PARAMOS, N.J. (AP) — Jennifer Sepulveda would drop off her 14-year-old son, Jordan, at a local mall on Friday or Saturday nights, where he would catch a movie with friends and then go to the food court or somewhere else.
Starting April 18, Garden Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey — the second largest mall in the state — will require anyone under 18 to be accompanied by someone at least 21 or older on Fridays and Saturdays after 5 p.m.
The move, the mall said, “follows an increase in disruptive behavior by a few young visitors.” That followed a reported brawl in a food court last year and a smaller one in March that brought a large contingent of police to the center, but less than initially reported.
Sepulveda of Passaic, New Jersey said she is fine with the new policy.
“Fridays and Saturdays, it’s just a crazy house,” she said on a recent Friday night as she shopped for Mother’s Day gifts with Jordan and her 4-month-old daughter.
Jordan, on the other hand, is desperate. “This was the main place to hang out and hang out with my friends, and I’m sad,” he laments, though he knows there are frequent mall fights.
Asking for adult chaperones in malls, at least for certain times of the day, is not new. The nation’s largest shopping mall, the Mall of America, instituted a chaperone policy in 1996, and recently expanded it by 2020 when it mandated that minors be accompanied by an adult after 3 p.m. every day.
But experts say Garden Plaza has followed a growing number of malls, theme parks and a few restaurants that have implemented similar policies over the past few months during the summer season. And they all cite incidents of teenage misbehavior as the reason, some of which are fueled by social media like TikTok..
Even a Chick-fil-A franchise in southeastern Pennsylvania caused an uproar with a social media post. Earlier this year, it announced a policy banning children under 16 from chaperones without an adult, citing unruly behavior.
Arrests for violent crimes against young people fell to a new low in 2020 after years of declines, according to the latest federal data.. The number of youth homicide victims, however, increased by 30 percent from 2019 to 2020 — the largest one-year increase since at least 1980, according to the report. In the years since 2020, officials in some areas, including New York, Washington, D.C., and Colorado, have reported increases in youth crime.
Many laud chaperone policies as a way to reduce disruptions to business and create a safer shopping environment. But some critics say the new parental controls will harm young people’s freedom and social development through lockdowns created by the pandemic.
Shopping malls, hanging out at amusement parks, rocking out at a fast food joint, and watching a movie with friends at the local theater are still considered rites of passage into adulthood as many teenagers turn to online games and social media. So the question is: What other public places can teenagers congregate to get away from their tablets and phones — and their parents?
“We need to allow young people spaces to be independent and develop socially outside the context of virtual digital environments,” says Jake Bjorseth, who runs trndsttrs, an agency that helps retailers and brands understand and reach the Gen Z population.
Bjorseth notes that the pandemic has further hampered social progress for Gen Xers. He called the new chaperone move “too extreme” and said it could return to malls and other traditional brick-and-mortar hangouts, speeding up the online transition parents want to avoid.
Jordan said he spends his free time with his friends at Garden State Plaza and other malls; The rest of the time he plays online games. He said the new policy at the mall could push him to another mall, one with no patronage policy — or even online.
Marshall Cohen, chief industry consultant at market research firm Circana, noted that the policies are not only about increasing safety, but also adjusting to the post-pandemic era, where teenagers are pulling back purchases compared to other age groups.
Adults 55 and older spent 5% more in 2022 than last year, while other age groups spent a combined 2% less, according to Circana data. Meanwhile, spending by people in the 18- to 24-year-old category fell by 8 percent.
Cohen said the ban would help increase spending among adults who now have to travel with children, but could reduce the number of trips taken by teenagers, so the overall financial impact is unclear.
On a recent Friday night, the chaperone policy was clearly being enforced at the Garden State Plaza, with security guards stationed at each entrance and checking the IDs of shoppers under the age of 18 who were not accompanied by an adult chaperone. Some turned back. A cluster of police were also at the gate.
Meanwhile, many theme parks require minors 15 or younger to be accompanied by an adult after 3pm or 4pm every day. The largest group is amusement park operator Cedar Fair Amusement Co., which recently implemented adult chaperone policies at at least eight of its 13 parks in Kansas City, Missouri, and King Domion in Doswell, Virginia.
“Over the past two years, we have seen an increase in unruly and inappropriate behavior in our industry and other major entertainment venues,” Cedar Fair spokesman Gary Rhodes said in a statement. “We believe these changes will help our parks continue to provide a safe and positive environment.”
At Worlds of Amusement, for example, there was a brawl involving more than 100 teenagers during the park’s opening weekend in early April.
Lauren Stansbury, 14, of Raytown, Missouri, left her happy world with her cousin on a recent Saturday just before 4 p.m. Both are season pass holders.
“I really don’t like it,” she said, explaining that it’s hard to find a parent who has time to study. I think maybe they need to improve the type of search, like looking for weapons and stuff.
Some businesses say the new rules have been effective.
The mall in Columbia instituted the chaperone policy in late March after an increase in disruptive juvenile behavior over the past eight months, said general manager Mary Williams. She said the show over the weekend turned into a fun family atmosphere because of this.
Noah Peters, district manager for three Capital 8 theater locations in Missouri and Illinois, said the patronage policy implemented in Missouri in October 2021 requires under-17s to be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian after 6 p.m. Noting the % reduction in disruptive episodes is a “huge success”.
“The reality is that the amount of money we’re losing to non-criminals is diminishing in comparison to the amount we’re losing paying back guests whose movie-going experience is ruined night after night by noise and disruption,” Peters said.
This story corrects the 27th paragraph to correct the spelling of mall.
Associated Press staff writers Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, and Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington contributed to this report.
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