The national trend of teens running riot in shopping centers hits Westfield Culver City

By Gary Walker

Psychologist Stephanie Mihalas says social media can sometimes be a force multiplier for teen angst

To Erica Armas, the sudden cacophony that erupted inside the Westfield Culver City mall at around 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 7 was at first confusing. The mall is usually very busy on Saturdays, but this sounded different.

As she looked out onto the second floor, her confusion became alarm. Dozens of teenagers, yelling and gesturing, were racing past the young adults apparel store Aéropostale, where Armas has worked as a sales associate for three years.

“It was like something out of a movie,” she recalled. “It was really weird. There were a lot of people screaming and running all over the place.”

No one’s certain exactly what happened or why, but authorities have concluded that as many as 200 teenagers ran wild through the mall in response to posts on the social media app Instagram — resulting in a melee that mirrors similar incidents at shopping malls in Florida, Tennessee, Colorado and Texas last month.

At one point, teens shouted that someone had a fired a gun — a rumor that turned out to be false but drew a massive police response. Some stores went into lockdown, and Culver City police evacuated the mall.

Outside, three fights broke out among teens, but police made no arrests.

West Los Angeles psychologist Dr. Stephanie Mihalas, a nationally certified school psychologist who works with children and teenagers, said social media platforms have given today’s teens an avenue for self-expression and communication that prior generations did not have. Disaffected or young people can find outlets for acceptance with strangers, and that can sometimes lead to unruly behavior.

“Social media is a quick way to feel connected to each other, even when they don’t know each other. What we’re seeing now with a lot of teenagers is they’re more anxious about their own stability and that can lead to acting out, like fighting,” Mihalas said.

Armas said the most terrifying part of the experience was the false rumor of gunfire.

“When I heard that somebody was shooting I thought, ‘Oh no, not here,’” she said. “Everybody here was scared. You never know what’s happening with everything that’s going on in the world today.”

An employee at another store in Westfield described the scene of teenagers dashing through the mall corridors as “unbelievable and bizarre.”

“We let the customers who wanted to stay [do so] until security came, but some wanted to leave so we let them,” said
the employee, who agreed to speak to The Argonaut on the condition of anonymity because he works for a national retail outlet.

Armas saw people rushing downstairs from the mall’s third-floor food court to the second and eventually the first floor.

“That’s where I think everything started,” she said.

Juyoung Chang runs Sanrio Smiles, a Hello Kitty store at Westfield Culver City. After 15 years there she said there has never been anything like the Jan. 7 event, but the food court has always been a teenage hangout.

“Every Saturday we see a lot of teenagers. Sometimes we have problems with all the yelling and running,” Chang said. “We call security sometimes but [security] cannot do anything if they don’t hurt anybody.”

Mihalas said the current generation of teenagers seems to be more attentive to national and global events than past generations, and their posts on social media often reflect that.

“Sometimes we see a lack of hope in terms of what they’re seeing in the political arena, financial instability or with civil wars in places like Syria, and even the national political debates that we’re having here in the United States about health care options,” she said. “They’re aware of the world around them but they still lack the maturity sometimes to make the right choices, like channeling their feelings into activism.”

Culver City Unified School District Superintendent Joshua Arnold said he has been in continuous contact with the local police department since the Jan. 7 brawl to find out if any Culver City youth was involved.

“So far, no CCUSD students have been identified as participants,” Arnold wrote in an email.  “We’re committed to ensuring the physical, emotional and psychological safety of all of our students, all of the time.”

A Los Angeles Unified School District spokesperson said officials have been unable to determine whether any LAUSD students were involved in the fracas.

Westfield Culver City management did not return calls for comment, but police say the company is cooperating with public safety officials.

“We are working closely with Westfield Culver City management to explore additional security measures,” the Culver City Police Department posted on its Facebook page. “We have also been deploying additional officers in and around the mall during the last several weeks and will continue to do so.”

Mihalas said parents must make their own choices about how much to monitor a teenager’s social media activity, but establishing mutual trust at an early age could prevent them from getting caught up in this recent spate of 21st-century rumbles.