Last night in my sociology of religion class our professor Reg Bibby asked that question.
Here's my take…
To begin with this question essentializes both popular culture and young people. The question assumes that that popular culture exists as a more or les singular monolithic entity. Yet this is exactly what makes the question provocative.
I have for a long time tried to maintain some distance (I'll admit I am not always successful) from the temptation to attach value, either positive or negative to popular culture. There are aspects and trends that in certain ways seem to have beneficial aspects to society while even at the same time producing some seemingly ill effects. (eg. Cell phones – improve safety and accessibility but also impact the way conversation and relationships are maintained) The other thing that makes me leery to pass judgment on popular culture is because of how hypocritical it seems to criticize the new cultural directions when I participated and consumed, at least some of the those same general directions especially more so when I was young.
But don't confuse my lack of judgement on popular culture with a notion that popular culture is not purposeful or intentional. Quite the opposite. Popular culture has a specific trajectory. It is clearly, in a general sense, against the established culture and norms that exist. That means involvement or consumption of popular culture is participating in a direction that is set at least in part in opposition established values and cultural expression. So that means conflict. Now this is hardly the case in all situations and it is not necessarily strongly antagonistic. But popular culture wouldn't be popular culture if it wasn't different than any other culture. Because it is different, conflict is inevitable. This is not really such a bad thing. In the process of conflict social norms and values are either further entrenched or are modified to accommodate new cultural situations and ideologies. It is a refining process. Now some will say that the values that they hold dear seem to be on the losing end of the conflict and that is fair to say but not entirely objective.
As for young people, I have always maintained that individuals retain a great deal of agency within and over the social structures and mores they encounter. Participation is optional. This is formed, likely, from my upbringing in evangelical theology that strongly taught personal individual choice – especially as it related to spiritual commitment. While I still maintain that individuals are free agents within their world – I acknowledge – like most of the 'fathers' of sociology that the choices we have as individuals are limited. (We may think we are exercising choice in the toothpaste aisle but the reality is no matter how the store stocks the shelves our choices are limited.) As a result we are faced with limited options for our participation in culture altogether. (In the past elders of the church patrolled the town for young people going to the movies. This meant that the choice to go to movies was restricted to some extent and that the surveillance created implications on the type of faith one was able to live out. Today elders do not do that so youth go to movies at their whim and the allowance of their parents. The nature of the choice has changed but then so has the implications for faith.) I believe that teaching youth to have a critical eye for how they engage with culture is critical to establishing healthy faith as well.
Now to be clear there are many things that are trends in popular culture that I lament. But to be sure there are things that I think bear celebrating. But that is for another day…