By Lisa Huffines
New York City is a singular place to be a teenager, but the young panelists at Parents in Action’s twenty-ninth annual Teen Scene event agreed that parents should relax; most of them are doing just fine. The unique aspects of a city upbringing are as much positive as they are negative, said this year’s group of fourteen ninth- through twelfth-graders from independent schools across the city. They responded to questions from moderator Lucy Martin Gianino and from the audience, a sold-out crowd that filled the auditorium at Trinity School on a snowy February 2, 2015.
The teens were eager to talk about the pressures they feel as high school students, largely, though not exclusively, academic. A sophomore girl said there’s a prevailing attitude that anything below an A is substandard; a senior boy bemoaned the angst of the college process; a junior girl cited a feeling that “everything counts” once you reach high school, and the illusion that all the kids around her know exactly what they want in life. But almost everyone said they’d enjoyed, even loved, their time in high school. A senior girl said that though the stakes feel higher in New York City, “I feel it’s made me a smarter, better person, ready to take on the world more.” And a sophomore girl said she values New York’s diversity and openness. “You can really find yourself here,” she said, “and [find] others you can relate to.”
Social pressure is also enhanced in New York City, many panelists agreed, and the pervasiveness of social media feeds into this pressure. Teens use social media to present an idealized version of themselves, and the vibe can become competitive and show-offy. Certainly, teens sometimes post images they later regret. But when asked for worst-case stories, the panelists reacted by defending their use of social media. For the most part, they said, it’s a healthy and very fun way to keep up with friends and acquaintances. Kids also understand the dangers of social media. A sophomore girl said she and her friends put “phones on the table” when they go out to dinner together, and the first person who touches their device foots the bill. Another sophomore enlightened the audience about an app called “Moment,” which tracks use of your smartphone to the minute, while a peer chimed in about an additional app that allows a user to lock himself completely out of his device for one-hour periods. “Your kids get it,” a sophomore boy said. And parents, by the way, are hardly model smart phone users.
Bullying, the panelists said, is not a major problem in the independent high schools. A couple of panelists said bullying usually ends after middle school, and another pointed out that schools are vigilant about strictly enforcing anti-bullying policies. A junior girl posited that bullying is more pervasive in big schools where it can be done relatively anonymously, than in private schools where everyone knows one another intimately.
Drugs and alcohol are as much a part of the weekend social scene as ever with alcohol and pot by far the most used, in part, because they are the least expensive. Also on the kids’ radar were cocaine, Molly, Ecstasy, and hallucinogenic mushrooms, as well as recreational use of prescription drugs like Xanax, OxyContin and Adderall. Overwhelmingly, drug and alcohol use takes place on the weekends, although one student said she’s seen “alcohol in coffee cups” on occasion at school, and a couple have seen kids getting high during the school day using e-cigarettes filled with marijuana.
Although all seemed to agree these weekday instances were uncommon, on Friday and Saturday nights kids have myriad venues to socialize with drugs and alcohol. A “free” is a small party (up to around sixty kids) in an unsupervised home where the doorman, if there is one, has been given a list of invitees. Generally a free is just some friends hanging out and the gathering seldom gets terribly loud or out of control. A “house party” is larger and the potential for destructive behavior much greater. A “fest” takes place in a rented space and is a very large student-organized party for which a ticket must be purchased. No alcohol is served or allowed at a fest so kids tend to “pre-game” on their own before arriving, which can lead to irresponsible drinking. Finally, there are nightclubs and hookah lounges, many of which are extremely expensive and therefore accessible only to very wealthy students. Table charges at a nightclub function like reservations and can easily run several thousand dollars; a sophomore boy spoke about hearing of a group that spent $20,000 in an evening. Not surprisingly, a junior girl said, there’s a big divide between those who can afford to go clubbing and those who cannot, and while they’re highly visible on social media, the panelists agreed that the group that does go clubbing is small.
The panelists uniformly agreed that peer pressure doesn’t explain the pervasiveness of drugs and alcohol in their world. A senior girl said that, while she’s never been a drinker, she’s always felt welcomed and enjoyed parties where others are partaking. A freshman girl explained that kids try these substances because they want the experience and a freshman boy agreed that kids do it because it’s fun. A junior girl acknowledged that some kids use drugs and alcohol as an escape from pressure or personal problems and for them, substance abuse is a serious issue, but for most kids, “it’s fun and social.”
The report on sex was similar. Although “hooking up” remains far more common than traditional dating, it does not always involve intercourse and one sophomore boy reported that very few of his friends have ever had sex. When asked if teens felt any anxiety about going to college with their virginity intact, all said no.
Being a teen is not easy, and it’s fraught with danger for some. If the teens of Teen Scene 2015 are any indication, though, overall, the kids are all right.