Story: Teenagers and youth

Page 5. Control and rebellion

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The behaviour of young people often attracts public attention, especially when they behave in ways that older people consider unacceptable.

19th century and early 20th century

In the early 1840s the arrival of young boys from Britain in Auckland prompted newspaper protests about ‘juvenile delinquency’ – a term often used to describe wayward behaviour, especially in young men. In the 1870s and 1880s newspapers reported the problem of larrikinism – adolescents loitering in streets.

From 1867 children under 15 years who were in trouble with the law, or whose parents could not or would not look after them, could be sent to industrial schools or boarded out to learn work skills. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries young people were considered ‘impressionable’ and vulnerable to temptation. Sexes were segregated in social situations and wealthier young women were often chaperoned.

1920s to 1940s

Challenges to the established conservative social order came during the 1920s. Some young women cut their hair short, wore tight clothes, smoked in public, danced new dances and went to films without chaperones. Questioning the older generation’s values was stifled by the 1930s economic depression, the Second World War and post-war austerity, but would explode in the 1950s.

In need of protection?

Following a scandal in Lower Hutt in the 1950s when a group of young teenagers were found to be having sex, New Zealand’s criminal law was amended. For the first time it became an offence for a woman over the age of 21 to have sexual relations with a male under the age of 16. In a 1970 article, Wellington solicitor Nigel Taylor mused, tongue-in-cheek, ‘One often wonders whether the adolescent male of fourteen would necessarily want to be protected.’1


In the early 1950s teenagers dressed similarly to their parents. This changed in the mid-1950s, when dress, music, dance and movies from the United States were catalysts. Suddenly teenagers began listening to rock ’n’ roll, hanging out at milk bars and wearing distinctive clothes such as stovepipe trousers and brightly coloured socks. These young men were known as bodgies – their female counterparts were widgies. In 1953 in Lower Hutt a sex scandal involving young teenagers resulted in a Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents. Its 1954 report recommended increased censorship of films, and of publications that featured sex, horror and crime.


In the 1960s young people strongly questioned the institutions and values of the previous generation. They signalled their independence through their tastes in music, movies, clothes and hairstyles.

Teen dreams

As a Wellington schoolgirl in 1955 Glen Fearnley couldn’t wait to grow up: ‘Teenager was a new thing, a postwar thing, which I sort of noticed as a kid. There was a lightening-up, particularly for girls, and prettier material became available for clothes. Teenager meant fun. American things were very exciting and we tried to be like Americans. My parents thought American things were not in good taste, rather brash. My parents did not have a teenage experience.’2

A great deal of 1960s popular culture came from the United States, through music, movies and radio, and then television. Businesses quickly discovered a new set of consumers – niche marketing to adolescents strengthened and drove the notion of teenagers as a distinct group with their own style. Since the 1950s each generation of teenagers in western industrial societies has listened to their own music and sported their own styles of dress and hairstyles, increasingly representing a globalised youth subculture.

Youth and censorship

A recurring theme in New Zealand’s censorship history has been the attempt to prevent a decline in ‘moral standards’, especially among youth. In the late 1930s American comics and magazines came under close scrutiny from government officials and the minister of customs and education banned some publications. In 1949 age restrictions for movies were introduced. In the early 1950s films such as The wild one were banned, and Rebel without a cause was only passed by the censor on appeal. Many more comics were banned during the 1950s.

In the early 1970s The little red schoolbook was very popular with young people, as it devoted 20 of its 200 pages to sex and 30 to drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. Before this there was very little accessible information for teenagers on these issues. Down under the plum trees, published in 1972, also discussed sex, sexuality and drugs. While adults often disapproved these publications, teenagers circulated the books through their personal networks. Since the 1980s censorship has become more liberal, and education has focused increasingly on providing information so students can make up their own minds. With the introduction of the internet in the 1990s, almost any material became available online. Some parents used internet filtering software to block their children’s access to certain websites.

21st century resistance

In the early 21st century many 13 to 19 year olds still resist the controls of parents, teachers and the state. This may take the form of questioning gender boundaries or embracing queer sexualities. Some young people become environmental activists and animal rights advocates. Others work to have an impact on the planning of cities and the provision of public spaces for teenagers.

  1. Nigel R. Taylor, ‘The adolescent and the law.’ In The adolescent in New Zealand: the 1970 lectures / delivered to the Association for the Study of Childhood, Wellington, New Zealand. Wellington: New Zealand University Press, Price Milburn, 1971, p. 92. Back
  2. Quoted in Redmer Yska, All shook up: the flash bodgie and the rise of the New Zealand teenager in the fifties. Auckland: Penguin, 1993, pp. 55–56. Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Teenagers and youth - Control and rebellion', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 May 2022)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Aug 2017