Being a teenager has always been hard. You’re no longer a kid, but not yet an adult. Suddenly, you’re thrust into a confusing world full of miss-matched messages and expectations. In the past, this wasn’t as big a deal as it is today, as the outside world crept in at a much slower pace.
Yet one of the enormous challenges for teenagers today is the fact that the world doesn’t creep in slowly. It’s an unmitigated, relentless attack. Children and teenagers are constantly smacked around the head with marketing, social media and masses of uninformed noise around body image, relationships and how to live life in general. Added to this, they don’t even need to leave home to be exposed to this.
As a society, our children are spending more time indoors than ever before. Whilst I won’t go into too much detail about this, the reality is that in previous generations, teenagers went out to discover and experience the world for themselves. Some would find suitable amounts of trouble to get into and learn from these experiences. However, now teenagers have the world, or a distorted version of it at least, come to them.
Teenagers spend a lot of time in their bedrooms. This has probably always been the case as part of developing a bit of independence from the family. This is nothing new nor unusual, but in the past, the most access to the outside world teenagers used to have in their bedrooms was either the window, or maybe, if they were fortunate, a TV. Apart from SBS movies and crappy late night ads, at the end of the day, most TV content remained quite filtered and so the risk of harm to a teenagers sitting in their room was pretty minimal. However, due to the seismic shift in technology, the difference now, is the fact that a teenager can sit in their room and be directly exposed to all the horrors of the world. The family home is no longer a safe haven from violence, language, sex, abuse, hatred and bullying, all of which, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining are smashing down the door.
It’s an interesting phenomenon with this generation and it’s a significant risk for this generation that goes almost unnoticed until it’s far too late. Mental health problems are sky rocketing and teenage suicide in Australia remains at ridiculous levels. In my working in outdoor education, I’ve found an increasing lack of resilience of both boys and girls. As soon as something doesn’t have a quick answer or an easy solution, they go to pieces and either give up or start trying to blame others for their failures. This is a massive problem, because if they can’t do simple tasks, if they can’t complete simple challenges, what happens when they’re faced with a massive challenge with a massive problem? They’ll be unable to cope and totally and utterly fall apart.
This lack of resilience and mental strength all starts at home and is manifesting itself in the kid’s bedroom. To help avoid this, ask yourself a few simple questions. How are your kid’s bedroom setup? Do they have a smart device? Do they have a laptop, or desktop computer in their room? Are you running a content filter? Do you know how your content filter works? Do your kids know how a content filter works and how to bypass it? What supervision do you provide around devices? Do you set limits to time spent on devices and social media? Do you even allow them to be on social media? Can you have open and honest discussions about these issues?
The problem is, with too much screen time and no filters or supervision, children and teenagers can be exposed to a brutal soulless adult world that can cause long-lasting harm. Software on mobile devices is intentionally designed to be addictive and manipulate behaviour. Would you let one of these 20-something internet CEOs into your house to hang out with your kids? No! That would be creepy, but that’s basically what is being allowed when kids are able to spend endless time on addictive devices. This messes with the natural chemical balance in the brain and can ultimately result in long-term behaviour and emotional problems.
In the past, for a teenager to be exposed to the outside adult world, they’d have to physically leave home, go downtown, possibly to a shady less than reputable place to be exposed to all sorts of things to which you don’t want your teenagers exposed. Now, they can be exposed to all of this from the comfort of their own room and you might have no idea that anything is wrong.
There’s been this massive shift in the last fifteen years where you have gone from a society in which it was very hard to connect with people, but easy to speak with those you met, to now where it’s really easy to connect with people, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to connect with real people. That’s a massive cultural shift within a really short space of time. The result of which is that it’s exposed the next generation to a whole host of problems that weren’t there before. With any significant seismic shift, it takes a long time for people to catch up. If you look at education for example, many schools are still trying to come to terms with the fact that what you could do and call education in the 18th century, just doesn’t work these days.
However, despite this, with all the massive problems, there are massive opportunities. Once you’re aware of the concerns, it’s easy to start to do something about them. Unfortunately, the massive opportunities to deal with these problems aren’t being addressed and so a lot of educational institutions, a lot of parents are still struggling to catch up after they’ve finally realised the world has suddenly changed.
One of the big roadblocks is a parent’s fear of missing out! (FOMO) ‘My child has to have everything that everybody else has otherwise, they’ll miss out on the opportunity... Usually the idea of having everything is about material goods and nothing to do with experiences. The reality is that the more parents freely give stuff to their children, despite the short-term fix this may appear to have, the more likely their children are to really miss out in the future, because they’re socially and emotionally unable to cope with real life and the rapid change that is the reality of the world today.
This FOMO has led to droves of parents buying mobile phones for their children, allowing them to become hooked on a highly addictive device and potentially exposing their kids to this massive dangerous world that is totally and utterly unfiltered and soulless. It’s a world into which the teenage mind that doesn’t understand risk, can throw itself in the search of meaning and fulfillment, only to find emptiness and loneliness.
Teenagers will find themselves connected with hundreds if not thousands of ‘friends.’ Sadly, the reality is that most of these friends are as real as the tooth fairy, but the more friends or like you have, seems to equate to a higher status or feeling of fulfillment. However, anyone can get friends and likes. You can even buy tens of thousands of followers on Instagram from Russia. None of them are real, but I’m sure it would give you a nice ego boost for ten minutes to have that.
Our next generation is desperately searching for real meaning in their lives, yet the irony is that they’re doing it through one of the most shallow, hollow mechanisms possible. They’ve been programmed to need fast actions and fast reactions and, as a result, they want instant gratification. No wonder we’re facing a tidal wave of mental health issues when we have a generation growing up, getting given everything and sitting in their bedrooms exposed to a soulless digital world.
Parents who are using devices as pseudo babysitters, are only reinforcing the false expectation of a world where happiness and relationships are simply a swipe away. Whilst so many parents have been focusing on their FOMO for their kid’s materialistic possessions, they’ve totally missed out on the emotional needs of their kids.
Despite the amazing improvements technology has provided us, enabling everyone to have the answer to just about everything at their fingertips and watch endless movies of cats falling off tables, the downside is the fact that we’ve created an enormous social and emotional millstone for the next generation and unwittingly hung it around their necks.
It’s time we took stock of this, both at home and at school and look at exactly how these addictive devices are impacting on the health and well-being of a generation. The problem however, is not in the device or technology itself. The problem is the disconnect between appropriate parental supervision and real world experiences for children that can enable them to leverage technology as a tool and not let technology leverage them as a consumer.