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Photograph: Andy Parsons

Ten London teenagers speak their mind about the city

What do you want to tell the capital? That’s what we asked ten local London teenagers. Their replies are powerful.

By Isabelle Aron

Teenagers are obsessed with their phones. Teenagers are lazy. Teenagers are too sensitive. These are the stereotypes that surround young people today. But spend just 15 minutes with a London teenager and you’ll know that’s not the case.

That’s why we wanted to give this generation a platform to share their views in their own words – and, it turns out, they had a lot to say. When we put out an open callout for teens to write a message to London on a topic they cared about, we had more than 100 applications from Londoners aged between 13 and 19.

Their messages were passionate, articulate and intelligent. They gave us a window into the things they love (memes, veganism, nature), what they worry about (politics, climate change, mental health) and the brilliant aspects of London they want to celebrate (multiculturalism, green spaces, community). Read on for their messages to the city.

Find more from the teens at

A message to London

Photograph: Andy Parsons

Piah, aged 18

Growing up in London, it’s always been clear to me that multiculturalism is the lifeblood that keeps the heart of our city pulsing. There’s a mundane beauty in hurrying down our streets at night, bathed in the glow of neon lights illuminating food menus from around the globe – kebabs, sushi, samosas. That beauty is present in the echoes of buskers’ music too. I’ve seen the most stoic commuters crack a smile when they hear joyous Caribbean steelpan melodies drifting down escalators.

But the best part is the festivals that flood our city, bringing people together. There are the star-soaked carnivals filled with glittering costumes and vibrant music; the countless religious festivals like Diwali and Eid, marked by fireworks and lush, extravagant dishes; the Bengali Boishakhi Mela; the Chinese New Year parade; even the Christmas lights sparkling across Oxford Street like stars drawn down from the skies.

There’s nowhere else where cultures meld together like they do in London. So, remember: there is strength in kindness and unity, even when the people in power preach otherwise.

Photograph: Andy Parsons

Sol, aged 16

When I was seven I read a Marvel comic book where a character said: ‘Compromise where you can; if you can’t, don’t. If the world is telling you something wrong is something right, if it tells you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say “No, you move.”’

Now I’m 16 and it feels like people are forcing compromise on to me. Being my age is hard. We have to draw the line between trusting our parents and doing what we think is right for ourselves. That’s all made worse because we often don’t get a say. I know that things can be tough for teachers who don’t know how to appeal to students, or for parents, like mine, who just want the best for their kid but don’t know how to communicate with them. But it feels like, all the time, adults assume what’s right for teenagers.

Some assume we need shielding from the world – to be lied to, when that’s simply not the case. Some think Brexit will be good for our future, when lots of us don’t think it will. Some assume that the reason kids my age get stabbed is because they listen to drill – and adults aren’t responsible.

So, the next adult, the next person who uses my age to invalidate my message and tells me to move… I will plant myself like a tree, look them in the eye and say proudly: ‘No, you move.’

Photograph: Andy Parsons

Olivia, aged 17

There’s a stereotype that teenagers are engrossed in our phones, that we spend more time with our eyes glued to those tiny black screens than anything else. It’s not entirely wrong. I’m definitely guilty of spending too much time on my phone. But that doesn’t mean social media doesn’t have a purpose.

It has helped give a voice to the voiceless. It’s educated me and many of my friends on topics that aren’t covered by the mainstream media or our teachers. On the same app you could be liking an influencer’s latest picture and discovering the benefits of living a zero-waste lifestyle. On YouTube you could watch a tell-all gossip video and learn how to conjugate verbs into the imperfect tense in French.

We live in a digital age and it’s time we realised that it can be used to our advantage. People are building businesses with the touch of a button. A video made in someone’s bedroom on the best revision methods can help millions of teenagers across the world. (Thanks, StudyTubers!)

Although it may look like teenagers don’t do much on our phones, we’re doing more than you think. So yes, we might spend a lot of time looking at tiny black screens, but more often than not, we’re learning something new. And we may even be making a small but effective change that could benefit our society.

Photograph: Andy Parsons

Tayo, aged 17

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, a meme is a joke that’s spread across the internet, with a bunch of different people putting their own spin on it. This is admittedly pretty broad. Like most art, memes defy definition, and there’s a beauty in that.

This may seem odd, but I think of memes like pieces of visual art. Much like in art, memes have their own ‘movements’, where styles and techniques come in and go out of fashion. There are particular artists who know how to reach popularity (or, in this case, virality) with every tweet or Instagram post, frequently being featured in ‘galleries’ (Instagram meme accounts). 

At the same time, there are underground meme artists – the punk rockers of the present day. In stark contrast to corporations who use memes for viral marketing, these punks use memes to make a political point. Like ‘Millennials are killing…’ memes, which were created in response to all the thinkpieces about younger generations causing industries to fail, and became a platform for people to talk about the issues facing their generation through humour.

Most importantly, memes are community-builders. Whether it’s Shakespeare nerds like me sending memes that bring our favourite texts to life, or skincare-lovers using memes to remind everyone to wash their faces, through these we come together. We live in a big and wild city, in a bigger, wilder world where it’s hard to find connection, so there is a magic in these moments. A magic in that week or so when a meme takes over the internet and we come together in a creative frenzy to make each other laugh. And that magic – that is art.

Photograph: Andy Parsons

Kabir, aged 14

Look out your window. What do you see? Buildings? Traffic? Look harder and you’ll find many surprises. Foxes, blackbirds, butterflies, bats, maybe even parakeets. They call your doorstep home. And they need your help.

Many Londoners are unaware of the vast number of species that we share our concrete jungle with. They are the backbone of our ecosystems, and we depend on them for our survival: bees pollinate flowers, foxes keep the rodent populations stable and jays help to disperse seeds. I’ve put out bird feeders, planted wildflowers and made a pond from a container. Over the years, these have attracted sparrows, wheatears, foxes, frogs and, recently, great crested newts!

We are living in a time of ecological crisis, but there are things you can do to make a difference. I’ve seen old wellies used as plant pots in Kensington and bug hotels made from log piles in Wood Green. I’ve even seen nest boxes on balconies in the City. Build it, and they will come!

London is noisy, polluted and crowded, but if you stop to explore the city’s green spaces, you’ll hear birdsong and the rustling of trees. Getting back to nature will improve your wellbeing and help wildlife flourish. Learn to value and protect your priceless treasure: the wildlife on your doorstep.

Photograph: Andy Parsons

China, aged 17

I went vegan when I was 12 years old. The cause was urgent. If I’d waited until I was an adult, I’d have been burying my head in the sand. It was an easy choice for me. I did not have to provide for myself, I could rely on my parents. For adults, in my opinion, it might be harder. But it’s plain to see the environmental turmoil we’re living through. Going vegan can reduce your carbon footprint by 73 percent. It’s an issue that’s important for everyone.

Evaluate how your lifestyle affects the world around you. You don’t have to make drastic changes to think ethically. Pasta, bread and rice are already vegan, and protein-rich additions – tofu, chickpeas, lentils – are readily available in supermarkets. Combine these with seasonal produce and you’ve got an animal-free meal.

It’s more than that, though. For me, going vegan has meant making new friends and trying new things. My hope for the future is that there is no vegan menu, no substitutions, no obligatory falafel wrap, because we’re all eating sustainably. We’re writing our collective human history as we go – or rather, as we eat.

Photograph: Andy Parsons

Emily, aged 16

Social media is a constant challenge for teenagers – one we have to juggle alongside our school lives, home lives and social lives. I think social media has become a mask for many teens. I got Instagram when I was around ten. Now girls my age have learned how to Photoshop pictures of themselves in order to look perfect. This makes me feel devastated: people want to change themselves online to create a persona. I really worry about what our future will be like because of this consistent exposure to an unattainable kind of beauty. I’ve had anxiety and eating problems since around year 8, as have some of my friends. My mental health issues didn’t stem from social media, but it hasn’t helped my state of mind. I think that more action needs to be taken. This doesn’t mean banning social media. (It’s my primary – and sometimes only – method of communication with my friends.) It means teaching kids about how your mental health is impacted by healthy diet choices, sleep and exercise. Mental health needs to be tackled and not ignored. 

Photograph: Andy Parsons

Clara, aged 17

My message to you is about mental health difficulties. It’s also about hope.

I remember sitting in A&E, aged 12, holding my sister’s hand. I remember the knot of anger and confusion in my stomach every time I saw the blood on her clothes and the tears in her eyes. I didn’t understand what was happening. I wasn’t allowed behind the curtain, so I sat and waited, hearing a conversation that went over my head.

For ten years my sister has fought debilitating internal torment, including severe anxiety and self-harm. For a long time, I didn’t understand her struggle. I responded, as many of us do when we can’t comprehend something, with frustration and fear. I felt helpless and inadequate as my incredible sister fought her battle alone.

My generation is living in a time when mental health is more recognised than ever. I have witnessed the power that comes with starting a conversation, or becoming more informed. But this is just the first step. More needs to be done to offer people tangible support. We often feel out of our depth when it comes to mental health because one size does not fit all when responding to it.

I want future generations to be taught how much mental health matters. My hope is that support will be more accessible, and that those in need will feel listened to and hopeful that their situation can change. Every individual is worthy of a life beyond their pain.

Photograph: Andy Parsons

Sawdah, aged 19

Recently, I posed a question to my mum: ‘How do you think gentrification has changed Hackney?’ She paused, scanning the past 20 years, spent in this borough. ‘It’s not as diverse as it used to be.’ I remember cruising down Stoke Newington High Street, as a kid, on my scooter, weaving through the women in the niqabs gathered outside the local mosque, who greeted me as I passed – the old uncle in his salwar kameez, gossiping near the barber’s shop, who yelled out at me to slow down as I whizzed across the street. This was home. Ten years later, the high street is a hipster’s heaven where they crowd around newly opened bars and cafés. The sense of homeliness is lost to the so-called ‘improvements’ made to the area.

Gentrification has sailed into the area I grew up in, like the ships of empire, and settled for good. Affordable housing has been destroyed, making things harder for locals who were here first. Growing up, watching the diverse environment shift into something more monotonous elicited within me a feeling of displacement in my own community. I no longer felt like I belonged. And behind the screen of glossy apartment complexes and shiny shopfronts, poverty still reigns, lurking in the alleyways between the designer babywear stores and organic cafés.

I have lived here my entire life. You can’t just paint over my cultural stamp on this area with your brush of gentrification, because it’s people like me who truly represent Hackney.

Photograph: Andy Parsons

Philomene, aged 13

My school recently sent an email to all the parents saying that if we chose to join Extinction Rebellion or the student strikes, it would be marked as an unauthorised absence. That made me feel like I had to do something. Our schools should be supporting us, helping us do the right thing and respecting our point of view. But they’re not. It made me want to fight even more.

We’re not doing this to skip school. We’re doing it because we don’t want to live, and we don’t want our children to live, in a world where the Earth is black. We’re doing it because we have been shown that the only way to make adults listen is to strike.

I think that schools should let their students strike because, if they are lucky enough to have students who realise that our planet needs help, they should be supporting our convictions, not crushing them. Civil disobedience deserves a merit, not a permission slip.

Want more inspiring stories?

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