Teens live in another country from the rest of us — always have. Parents may get glimpses, but most of that world is always going to stay hidden. Probably the only adults who come close to getting a look are those who deal with the age group throughout the day, in a way parents never do.
So, to find out what kinds of problems Baltimore kids are facing these days, it seemed like a good idea to ask high school counselors, who at least occasionally get reports back from the front — the country we all lived in once, but now barely remember.
No counselor wanted to give their name — “Hey, this is Smalltimore,” said one. “Everyone knows everyone.” But other than that, they were willing to talk. What goes on with kids these days? Are their problems all that different from our problems in the past? Is there really anything new under the sun?
Well, actually, yes. The technology revolution has changed the landscape almost beyond recognition. All the counselors agreed about that; agreed, too, that there was almost no way to stay on top of this exploding universe.
“The cyber world is way out of our control,” admitted a longtime counselor at one Baltimore private school (we’ll call him Private School I). And parents have a hard time getting a grip on this. “Technology, it’s like a generation gap. The gap is wide, and as soon as we learn what they were doing a month ago, it’s changed.”
“[Sitting in front of a screen,] you can just about say any bloody thing you want. So a lot of impulse control falls by the wayside,” he said. “[At Private School I,] we talk about it all the time. We say, ‘Remember, everyone on the planet can read it once you put it in there; you hit send, the entire world can see what you wrote.’”
There are other dangers, said a counselor from another Baltimore private school (we’ll call her Private School II). “Kids are so open, they access each other’s Facebook page, never thinking they need to watch their password. What if something happens to that friendship? And the other person is feeling vindictive?”
Perhaps the biggest change technology has brought — and the hardest for parents to grasp — is the inter-connectivity. What with cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter and the like, teens today are plugged into each other in a way that would have seemed like pure science fiction one short generation ago. “Very different from what we had. It’s more intense, more ever present, and there’s the expectation that you respond immediately. So you’re on hyper alert,” said Private School I.
“Parents are aware but don’t know the extent,” said Private School II. “If the kids don’t have their cell phone they feel disconnected. If they miss something posted on Twitter, who broke up with who, they feel behind.” She believes our brains lack the capacity to keep up with this stuff. “That connectedness — it adds stress.”
Technology may have changed things, but the traditional teenage problems are still around, of course. Substance abuse, for instance.
“I’m amazed at the amount of marijuana use,” said Private School II, who’s been in the field close to 20 years. “With the push for legalization, the lid is off.” Perhaps, too, the fact that so many parents of today’s teens have used it themselves has made a difference. Alcohol use has also risen, she thinks.
And of course, as always with adolescents, sex is part of the picture. But here, too, there’s been a change. Gay teens, for instance, are more likely to be open — and to be accepted — than in the past. Things aren’t perfect yet, but as sex advisor Dan Savage says, it really is getting better.
“I believe this generation is going to teach us something about acceptance,” said Private School II. “About the whole gay thing, but also with minorities, even class and privilege.” Her school, she said, tries to be sensitive to all types of kids, including the transgendered. “We have unisex bathrooms, for those who are questioning their gender. Private schools can be protective that way.”
Parents may struggle with accepting their kids are gay, but have an especially hard time dealing with transgender issues. “It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around,” Private School II said. “I tell the kids, you have to give parents time to grieve, over the loss of traditional family.”
Today’s teens seem far more comfortable exploring (and accepting) varying forms of sexuality. “For some time, it’s all been about hookups; nobody dates,” said Private School II. “But now, if it’s not possible to hook up at a party, it’s okay to hook up with your friend — no matter what sex.”
A counselor from a Baltimore County public high school, though, insisted most teens there are more interested in going to college than in sex. At his former post, a different Baltimore County public high school, he had run into far more “hypersexualized kids,” he said; at his current high school, he believes students are less into relationships, and able to keep from acting out sexually. “It might be on their minds, but they’re able to keep their behavior in check,” he said.
This came as a bit of a surprise to this reporter,who still has vague memories of her own teenage years, and who’d always believed hypersexuality was as much a part of adolescence as acne. She’s willing to concede, though, that some schools today might be different.
All the counselors agreed the biggest problem facing high school kids today has little to do with technology, drugs or sex. Instead it is stress, pure and simple. According to them, stress levels are off the charts.
“This college entrance stuff has gotten crazy,” said Private School I, who’s been in the field 38 years. “It’s incredibly more stressful, way more intense, than it used to be. And the acceleration, the AP stuff, the over-scheduling — piano, soccer. Much worse.”
The pressure has led to a rise in depression, he believes. It also leads to more cases of “academic integrity” (actually, lack of it) — cheating, plagiarism.
The public high school counselor agreed. “The major issue I see is this expectation that students need to go to the best college, and to do that they need the best grades in the hardest classes. So those students end up overextending themselves, run themselves ragged, develop stress, depression.”
Private School I concurred. “I think kids are really overextending themselves. I see a good bit of teenage depression and I think this is part of it,” she said.
Parents, the counselors agreed, have a lot to do with this escalation; maybe it’s because of the economic picture, but there’s more anxiety about getting into college, more pressure being exerted.
There is, however, some good news. Eating disorders are down, or at least, not up. Private School I reports proudly there have been no suicides at his school in over a decade. (After two, in a two-year period, the school “brought in the best mental health advisors Johns Hopkins could offer,” to help figure out what to do; the answer was to involve parents far more.)
And despite the fact it’s become something of a cause de jour in the media, all three counselors reported very little problem with bullying. “We don’t focus on bullies, we focus on the bystander,” explained Private School II. “The 90 percent in the middle who can stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right.’ Those are the ones we want to empower.”
Another bright spot? “I’m seeing a real uptick in political interest, kids involved in non-violent protest,” said Private School I. “Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement have had a positive effect.”
My age group felt there could never be a generation gap as huge as the one between us and our parents — we, after all, had the culture wars, as well as sex, drugs and rock and roll. But as it turns out, two guys tinkering with electronics in a garage managed to kick off an even bigger gap, one parents struggle to bridge today.
You can only wonder what the next gap will consist of, what these kids will face with their own kids — the only sure thing being that no one will see it coming.
Judy Oppenheimer is a freelance writer based in D.C.