Are the kids alright?
May 20, 2022 11:07 AM   Subscribe

What is it like to be a teenager right now?

At this point in my life, I know and interact with very few humans under the age of 30—let alone 20. My sense is that the lives of teens now are radically different from my own teen years in the early 2000s, and sociologists, cognitive scientists, and techno-futurists all outline the huge chasm opening up between older generations and young people—a gap that's bigger than the typical "teens are like a different species!" stuff. Exponential tech, exponential climate change, etc., are all seeming to accelerate these differences.

So, tell me about your life as a teen, or about the teens in your life. How are you/they handling the turmoil of our times, and all this dang technology? What are the biggest differences that you see between your life and those who are older/younger?

Or any other relevant anecdotes or perspectives. If possible, I'd love to know what country or geographical area you're in, too.
posted by gold bridges to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
US, PNW. My son just turned 18 last week. He chose to stay remote in a school district that offered both an in-classroom and remote option. He got straight A's , applied to only 2 colleges and got accepted to his college of choice: UW.
He rides a PEV (onewheel) to get around and doesn't yet have a driver's license.
He and his friends have slowly gotten back to hanging out. He's gone to a concert and most recently a Renfaire with friends this spring. He's gong to prom in a couple of weeks as part of a group of friends. He hopes his summer will be full of activities with his friends.
He lives part time with his mom and part time with me (on the opposite side of the state) remote school has allowed him to go to school at whichever place he happens to be.
He's vaxxed and boosted.

His senior year in HS has been nothing like any of us might remember HS being like, and I feel sorry for him, but it's his normal. He prints the things he wants on a 3-D printer, He repairs handheld gaming devices and mods them for his friends. His favorite movie this year has been Everything Everywhere All at Once. He's going to cosplay a Mandalorian at ECCC this august.

He's fully aware that the climate change crisis is real, but can't process the change his elders are seeing; he is aware of the war in Ukraine ; he struggles trying to manage his own shit and still be empathetic to his friends and sister who struggle with depression and a host of other struggles of their own.

I'm sure if he were typing this it would read differently.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:29 AM on May 20 [5 favorites]

Heck yeah the kids are all right. I have a 14 year old boy and he interacts with high school kids all the time due to his interests and his after-school activities. They're all fucking amazing, as far as I can tell. Sweet kids, outspoken kids, nerdy kids, sporty kids, whatever they are, they give me hope. They're so much nicer, more self aware, and less bigoted than the teens I remember growing up around when I was younger. (I am 40 and I'm from south asia & south-east asia.) They are also no less earnest than I & my peers were at their age, which means I haven't seen the cynicism or world weariness typical of 90's kids on American TV.

My own kid is a young teen, as I said. He's thoughtful and sensitive and reacts quite strongly to injustice or "wrongness". But as a result of his young age, he's just not plugged into the turmoil to anywhere near the same level as adults are, because he doesn't quite grok what it all *means* in totality yet. What we as adults, especially adults on MeFi or the more doomish lefty spaces, imagine to be the devastation being experienced by teenagers? None of that in the age group I see (14-17 yr olds). I think the despair, hopelessness, and "Holy shit, the world is really fucked up" tends to hit at a later age - college-age teens or more likely people in their 20s.

Last summer my kid and his friends put up a lemonade stand to raise money for UNICEF. They raised $600-ish. This was because he read about Malala Yousafzai and something about children's rights issues in history class. This summer he's going to teach elementary kids to code, he's going to convince our local library to let him teach a class in their rooms. He's been to plenty of volunteer hours with me at the local food bank. He's not at all exceptional among his peers, they're all very engaged with the community and they all have projects they're working on which leverage their interests to help others in their neighborhoods or schools.

But on the other hand, my kid knows so little! I think as adults we forget how little kids know about the world. Here's a concrete example to illustrate how little he understands even the topics we discuss often: A few months ago he shared with me this "hilarious" youtube song parody video which was... pure alt-right crap. Like, the song parody had lyrics that included things like -

- Osama bin Laden drives a cab in NYC (he didn't understand that this plays on an Islamophobic idea)
- Obama's name sounds like Osama (he didn't know this is racist & Islamophobic)
- Taylor Swift wore something that gave her a cameltoe (he didn't know what a cameltoe is)

... and so on. It all went right over his head. Even though he and I talk about racism and Islamophobia all the time (he's a brown kid and half of his friends are muslim!), he just hasn't been living in the world long enough to identify that song as filled with bigoted ideas. These references which seem blatant to us are too subtle for the kids who didn't live through the real eras being referenced. I mean, my son once came home with Pepe the Frog stickers! These kids have no idea.

Which means they have no idea about what the climate catastrophe happening around them really means, either. They know of it. They understand it on a theoretical level, perhaps. They're even moved to tears when they see startling images of destruction. But they just haven't begun to live in the world yet, they haven't learned enough history to see the path we have traveled to get here, so they don't carry the terror or sadness that we have into their daily lives. All this catastrophe doesn't have meaning to them. They haven't joined the dots. The injustice and horror of climate change is still theory to them, even though (perhaps *because*!) the reality of climate change is an unavoidable aspect of daily life. They simply accept this as normal. They don't have enough context to genuinely know what they're losing or what they have lost.

Which is perfectly age appropriate and honestly, a mercy. These kids SHOULDN'T have to deal with the big meaning of all the crap that's going on. Not yet. There is time yet for them to come to understand the fullness of the situation. And maybe by then they will have built up the skills and the networks to address the issues more meaningfully than we can.

I'll say this though: they all have WAY TOO MUCH HOMEWORK. It pisses me off, because it keeps them all too exhausted to be doing things they ought to be doing at this age. Far too few of the high schoolers I know are even dating. That really concerns me!
posted by MiraK at 12:39 PM on May 20 [13 favorites]

My daughter writes:
Washington State, USA. 15 years old.

I attend school online because, for reasons unrelated to COVID, I've found that works better for me. Most other teens I know attend school in-person, masked, because that works better for them. All of my friends are people I know IRL but I socialize with them mostly via text, private Discord servers, and email. I volunteer outside of the home and I'm politically active via Slack, email, and Zoom. I write fanfiction and post it on the Archive of Our Own. I use Internet slang and memes when speaking out loud. I type at 70 wpm. I attend Zoom meetings with camera on, unless there are tech problems (not the norm among teens, unless they're with friends only). I use voice and chat in equal measure and monitor them simultaneously, though, which adults usually have trouble doing. For low-key entertainment, I scroll through Tumblr and Twitter, read webcomics, borrow books and ebooks from the library, play video games, and stream TV. I exercise regularly, but don't play sports.

Almost all of my friends are out as queer at school and with their immediate families. Some of us are dating but none of us are sexually active. About 2/3 of us are nonbinary. Those who are, experience frequent discrimination from teachers and relatives. Because most of their parents are transphobic, they struggle to access medical transition (hormones and puberty-blockers) and gender-affirming clothing (binders, packers, jewelry). Most of us are neurodivergent and have access to meds, therapy, or both. Some have experienced trauma. We use trigger warnings when talking to each other. The crises we're experiencing are so immediate and constant that we don't really think about the climate crisis much.

I would say that the biggest difference between my generation and older generations isn't our tech fluency. We're a little better with tech but it's not a huge barrier. The biggest difference is our acceptance of difference. We don't get weirded out by neopronouns, xenogenders, headmates, age regression, or furries. We support each other. I don't see that a lot from adults.
posted by blueberry monster at 12:48 PM on May 20 [21 favorites]

I'm 37, so not your target audience, but have volunteered with teens in the foster care system for the last ten years. I definitely can't comment on whether the teens are "alright" (in general, foster kids never are), but I can tell you that the current generation of teenagers are incredible, wonderful people that I am honored to be able to spend time with. From my perspective, teens right now are much kinder, more accepting and better friends than the teens I worked with ten or even five years ago. Their priorities are different, and in general I think their lives are probably a little harder, but they just don't seem to "sweat the small stuff" in the same way. I am excited to see what kinds of adults this current generation of teenagers become.
posted by mjcon at 1:18 PM on May 20 [3 favorites]

(This is suburban/urban near DC focused, mostly middle to upper class.) They're pretty similar to myself when I was a teenager back in the 90s. Probably better overall. They get in a *lot* less trouble, on average (since I'm an adult I know less but it feels like average amount of sexual behavior is less (which I won't say is good or bad but I think is true), there's less smoking (even if you include vaping), less drinking, and less drug use other than pot, which is similar-ish total number of teenagers but perhaps more consuming for users). They're very focused and caring about climate change but also are a bit fatalistic about it since they don't currently have much power to do anything and it feels like, to them, that the people with power are largely doing nothing. Stress/burnout at HS seems somewhat more common than then. I agree with too much home work in HS and MS, particularly because most of it is effectively busy work that doesn't even really help you be able to do work in college or a job.

In terms of technology, it does make the world different for them since i think 99% of the teenagers 13+ I know have cell phones and can access them almost whenever they want. But, since they grew up with it they're finding their own way and so it's not really markedly different for them than being the first generation with approaching common home Internet in the mid/late 90s. Depending on the exact set of teenagers, some are super into TikTok, some of course watch TikTok but hate it, many are confused by Twitter's popularity but follow some set of people. FB is pretty much not commonly used. Instagram is big but I think it's well-past peak growth. The younger half of teenagers I know don't really like the general vibe/heavy self-promotional aspects of IG. I know a few that like Tumblr and wish it'd get more popular.

Discord, and similar chat apps, are a pretty common place for many of them to hangout.

Their taste in music is similarly diverse. Lots of fans of current popular music but many teenagers I know also listen to a lot of music from the 60s through the 90s as well.

TV watching is of course different. I used to watch the same episodes of a smaller set of shows a lot, because it was harder to watch as many different shows. I think total watch time is similar or slightly less but more spread out and rewatching things slightly less.

Fewer teenagers at, say, 17, have driver's licenses than my experience but it's not hugely smaller.

Some that I know did "fine" with covid-19 and some had a hard time with the isolation and events being cancelled. I think, in my experience, them knowing that this *hadn't* happened in such a long time made it easier to process and just accept.

To summarize, there are a lot of differences but its not really a big fundamental change. On average they're nicer and more accepting, at least within my like-to-like social class/geographic area. My knowledge of kids 10 and younger, however, might mean those kids will be the more differentier. But probably not, in the end.
posted by skynxnex at 1:32 PM on May 20

I think teens these days are the best generation in the history of humanity so far because so many are compassionate, caring, and all-around awesome. We’re all trying to do a better job as parents, teachers, coaches, counselors and beyond raising kids, and it shows!

Unfortunately, teens also have it so fucking hard: COVID complications and isolation, a failing economy, so much violence and awful racism, environmental disaster, and more. They are doing their best and often thriving but they’re struggling, too, which is hardly surprising considering they have been handed a giant sack of shit and are living in a world that’s essentially a giant dumpster fire without even enough water to extinguish the flame.

Ok that’s a bit melodramatic but it’s sadly mostly true. I teach middle school now and I taught high school and community college for a long time; I think I have a pretty good take on things, at least as an Xennial participant observer.
posted by smorgasbord at 2:00 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

As a person who was a teenager in the 60s and early 70s, when we really did help to end the Vietnam War and spark feminism and women's rights, I have a lot, lot, lot of hope in today's teenagers and young adults; I have to. There are so many urgent human and women's rights and climate change issues. It's wonderful to read the upthread comments on teens who have found their own identities and confidence in their abilities to have meaningful lives and make real societal changes.

However, I work with a drug-using community steeped in racism, poverty, homelessness, gun violence and nearly hopeless drug addiction, given fentanyl (and worse - if that were possible - xylazine on the East Coast). It is completely impossible to say that these kids are all right. Many of these kids are 18 and 19, but still teenagers. Maybe when they were 15 they, too, were filled with hope? Not now. What hopeful future can they possibly have? It seems that a slice of our population is just . . . lost. Some days it seems we public health and harm reduction folks are pouring resources into a black hole of despair and pain, and it's fucking hard. Depressing. What kind of future will these kids have, if they are even alive? Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but this is real, and these kids deserve a wonderful future, as all teenagers do. Maybe this awful scenario isn't in your community, but it is real. And easily available fentanyl pills, substituted for Percocet or Xanax by drug sellers, are all over social media, reaching anywhere an on-line payment can be made and a package can be delivered.

Lets all hope there is a real ability for dynamic and empowered kids to move the needle with passionate activism and ingenuity on the entrenched social and health-related issues that desperately demand attention in our - and their - time.
posted by citygirl at 3:12 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

I have two older teens but not sure I want to share a lot about what's going on with them out of privacy. I'd say the kids are awesome but many aren't alright, you know?

I do want to highlight the youth climate strike happening in Portland today. One thing I hear over and over again from youth locally is that they're tired of being told they're inspiring and that they are going to fix the problems of the world. They want the adults to fix these problems so that they can be kids:
But why is it that the burden to stop climate change is placed largely upon the generation that has contributed the least? As students strike again and again, adults call us “inspiring” and “heroic,” but these words on their own are not enough. We don’t just want you to be inspired, we want you to act.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:35 PM on May 20

I have a 16 year old and a 19 year old and I just had a long conversation with the 19 year old based on this question. She absolutely, 100%, without question, thinks it's much better to be a teenager now than when Mr. Redstart and I were teens (in the 70s.) Mostly because we didn't have the internet back then. She sees the internet as an entirely positive development. It's her main source of entertainment. She watches her favorite YouTubers, creates digital art and posts it on her Instagram account and follows lots of other people who have art Instagram accounts, reads fanfiction on AO3 and watches Instagram reels, which are like TikTok videos. (She hardly ever looks at TikTok but says that's not typical.) She thinks TV shows from the past were terrible compared to current TV shows. She likes being able to binge watch a show.

She imagines life in the past was a lot more boring. She also imagines that people were meaner and that you had to be tougher and everything was run by men. She thinks everyone was more bigoted. (And of course she's right.) She thinks people probably knew a lot less because the internet didn't exist and the only way you could learn anything was at school. Whereas nowadays people are always educating each other about things on the internet. She says you're always seeing random informational posts on Twitter from people you don't know - about things related to current events that you might not have known, maybe things from history that relate to current events. An example she gave was a thread she saw about a trans woman who was able to breastfeed naturally. Apparently people were posting a lot of misinformation about that and someone else posted something educational refuting all the misinformation.

She imagines the world back when I was a teenager was more static. Things were slowly getting a little better, but probably so slowly that no one noticed. She says obviously things are way better now than in the past. She recognizes that some bad things from the past haven't gone away and there are also some new bad things like climate change. But those things aren't a big source of stress in her life. She thinks it's possible that Earth will no longer be livable for humans 100 years from now, but she laughed at the idea that she might wake up at night and worry about that. When she's stressed it's about small things that affect her personally right now - interactions with friends, having to make a phone call or go to an interview, having a big homework assignment or a test. The pandemic wasn't a negative for her. She was in community college and most of her classes were already online and she's quite the introvert, so she didn't mind a bit when classes all went online. She would rather interact with people on Instagram than in real life anyway.

She thinks there is a bigger division now between liberal and conservative teens compared to the past. She said she feels like liberal people are more liberal and conservative people are the same as they always were. My kids and their friends seem to think being queer or trans is no big deal. Many or most seem to be something other than 100% straight or cis. But my daughter says a lot of liberal people are accepting of what she describes as "basic things" like being gay or anti-racist but not accepting of things like neopronouns or xenogenders or nonbinary trans people. There are a lot of people who say they are liberal but also hate certain other groups of liberal people. My son spends a lot of time interacting with friends on a Discord server. My daughter is also on the server and is friends with some of the kids but she doesn't spend much time there. She says a lot of them say they hate, for example, furries or neopronouns or tone indicators. Apparently they recently had a discussion about tone indicators and almost all of them said they hated them.

The internet is the obvious difference from when I was a teenager. I'm less certain than my kids that it's been a positive development. But one interesting thing about it that does seem positive is that it has made it so much easier for people to make their own content and show it to other people. You can write fanfiction, make YouTube videos, post your art online. Those are all really common things to do and I think it's cool that kids have that opportunity and encouragement to be creative and share what they make.
posted by Redstart at 4:24 PM on May 20 [2 favorites]

I speak to students regularly as a youth librarian. I go to a lot of career days. I concur with most of what everyone is saying here. For kids with stability and helpful adults in their lives, they are mostly doing OK until they get to young adulthood. For those with no stability or adults, their lives are 100x harder and while they are still kinder and more accepting than kids were at my age but the despair hits way harder.

From what I can tell of the school system, if you fall behind, you get left behind unless your adults are actively getting you caught up. This is part of why there's so much burnout-- there is no safe way to fail.

Anecdata, but the #1 job kids older than about 8 tell me they want is "YouTuber." This holds through high school.
posted by blnkfrnk at 4:40 PM on May 20 [2 favorites]

I have just hired 22 15-19 year olds to work in our summer camp. I did the same last year even though we had a list of Covid restrictions that was 2 pages long. I also have a teen and a pre-teen

The kids are all right. Last year I gave them the mission of making a camp full of masks, face shields, and hand sanitizer fun and caring for little kids who had been in virtual school all year. They did so well that parents were tearing up in joy on picking their kids up. They also got caught on their cell phones, snuggling under a tree, making up new slightly wild activities, and ordering extra pizza to take to the beach after work. This year they have shared their unique hopes and goals with me for their lives - 3 involve public health. One already is a TikTok influencer on a small scale.

They don’t put up with a lot, work-wise, and they call in sick with the sniffles/he ache/mental health day due to Covid and a more rights-focused view. These are not bad things. They do cause my business owner to grumble and occasionally I look back on my own overnight camp (this is a day camp) work or time in food service working 6am-10pm in 1988 and just laugh. It’s fine. I hope they change the world. I’ll back them.

Mental health…I know of some crises. I think as stated above, the vulnerable are more so. The lockdowns were crisis-hard on some kids and I see the ghost fingerprints on my own kids. My son couldn’t go out and meet the world head on so he’s been creating one online and with art, and it’s hard to know whether to push him out into a still-coronavirus filled world. He’s never been to a school dance, play (their first happens soon), high school sports stadium, etc. He and we have limited his transit use which has had a huge effect. My younger son is much more anxious although the more activities he returns to the better that is getting.

In my son’s cohort probably a third of kids identify as queer (he does go to art school.) They have a washroom painted with “every flag” which is how I learned there’s a polyamory flag.

Dating in a pandemic has been hard for some and I have found some of the young men using phrases that concern me that they are hearing some in do stuff online. But their behaviour with me and their young women peers is good.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:38 AM on May 21 [3 favorites]


I have an older genderqueer teen (she/they), and her response usually (we have long conversations about this) is that it's mixed. There's far, far less sexual and relationship violence in their peer group - but also, far less dating. High levels of politeness and kindness, but that sometimes cause more social difficulties. It's considered rude to initiate an attempt to date someone if you're not pretty sure what type of relationship it will be in the long run. It's also more difficult to keep up social relationships - a lot of communication is by group chat, and adding new people to such chats is fraught, so there's not a lot of meeting new people outside of social media or private servers, etc. Because social media is such a mainstay of interaction, there's more pressure to provide content. Additionally, because so much of relationships are performed in public, there's pressure not to disagree with friends, or disagreement seems much stronger and more personal. Being queer is much more tolerated among her peers and they seem pretty politically progressive - but it doesn't seem to stop them from worrying all the time about "getting cancelled" and losing all of her friends, since they mostly communicate with them online.

More difficult, at least for their peers, to sustain care - there's an element of just wanting to opt out of the world that they live in rather than try to change it. There is no sense that it is even possible to change it. I get the sense she thinks it would be nice if adults fixed it, but doesn't believe they will. The absolute biggest difference I see is what someone says above - there is a sense that any failure will utterly destroy them, that it can happen at any time, and that there's no fixing it.

I don't actually think the kids are alright. I think it's not the tech that's the problem, but the algorithms of the tech, the intersection of tech and capitalism, but I think it's deeply a problem.
posted by corb at 11:37 AM on May 22 [1 favorite]

I made a comment in early 2021 about all these 14 and 16 year old kids on a get-out-the-vote phonebanking call and how thoughtful and articulate and passionate - and engaged - they were. It's a very small sample, but they were terrific.
posted by kristi at 11:14 AM on May 23

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, for the fascinating anecdotes from/about the teens in your life. So many insights to appreciate here!
posted by gold bridges at 6:32 AM on May 24

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