time.

Either the places where the devices will be located are open to the public, in which case young people will be prevented from exercising their legal rights, or they’re not, in which case there’s no rational reason to target just one segment of the population.

Is there any other group of Australians that would be treated with such disdain?


19 thoughts on “Do teenagers count as people?

  1. I imagine “Making loud noise just to annoy people” would be one of the complaints about young people supporters of The Mosquito would make. Loudly and often, to anyone who’ll listen.


  2. Well, they can’t vote, so they’re not real people. Right? I mean, they can’t buy alcohol or drive a car. They can’t smoke cigarettes. They can’t choose their representatives in Parliament, and they’re already discriminated against on the basis of their age. Why would we stop now?

    The worst of it is that, as the ‘adultia’ or ‘grownupia’ we forget that we were once underage and felt unrepresented and stigmatised for our lack of years. We’ve every one of us been under 18 at some point! More than we can even say about racial prejudices! I mean, I’ve never been an Aborigine or blind or old or any of the countless other things I could be discriminated for, but by golly I was under-18 for a full 18 years!


    1. Precisely the reason why age-related restrictions are much more easily justifiable than strained analogies about sexual or racial discrimination. (1) We’ve all been 16. Most of us will at some stage have children or nieces/ nephews who are 16. We’re not imposing burdens on The Other here. Nor are we opining about burdens we have never experienced.
      The other reasons are (2) it is scientific fact that brains – especially ability to judge consequences and and control impulses – don’t fully develop until age 21-25. I’ve known people who were driving unregistered cars around the farm paddock at 9 or 10. That did not make them safe to venture out on the road at that age.
      And (3) any restriction based on age will be temporary and thus only regulates how you exercise a right, as opposed to blocking you from exercising it. Assuming you don’t care about doing (or are physically incapable of doing) most of these “young adult” activities before 12 or 13, and are legally entitled to do them all at 17 or 18, that’s barely four or five years that The Man is, like, totally oppressing your rights, dude. Just over one parliamentary term in most democracies.. After that you’ve got five, six or seven decades to do these things at will. Complaining about a short delay, one imposed on everybody, while your brain synapses connect seems as precious as nuns objecting that they couldn’t possibly sign a form for someone else to pay for their employees’ birth control because that would make them materially complicit in objective evil.


      1. I don’t have any problem with age-based restrictions that bear some rational relationship to people’s stage of development – minimum ages for drinking, driving, sex, etc. (I think the ones we actually set are probably too high, but that’s a separate question.) But I can’t see how the right to not be blasted by high frequency sound should vary with age.

        As to the analogy with racial discrimination – yes, it’s true that adults all have the experience of having been teenagers. But they also know that they will never be teenagers again, so the most potent barrier to othering them is missing.


      2. (1) If teenagers are more likely to be causing trouble, there’s a rational relationship. (That’s a conditional “if”: I don’t have enough facts about this case).
        True, it’s random “luck” that one age-related factor (assumed propensity to cause trouble) happens here to match another (ability to hear literal dog-whistles). At other times, these might not match. “You Must Be This Tall To Enter” will (assuming the problem is scariness, like a film or haunted house ride, and not physiology-related, like falling out of the roller-coaster) unfairly exclude Peter Dinklage while letting in some 11-year-olds of Pasifika descent I could name.
        Again, no judgment on this particular example, just that easily equating age discrimination to sexism/ racism is (especially when the discrimination is “too young” – “too old” may be more problematic, unless one can prove that they’re “been long enough at the fair”) missing a few steps.
        (2) As I said, even the crankiest oldesters usually have children, sometimes grandchildren, or at least (grand-) nephews and nieces.There’s an entire billion-dollar industry built around estate management and family trusts which attests that adults have a revealed preference to sacrifice some of their own felicity for the utility of their descendants. (Critics on left and right would argue that societal tolerance of climate change and abortion, respectively, show this empathy has limits: but it’s real enough regarding those descendants who’re currently alive and walking about). So I’d trust the political process plus Richard Dawkins’ selfish genes to sort this one out.
        I also can’t see any obviously better “jury” to decide where the balance of justice lies in this case: certainly not teenagers themselves.


  3. “It’s not hard to imagine a device that hooked on to a genetic property peculiar to (or significantly more common in) members of a particular race.”

    We already have such a thing – milk! Whether copious volumes of the white stuff can be practicably deployed at railway stations is another matter.


  4. There is also the enormous distress that it would cause the very young who have no alternative but to be in these places with their parents. Such devices should not be permitted but any business employing them can forget my custom.


  5. i don ot know but as a subscriber crap like this which has been covered several times in the media over years should be ignored …is crikey changing its ways ? edward jmes


  6. Thanks Edward. As to moderation, the system tells me your comment was made at 6.36pm and was approved at 6.41pm, so I don’t think that’s too bad. I’m sorry you didn’t like the story; I thought it was interesting, but you can never please everybody.


  7. Well thanks for the reply Charles. never the less. It is just silly how government media releases stuff on ways to social engineer crowd control teenagers. Gets a run in an important subscriber only publication like It is simple minded and repeated rubbish which belongs in fairfax and limited news. Crikey Subscribers like me expect a lot more from Crikey than lazy guff like that. I have been publishing well over fifty paid announcements in our local newspapers on the Central Coast in NSW. Including serious allegations about a local council misleading the NSW State Coroner. I have named names and supplied photos. Yet Crikey uses our paid space to repeat guff like this ‘interesting repeated story’ on line, nationally. While ignoring my often published allegations identifying a local council which is on the public record having misled a state coroner during his inquiry into the wrongful deaths of five people at Piles Creek, Somersby in NSW. Just how genuine is Eric Beecher the new owner of Edward James 0243419140 one of a few of your remaining Crikey subscribers who use their real names when posting comments for our readers on Crikey strings. and also in my paid announcements in our several local Ducks Crossings Publications newspapers! What are the bought and paid for media frightened of Eric ? The real work and risk has been done! Edward James


  8. Sorry Edward, you’ll really have to ask him that. It’s got nothing to do with this thread – he doesn’t tell me what to write.


  9. Well Charles you make a good point. I have asked Eric a few times WTF sort of. Pointing out since he purchased Crikey it has gone “off” from what it was when owned by Stephen Mayne. I have renewed my subscription, but I am not happy that stories about systemic corruption which I run in my local papers, seem to frighten Crikey. Strange really as they are already in the public domain so the default defamation concern is a bit limp. again nothing to do with your story which as I pointed out is so dated.
    cheers Edward James


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