Nick Barham is a man with a mission: to redeem the tarnished image of British youth. He does not deny that young people's lives revolve around an excess of drugs, sex and shopping. He admits that they are casual about violence, watch mindless TV programmes and spend their weekends dancing to repetitive music. He accepts that they are politically ill-informed and apathetic. But, he insists, their ageing critics are wrong to condemn them. After a year spent travelling the length and breadth of the UK to commune with everyone from 11-year-old Busted fans to ketamine-snorting twentysomething teachers, his impression of today's youth is "almost entirely positive".
There is something sweet about Barham's determination to conclude that the kids are all right. You get the feeling that even if his research had uncovered an entire generation of suicidal heroin addicts, he would still have managed to put a cheery spin on it. His explicit intention is to go "searching for the positives". After the fatal shooting of the teenagers Charlene Ellis and Latisha Shakespeare at a New Year party in Birmingham in 2003, he was dismayed when the press and politicians blamed contemporary youth culture for the murders. "I questioned whether [such stories] represented the inevitable contact with drugs, sex, computer games and hip-hop. Or if the people who do use all these things could emerge undamaged. Even enhanced."
So off he trots to give young people a fair hearing. And unlike many youth commentators, Barham does actually talk to quite a few. He hauls his Dictaphone along to goth festivals, techno raves, fetish clubs, suburban car parks and grubby bedrooms. It must have been a thankless task. "I discovered," he notes sagely after witnessing one scene of debauchery, "that interviewing people on pills and ketamine doesn't get you that far."
Despite the reams of interview material, Barham struggles to find an interesting line of argument. He flits from north to south, from pre-teen to twentysomething, from goth to skater, without managing to locate the threads that bind them into a common culture. What does a British Asian hip-hop fan in Birmingham have in common with a middle-class London festival junkie? The current generation of young people is fascinatingly diverse, culturally and socially. Barham even notes a "sense of racial and cultural separation" when he visits Asian youths at an inner-city school. Rather than explore these schisms, however, he lapses into lazy generalisations: "nobody feels strongly attached to a British way of life".
His interpretation of the relationship between youth culture and the media lacks subtlety. Barham argues that the press "misunderstands" young people, which is probably true. But he does not acknowledge the extent to which youth culture is a creation of the media. Casual sex, drug-taking and violence are vilified by some commentators. Yet much more often, these things are presented as essential components of youth identity. A "normal" teenager sleeps around, takes drugs, goes clubbing. We never talk about "middle-aged culture" or "senior citizen culture" in the same way, because we recognise that people within these age groups have vastly different beliefs, interests and backgrounds.
So even though Dis/connected sets out to discredit the scandalmongers, Barham allows the themes he addresses - guns, drugs, sex, illiteracy - to be dictated by them. However sympathetically he may present those who indulge in rubber-clad orgies and hard-core drug abuse, his descriptions do not help us to overcome our prejudices about British youth. If he really had an open mind about young people, he would have based his agenda upon what they told him.
Dis/connected is a well-meaning book, but I wonder why Barham is so determined not to see anything unpleasant or sad in the young people he meets. Sometimes it is obvious that he is just refusing to acknowledge his distaste. When he braves a hellish-sounding three-day rave at a Pontin's centre in Prestatyn, some of the cracks finally show.
After sitting around with them for about 20 minutes watching their heads loll. the manic giggles and repetitive beats do for me and I head back to my car. Four miserable hours' sleep in the back with only a coat for cover . . . Someone else is taken away by a paramedic, slumped sideways. His mates laugh hysterically and wave goodbye.
Is this really an "entirely positive" image of a generation?
Alice O'Keeffe works at the London Evening Standard