How to Report on the Life of a 13-Year-Old

There must be few journalistic feats more difficult than getting inside the head of a teenager. But with “13, Right Now,” Washington Post staff writer Jessica Contrera joins the ranks of reporters who have skillfully chronicled the lives of children and teens, including Susan Orlean (read her classic Esquire piece, “The American Man, Age 10”) and more recently, Andrea Elliott, whose “Invisible Child” for the New York Times in 2013 documented the life of an 11-year-old homeless girl named Dasani.

Contrera’s story focuses on Katherine, 13, whose life has been upended by the death of her mother, and whose world seems to increasingly exist inside her phone—through apps like Instagram and Snapchat. (As an #old myself, seeing Katherine’s life revolve around her social networks is shocking only in the way it mirrors the screen addiction of the American grown-up. It practically begs for the return of the “I learned it by watching you” meme.)

I spoke to Contrera about her story, which is one in an ongoing series (“The Screen Age”) that the Post will publish throughout the summer.

How did you find Katherine?

When Caitlin Gibson and I decided to do a series on this generation and their technology, we knew we didn’t want it to feel like another “adults eye-rolling about ‘kids these days'” piece. That meant we needed to get our ideas from actual kids. So we reached out to schools, youth programs, and people we knew with kids that age and asked them to pass on a message we wrote about the series and what we were looking for. Someone in the newsroom asked someone else, who asked someone else (thank you, whoever you were!) who led me to one of Katherine’s classmates, who led me to Katherine. We interviewed a bunch of teens just to learn about their lives and habits, and in that process kept our ears out for a kid that felt right for an in-depth story. There is no “typical” 13-year-old. But Katherine was willing to explain her life and why what she does on her phone matters, and I thought that was the most important attribute to look for in a subject. After ensuring we would have a variety of gender, race and income in our other stories to balance out choosing Katherine for this one, we went back to her and her dad. I explained what I wanted to do and why, and I am so deeply grateful that they believed this story was important enough to open up their lives for.

There’s the “opening your life up to a reporter” part, and then there’s preparing them for what’s coming before the story gets published — the publicity, the scrutiny… the commenters. Can you walk me through how you approached that with Katherine and her dad?

Well, I believe strongly that when someone opens up to you on that level you owe it to them to make sure the story is 100 million percent accurate. To do that, you almost have to go through the whole thing with them paragraph by paragraph. So that fact-checking process provided a natural way for them to preview what was coming, without actually reading the story before it publishes, which the Post does not do. As for the commenters…yeah, they have no problem ripping into a kid. Or her widowed dad. But what I loved this time were the commenters who came to their defense and said things like “If you had kids,” or “If you had lost your wife, you wouldn’t be saying what you’re saying.” I’m not sure if the Pommerenings read the comments.

Did you find any parallels to your own life when you were 13? And I guess I wonder whether you were surprised by the extent of the social media activity? My own first thought was, “This is horrifying,” but also, “Our kids are just like us! Why should we be surprised?”

Of course! Teenage girlhood is still teenage girlhood. Awesome for a few, painful for most. Your friends are everything, your parents are embarrassing. Your bedroom in a timewarp somewhere between stuffed animals and sparkly eyeshadow.

But Katherine and I are only 10 years apart in age, and the way the Internet works in her life is extremely different than the way it was for me. It is always there, giving her the chance (and pressure) to be in two places at once.

You’re right that adults act the same. I’m trying to think of the last time I said “I’m bored.” Unless I consciously make the choice to let my mind just wander, I can always be doing something with my time. I wonder how I would be different if that was my habit at that age.

Also, there is an immense pressure on girls especially to look perfect. This has always been true, but now, it’s as if the instructions on how to look perfect are forced into their hands. I take back what I said about sparkly eyeshadow—that’s probably something I owned because I had three brothers and thus no idea what makeup was good. Today, there’s an insane YouTube culture teaching girls how to slim their noses and fill their lips and lose all imperfections. If they’re on Instagram, teens’ pictures appear right next to models and Insta stars, and they see how they are supposed to look. Then they have the ability to figure out how to look that way. Not everyone follows, of course, but I think that’s why I so often see pictures of 14-year-olds and think they look 21. The Internet killed the awkward stage, at least in looks.

One thing that made me feel very old was the different generational definition of “tbh.” Many of my colleagues and I spent the day trying to figure that out.

Haha yes! We were like, what do you mean, it’s a compliment? Figuring out the lingo was so fun we made a side story about it.

What was super wonderful was that we had an incredibly experienced editor on these stories, Rich Leiby, who would catch us when we assumed that people knew what we were talking about and were not thoroughly explaining stuff like…Instagram stalking. We had to remember that our readership is very much not 13 years old.

To be honest, it also made me think about the “Great Grunge Hoax of 1992” in which the New York Times published totally fabricated catchphrases. How do we know kids are not just messing with us?

David Malitz, the managing editor of Style, brought up that exact story when we pitched the idea of doing a “glossary” type thing. So we ditched the word glossary and called it “things we had to explain to our editors.” We knew we had a chance of being way off the mark. That’s also why my 14-year-old cousin was my most trusted proofreader.

Had you read Susan Orlean’s “American Man, Age 10” before or after working on this piece?

I so deeply studied that Susan Orlean story, even before I started this one. The way she treats Colin with so much respect, and uses his words just as he says them, but is also able to zoom out and just talk about growing up, gah, it’s perfect.

How did Katherine respond to your story after she read it?

Dave let me know that Katherine’s friends were inundating her with texts about the story. I hope they were good texts! I can only imagine how overwhelming it was for all of them. I think extensively discussing what agreeing to the story would mean before we started and throughout the reporting process really helped.