TEEN SCENE – February 7, 2022
By Pamela Awad
What’s on the mind of America’s youth? For 40 years NYC-Parents in Action has asked this question at the annual Teen Scene panel. This year on the evening of the first Monday in February, a panel of sixteen teens, 14 to 18 years old, spoke virtually with NYC-PIA president and panel moderator Lucy Martin Gianino about life in the time of COVID.
School feels pretty normal. There’s a lot of school spirit now, especially with sporting events, and it’s nice to have those personal connections again.
School’s back in session for students and while they describe the workload as harder, they appreciate being physically back in school, “seeing people again, being with friends and not staring at a Zoom screen.” The transition from Zoom School to ‘School School’ is ongoing but “school feels pretty normal. There’s a lot of school spirit now, especially with sporting events, and it’s nice to have those personal connections again,” said one student, even if the events themselves “don’t feel ‘normal/normal’ because of capacity restrictions. Without exception students think masking’s an irritant, particularly since it doesn’t always “fit the look,” but while masking is a must in school, outside of school, not so much – most teens are fully vaccinated, testing is common and masking is done on a “risk assessment” basis. Students are making up for time lost to the pandemic by spending time with friends, playing sports, dressing up more, pursuing old and new- found passions and interests and as one said, “diving into things I love.”
Most students feel their school is offering the same if not increased support as they return to the classroom. Schools are “juggling like we are; the support level is the same, the communication is different,” said one, referring in part to the internet’s role as a learning tool during the pandemic. While they describe being “slaves to the internet,” one student went on to say,“ it’s the biggest influence in my life. It was so important in the middle of the pandemic – it was the only way to communicate with each other.” All agree that “the internet causes anxiety and stress and we have to learn how to manage it,” but another student explained, “The internet provided this generation with an outlet to social media, politics and the world. It’s not just a blank face, (it) gives you access to people in an interpersonal manner.” Fittingly, teens report an increase in “online friends” and “e-relationships,” but as COVID settles down they all say they have a greater appreciation for seeing friends in real time both in and outside of school.
The internet causes anxiety and stress and we have to learn how to manage it… but… the internet provided this generation with an outlet to social media, politics and the world. It’s not just a blank face, (it) gives you access to people in an interpersonal manner.
TikTok, Instagram and Snap Chat continue to be the most popular apps among teens, with a “culture around each of them,” but teens use them differently. TikTok is a “source of entertainment where time doesn’t exist,” said one student. “You can spend hours scrolling through the algorithm and you need to be intentional about avoiding it.” Instagram was described as a “performative platform; the purpose is not to be perfect; you see what other people want you to see.” Snapchat, “unique because it’s one-on-one and more personal… helps us make connections,” and is thought to be the safest of the apps because of “time sensitivity:” “everything is gone within 24 hours,” whereas “Instagram and LinkedIn are set up forever.”
Gaming is common but few students describe themselves as “hard core gamers. ” Both boys and girls play “goofy fish games” as well as “Sims 4,” which they say is played by “empathetic and sensitive people” (this reporter is only the messenger here). The students are keenly aware of the controversy surrounding gaming; they’re aware it can be toxic, know it helps develop some skills, and understand that the anonymity gaming provides has potentially harmful side effects. Gaming is a “double edged sword” that most kids start in Middle School (4th through 7th grades) when schools begin distributing laptops to students. One teen described iPads as the ‘gateway to gamer status,’ and all agree that electronics are always available so there’s no point in taking them away. As for TV, kids say they watch it but make a distinction between cable, physical TV, Netflix, YouTube and streaming. “Euphoria,” a gritty teen drama on HBO, is hugely popular.
How rampant are mental health issues like anxiety, depression and suicide and how willing are teens to talk about them? Some teens say their friends are honest about needing help and unfiltered in talking about how they feel. They say “the boundaries are getting blurred” regarding the stigma against talking about and taking medication for depression, while one student said, “in my school mental health isn’t talked about pretty much at all.” Regarding the uptick in suicides among 15-24 year-olds, most students agree they would reach out if someone they knew was vulnerable but they wouldn’t necessarily “go above them and tell their parents or teachers about it.” “It’s important to be a friend,” said one student, and they describe inclusivity as a key factor in the fight against self-harm. “… making someone feel like they’re valued, they’re important, and they have people who they can freely talk to and be with, makes things a whole lot better,” said one teen. Loyalty is paramount to this age group and only, “When one of your friend is visibly in pain and you’ve spoken to them about it and they’ve said what they’re feeling and you can tell they need help and they’re actively not seeking help, is when you have to tell someone else.”
When one of your friend is visibly in pain and you’ve spoken to them about it and they’ve said what they’re feeling and you can tell they need help and they’re actively not seeking help, is when you have to tell someone else.
Stressors for teens include schoolwork in general; competitiveness, (“I don’t want it to turn into the hunger games,” said one sophomore, anticipating the college process); and, for seniors, the stress of waiting and anticipating college acceptances. Additionally, “with this pandemic,” said one senior, “we’ve had to relearn how to interact with each other and there’s a lot of stress trying to manage social situations, especially when we’re stunted by two years.”
Teens want to have fun! After a two year hiatus, fun is to be found at parties in people’s homes (“parties aren’t clandestine operations, they’re actually sanctioned by parents,” said one teen, and “There’s a lot of forgiveness, permissiveness and understanding from parents, they want us to have fun, ”said another); at ticket parties (usually initiated by schools and organized by students with sliding scale ticket prices); or, perhaps, by going on a trip to Hawaii with your best friend. “When you go to a private school you’re going to see an array of people with all kinds of privilege,” said a senior. “We live in a playground in NYC – everybody’s going clubbing or to the Hamptons in the summer. Playing manifests itself [differently] for some people who are at liberty to do very extravagant things.”
There’s a lot of alcohol at parties and more drinking going on than before COVID because, as one student explained; “People are trying to make up for lost time, for the high school experience we lost with COVID happening.” Drug and alcohol use is “really a spectrum, especially with drugs. Some kids are going very hard core but most kids just stick to drinking.” White Claw, Mike’s Seltzer, vodka, beer and tequila are the beverages of choice and most agree that weed is the most popular substance in use.
Should there be consequences from parents for smoking weed and drinking? “There needs to be repercussions if you’re hurting other people,” said one student, “but if you’re experimenting and trying things, there needs to be trust and support from parents” to ensure kids are safe. Teens “know the dangers of alcohol because in school we have alcohol talks and drug talks” said one student but “what doesn’t get talked about as much is the lacing of drugs and that they’re a total danger.”
Vaping is “definitely still in, but it’s not Juuling anymore, it’s moved to these disposable devices; Juuling is mostly dead,” said one teen. Cigarette smoking is “in but it’s not nearly as popular as vaping because it’s much easier to vape to get the hit … from vaping [when you’re] around your parents.” Teens differentiate between vaping “to get high and vaping for the nicotine; one of them is physically addictive and one’s for having a party.” And teens’ drug use is tempered by knowledge of the dangers. “There’s been a decrease in experimentation with chemical drugs like pills because there’s definitely a big fear of fentanyl right now,” said one, “if you take a pill you don’t know what’s inside of it.” Edibles are popular because, as one teen described, “there’s still drug experimentation going on but its educated drug experimentation. I’m going to go with something that isn’t made in a lab and is much less likely to be laced with fentanyl.”
The topic turned to relationships and sex, and teens clearly differentiate between the two. “Hookup culture is rampant, it’s basically the norm,” said one, while another explained that among his friends, “Long term relationships are pretty much nonexistent, maybe because we’re high schoolers; we can’t commit to that.” Another teen countered by saying, “there absolutely are (long term relationships),” but there’s a difference between hooking up and actually having sex. Hooking up implies that you just made out and it’s not anything else until you actually say, I had sex with this person. If you did [have sex], you’re going to want to brag about it.” “It depends on the kid and the school,” said another, “ but towards the later grades you start seeing more actual sex, even if it’s not that common.” A student in an all-girls school made an additional point; “Hookup culture in an all-girls school is completely different. I know many girls who have graduated never having had their first kiss.”
Teens had lots to say about sexual fluidity, losing one’s virginity and shaming. Regarding the presence of LBGTQ+ organizations and acceptance of different gender preferences, one male student said, “In my community people are pretty comfortable talking about whether they’re bi[sexual] or gay; I think the culture’s done a decent job of opening up.”
In my community people are pretty comfortable talking about whether they’re bi[sexual] or gay; I think the culture’s done a decent job of opening up.
“I think high school’s a weird place for sexuality talk,” said another, “a lot of people haven’t figured that out yet, we’re teenagers coming into our own and a lot of the time it can be confusing, people literally don’t know how they feel; there’s a lot of fuzzy space there because we’re still developing.” Same sex schools are “accepting but trailing a little bit,” said one student. “If you’re not heterosexual, losing your virginity takes on a completely different connotation,” said another. “In general, the whole idea of losing your virginity is getting redefined – there’s a pushback against purity culture.” She continued, “Young adult women would like to engage with dating relationships and hookup culture on equal footing [with boys]. A lot of us go to feminist schools but it’s a deeply internalized thing that we look at sexually active boys very differently than we do with girls.” And slut shaming still happens: “It’s more subtle but it’s still internally there … still here in our larger culture,” said a student. “We’re a bunch of kids talking to parents right now and there’s a big discrepancy as to what some parents think’s an action and what kids think. Slut shaming is a lot more subtle than it was but it still feels horrible. Bullying, it’s a lot more subtle than it was but it still feels horrible. Subtlety, nuances and hidden aspects make it hard for parents to pick up on [this] and it’s hard for students to show evidence and that becomes a big problem,” because parents and students are on “two different playing fields,” when it comes to recognizing bullying and slut shaming.
“During the pandemic many schools stepped up their commitment to anti-racism. How do you think schools are managing that strife?” asked Lucy. Most students felt that while their schools actively addressed racism, specifically anti-Black racism in 2020, those efforts are less pronounced this school year. “It feels like that movement was trend, we had the discussion about it, now it’s all solved and we’re moving on,” said one teen. Another described it as feeling like “a PR stunt to put all these new actions and curriculums in, (rather) than actually trying to improve the experience for students of color.” A biracial student disagreed: “My school has done a very good job trying to prioritize diversity, specifically in education, whether through electives, classes, affinity groups or mandatory meetings.” But, she warned, “it has to be hand in hand with the parents.” Parents need to be in line with the pedagogy of their children’s school.
What do teens want to hear from parents?
“Try to understand your kids and what they’re going through,” said one teen. Kids want to hear about their parents’ own experiences and the kinds of things they thought about when they were young. They want parents to keep reassessing the rules they’ve established and the relationship they have with their kids as their kids get older. “Trust your kids to make the right decisions,” another said, and, “Be comforting and forgiving” when it comes to failure. “Tell your kids you’re proud of them and they’re enough just as they are.” Said a senior to parents, “Be loving and involved.”
Tell your kids you’re proud of them and they’re enough just as they are.. Be loving and involved.
The session ended with a reading of National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s “New Day’s Lyric,” and with that, everyone said good-bye.