While holiday carols played one last time, the Joe and Matt show left the couch yesterday and hit the aisles at White Marsh Mall. Decked out in new duds from head to toe, the 6-foot, teen-age cousins made the scene with scads of gift cash and a keen eye for the girls.
"I like hanging out here. I like to chill," said Joe Teague, 15, of Dundalk.
Piped in his 14-year-old cousin, Matt High of Chase, "I'm bored. There was nothing to do at home."
Tired of holiday guests, aimless without school and driven indoors by winter's cold, area teen-agers filled the malls yesterday to see and be seen, boogie at the listening booths, bypass leftover turkey for a slice of pizza and even shop.
It's an adolescent rite of passage, once confined to burger-and-shake drive-ins and the matinee. In the town-square atmosphere of today's malls, social experts and merchants say, teen-agers have become the typical citizens who show up regularly after school each day and on weekends.
"They are here all the time," said Melissa Wankowski, manager of Claire's, a jewelry boutique in Golden Ring Mall. "This is a place for teens to come, hang out and show off their clothes."
While hard-core shoppers flocked to metropolitan malls yesterday to snag bargains and return gifts, their teen-age offspring gathered in the regular spots such as the food court, The Gap, Rave and music shops.
"I come here often to catch some boys and go shopping," said Nikki Leyhe, a 15-year-old sophomore at Edgewood High School, cruising with two friends at Golden Ring Mall. "I like to go walking around here. There is nowhere else to go and hang out."
Krissy Landis, 13, roamed through Golden Ring as her parents shopped nearby in Caldor. "Me and my friends usually come together to check out the boys here," she said. "There are no cute boys at school."
Vivian Seltzer, professor of human development and behavior at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied adolescent behavior for years and believes teen-agers gather at malls to observe, gain independence and learn.
"It's a place where they can meet each other -- and during teen-age life, that's very important," Seltzer said. "They are trying to figure out how the world works. They are trying to be independent and get a lot of information from each other and a lot of information from just watching. That's very important developmentally, and the mall is just perfect for that."
Seltzer added that mall owners should consider this 1990s social phenomenon whenever they plan new malls and refurbish old ones. Then they could build gathering places and attractions geared toward teen-agers.
Such an approach would please Jean Walker, assistant principal at Kenwood High School. Walker said most of her students spend their free time cruising around in White Marsh Mall -- or working there.
"The mall represents a place that's safe for kids to go and congregate, and it's a very natural thing for kids to want to be together," Walker said.
Christopher Schardt, general manager of Towson Town Center, said malls have become a social gathering place for all ages because they are climate controlled, have a variety of stores and restaurants and are centrally located. And for teen-agers, he said, the mall serves as a classroom of sorts as well as a hangout.
"Local schools use it for their business classes, art classes use it for photography purposes and people with disabilities use it for training," Schardt said.
At Golden Ring, teen-age customers can play at a virtual reality theme park -- Starport, which opened less than a month ago and which the mall's management says is one of only four such attractions in the United States.
Starport offers two rooms full of action-packed electronic games that draw patrons who want to lie on their stomachs and take a three-minute virtual hang glide through a canyon for $3.50 or pretend they are speeding around the racetrack at Daytona.
"This is a good place because it gets kids out of trouble," said Joe Simmons, father of Brandon, 13, and Eric, 9, who were intently playing air hockey nearby. "Kids hang out at the mall because there is nothing else to do. This place has games and videos and offers something to do."
Pub Date: 12/27/96