2 November 2015 09:07

From the record players and pirate radio stations of the 1950s through to smart phones and headphones of today, teenagers in Dublin have long created ‘acoustic bubbles’ to escape the city scene.

The study,Reclaiming Public Space: Sound and Mobile Media Use by Teenagers’, was undertaken by researchers at Lancaster University and Maynooth University in Ireland.

It explores the relationship between teenagers, mobile media and public space in Dublin.

Set against the backdrop of Dublin city’s Smithfield Plaza, the study provides both an historic and a contemporary perspective on mobile media use and changing soundscapes in the city.

The Smithfield Plaza, a former market area and public square, was redeveloped as a post-industrial cultural quarter surrounded by apartments and heritage and retail businesses in the late 1990s.  

It was described by project participants, teenagers from four local schools, and older people who had grown up in the area, as a place under constant construction offering few social or economic cues for teenagers.

The space has, according to the young participants, become a ‘non-place’ from which they felt economically, socially, visually and aurally excluded.

It had become a space for the occasional staging of public events and bars, but teenagers largely felt excluded from these activities. In general the open space was characterised as empty and quiet, an area to pass through rather than for meeting people.

The teenagers responded by using mobile media to create safe and meaningful spaces – their own soundscape.

The study found both generations used audio technologies to create ‘bubbles’ to overlay their physical world with a virtual aural space – to surround and immerse themselves, as well as creating a feeling of safety and autonomy.

Spaces that lacked meaning or sounded dangerous (often linked to quietness) prompted teenagers to listen to music for a sense of safety and presence, drowning out threatening or nuisance sounds.

Researchers used a range of qualitative methods, including interviews, ‘sound walks, photography, sound maps and digital audio recordings of the soundscape, to explore how the teenagers, both historically and today, used mobile media to respond to the visual and sonic landscape of this public space.

Primary researcher Dr Linda O’Keeffe, a Lecturer in Sound and Image at Lancaster University’s Institute for the Contemporary Arts, said:  “The social shaping of urban soundscapes using media technology has a long history.

“The difference is the older generation shared the music as a social event while the younger people listened in isolation to create a sense of being busy and removed and to create warmth in the urban chill.

“The older group’s experience highlights a key fact of early mobile mediation. Thus there is a history of the social shaping of the experiences of urban soundscapes by teenagers that began with record players and transistor radios and continued with privatised mobile audio media.”

Both groups experienced – for different reasons:

  • A sense of exclusion from public spaces in the city, especially in Smithfield
  • The constant presence of loud sounds entering their homes
  • Increased presence of non-places and exclusionary spaces

City sounds, heard and described by the teenage participants, included: the clatter of suitcase wheels across the cobblestones, seagulls screeching overhead, the beep of trucks reversing and even conversations, traffic, people, footsteps, bikes, bells, sirens, music, screaming, dogs, animals, whistles and churches, music, buskers, people, chatter. Sounds such as the Luas tram system, were often described as a type of ebb and flow, which suggested a routine in the city.

Dr Aphra Kerr, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University said: “This is a unique piece of social research. Our understanding of urban public spaces is often dominated by the visual but, in this project, we employ a range of novel research methods to trace people’s experiences of sounds in the city over time, and to explore when teenagers use mobile media to reclaim public spaces that are often not designed with them in mind.”

This research was funded by The Department of Youth and Children Affairs of the Irish Government and has just been published in the International Journal of Communication, Southern California.