PARAMUS, N.J. (AP) — Jennifer Sepulveda used to drop off her 14-year-old son, Jorden, at the local mall on a Friday or Saturday night, where he would catch a movie with his friends and then hang out afterwards at the food court or elsewhere.
Starting April 18, Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey — the second largest mall in the state — is requiring anyone under 18 years old to be accompanied by a chaperone at least 21 or older on Fridays and Saturdays after 5 p.m.
The move, according to the mall, follows “an increase in disruptive behavior by a small minority of younger visitors." That included a reported brawl in the food court last year and a fight in March that brought swarms of policemen to the center but ended up being a smaller altercation than initially reported.
Sepulveda of Passaic, New Jersey said she was fine with the new policy.
“On Friday and Saturdays, it’s just been a madhouse," she said on a recent Friday night while shopping for Mother's Day gifts with Jorden and her 4-month-old daughter.
Jorden, on the other hand, was disappointed. Although he acknowledged the frequent mall fights, he lamented, “It was the main place to go and roam around and hang out with my friends, and I am sad.”
Requiring an adult chaperone at malls, at least for certain times of the day, is not new. Mall of America, the nation's largest shopping mall, imposed a chaperone policy back in 1996 and has been increasingly tightening it as recently as 2020 when it mandated that teens be accompanied by adults after 3 p.m. daily.
But experts say Garden State Plaza joins a growing number of shopping centers, amusement parks and even a few restaurants that have implemented similar policies in the last few months ahead of the summer season. And they all cite increased incidents of bad behavior among teens as the reason, some of it inspired by social media like TikTok.
Even a Chik-fil-A franchise in southeast Pennsylvania caused a stir with its social media post earlier this year that announced its policy of banning kids under 16 without an adult chaperone, citing unruly behavior.
Violent crime arrests among youth had actually been on the decline for years, falling to a new low in 2020, according to the latest federal data. The number of youth homicide victims, however, increased 30% from 2019 to 2020 –- the biggest one-year increase since at least 1980, the report found. In the years since 2020, authorities in some areas report a rise in crime among youth, including New York, Washington, D.C. and Colorado.
Many praise chaperone policies as a way to reduce disruptions to business and create a safer shopping environment. But some critics say the new parental controls hurt teens' independence and social development already curbed by pandemic-induced lockdowns.
Shopping malls, hanging out at amusement parks, grabbing a shake at a fast-food joint and watching a movie at a local theater with friends are still long considered the rites of passage to adulthood even as many teens shift to online games and social media. So the question is: What other public spaces can teens congregate to get away from their tablets and phones — as well as their parents?
“We have to allow spaces for young people to be independent and develop socially beyond the context of the virtual digital environment,” said Jake Bjorseth, who runs trndsttrs, an agency helping retailers and brands understand and reach the Gen Z population.
Bjorseth noted the pandemic only further hampered social development for Gen Zers. He called the new chaperone measures too extreme and said they could backfire on malls and other traditional physical hangouts by helping to accelerate the shift to online that parents wanted to avoid.
Jorden said he only spends half his free time with his friends at Garden State Plaza and other shopping centers; the rest of the time he plays online games. He said the new policy at the mall will likely push him to another mall that has no chaperone policy — or even more online.
Marshal Cohen, chief industry adviser at market research firm Circana, noted the policies aren't just about enhancing safety but adjusting to post-pandemic times, with teens markedly pulling back on purchases compared with other age groups.
Adults ages 55 and older spent 5% more in 2022 compared to the previous year, with the other age groups combined spending 2% lower, according data from Circana. Meanwhile, spending by those in the 18- to 24-year old category fell by 8%.
Cohen said the restrictions will help boost spending among adults who must now accompany kids but they will also likely reduce the number of trips by teens, so the overall financial impact is unclear.
At Garden State Plaza on a recent Friday night, the chaperone policy was clearly being enforced, with security guards stationed at each entrance and checking IDs of young shoppers they suspected were under 18 and who were not accompanied by an adult chaperone. Some were turned away. A cluster of policemen were also at the gates.
Meanwhile, several amusement parks with chaperone policies are generally requiring teens 15 years old or younger to be accompanied with adult chaperones after 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. every day. The largest group has been amusement park operator Cedar Fair Entertainment Co., which recently implemented adult chaperone policies for at least eight of its 13 parks including Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri, and King Dominion in Doswell, Virginia.
“Over the past two years, we have seen increasing incidents of unruly and inappropriate behavior across our industry and at other major entertainment venues,” said Gary Rhodes, a spokesman for Cedar Fair in a statement. “We believe these changes will help ensure that our parks continue to provide a safe and positive environment."
At Worlds of Fun, for example, a fight involving more than 100 teenagers broke out during the park’s opening weekend in early April.
Lauren Stansbury, 14, of Raytown, Missouri, was leaving Worlds of Fun, just before 4 p.m. on a recent Saturday with her cousin. Both are season pass holders.
“I don’t really like it,” she said, noting that it's hard to find a parent with time to chaperone. “I think that maybe they should just better their search type thing, like the way that they look for weapons and stuff."
Some businesses say the new rules have been effective.
The Mall in Columbia, Maryland instituted a chaperone policy at the end of March after a rise in disruptive teen behavior over the past eight months, according senior general manager Mary Williams. She said that the weekend scene has turned into a pleasant family atmosphere because of it.
Noah Peters, district manager at three Capital 8 Theater locations in Missouri and Illinois, said that the chaperone policy implemented in Missouri in October 2021 requires teens under 17 to be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian after 6 p.m. And despite some outcry, it has been a “huge success,” citing anywhere from a 80% to 90% reduction in disruptive episodes.
"The reality is that the amount of money we lose turning those without a chaperone away pales to the amount we were losing providing refunds night after night to frustrated guests whose movie going experience was marred by the noise and disruptions," Peters said.
Associated Press staff writers Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas and Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington contributed to this report.
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