NYC-Parents in Action’s 32nd Annual Teen Scene was held on February 12th, 2018 at the Trinity School, in a packed room of over 400 people, where 16 high schoolers spoke from the heart. They shared only their first names, candidly answering questions from long-time moderator and current PIA Co-President Lucy Martin Gianino, as well as from the audience. A panel of eight girls and eight boys from a sampling of NYC schools (co-ed, single sex, progressive and traditional) discussed a wide range of issues that affect high school life in NYC. There were moments of shared laughter among the panelists and the audience alike, as students offered answers and thoughts that were reassuring yet revealing. One panelist told the parents, “We students are doing a whole lot of good in addition to [doing] the bad.” Despite a changing world, with vast cultural shifts brought about by social media and technology, what hasn’t changed much among teens is how decisions are made, why friendships are chosen and how different lifestyles are explored.
The first topic addressed how teens experience pressure, growing up and attending NYC independent high schools. The panelists reminded parents that all high schoolers are dealing with the same issues: finding friends; balancing the demands of school work and extracurricular activities; and peer pressure. Several students emphasized the importance of finding the “right people to hang out with.” Friends, apparently, may be both cause and cure for students’ anxiety (albeit not the same ones!). Panelists agreed that the increased presence of social media encourages a need for “instant gratification,” and prompts a fear of missing out (“FOMO”). Notably, if there were issues at school, students said they often found solace in friends from camp or other extra-curricular programs, such as sports or dance teams. Maintaining good friendships, the panel agreed, is key to surviving high school. Interestingly, there was no mention of turning to teachers as a resource, and “school is never the answer.”
On the topic of smart phones and the control they exert over teenagers, the students did not hide their attachment to their devices. They admitted that while some kids may be “addicted,” there was some policing going on among friends. One student expressed dismay that, on a senior school trip, the students who snuck in phones took away from the other students’ group bonding experience because the phone users were “always looking for Wi-Fi or charging spots.” The widespread perception that technology is out of control and social media is taking over peoples’ lives is real, the panel acknowledged, but also noted that teens realize Facebook and Instagram lives are curated and are not a reflection of real life. Further, the students appeared to understand that even innocuous posts can negatively affect peers, making them feel left out, or worse. As one young man exclaimed “[It] can break your heart!”
When asked how it feels to start high school, the students explained that entering 9th grade was a big leap from middle school: “It is scary, teachers treat you differently, expect more from you.” By junior year, however, the “vibe” is different, as the students, by then, feel like upper-class-men and -women. The biggest laugh of the evening was a senior’s delayed realization that “now everything counts, including 9th grade transcript!” In 12th grade, for all schools, the college process consumes students. One panelist suggested a useful tip for parents regarding college applications: “Don’t keep talking about it, we [students] already know what a big deal it is; [parents need to] just know how much stress your kid is dealing with.”
Sound advice for parents trying to help alleviate stress included making time for dinner every evening as a family. Panelists agreed that despite hectic schedules, dinner together is a good way to relieve pressure, as it allows the students permission to take a 20-minute break.
On the topic of weekend socializing, the panelists confirmed that there are unsupervised house parties. Sometimes good children make bad decisions, they noted, so keeping the lines of communication open is key to managing risky behavior. There seemed to be a casual attitude from the whole group regarding consumption of alcohol. One student explained that at least 90 percent of students in high school have had a drink. Regarding parents offering their teenage children alcoholic beverages, one girl remarked, “Awkward!” but impressively, all the students agreed on the mantra “stall when possible.” Referring to “club kids,” the panelists agreed that despite bouncer bag checks, high schoolers do manage to sneak in clear alcohol in water bottles, for example, or participate in heavy “pre-gaming” before homecoming weekend parties. Despite this level of consumption, there was widespread awareness among the panelists of the dangers of alcohol and drugs to the developing teenage brain, information picked up in school sponsored programs and from outside resources such as Hallways.
Marijuana’s recent legalization in some states has made high schoolers more willing to try it, despite associated risks. Some have even seen fellow students smoking in class with a very cavalier attitude. The prevalence of vaping (using both flavors or scented oils and more addictive substances, such as pot) was of great concern among parents. Students reported significant vaping use among their peers at all high school grade levels, either to relax or to get high without getting caught. Parents learned that vape shops (without checking customers’ ID) routinely sell the popular Juul, a small, vapor-delivery device made to resemble an ordinary pen.
Addressing sex and relationships, the panelists reported significant knowledge about health and sexual activity safety. There was strong concern about, and well-informed interest in, the #MeToo movement. Further, conversations on gender equity, in settings both formal and informal, are occurring regularly among teens.
After this in-depth discussion of teenage life in New York City, the students closed with some heartwarming thoughts, when asked by a parent what “makes them hopeful.” They said they were “hopeful about the future,” and listed as reasons: their friends; the ability to do so many different things; the desire to help others, to bring about change, to educate; and to share opportunities. This positive, cheerful vision further lifted the spirits of an already enthralled audience. While teenage years are considered the age of rebellion, it was comforting to parents to know the kids value what is “right” despite what we hear may be “wrong.”