Why adolescence really IS harder today

It’s tempting for those of us who survived adolescence to say to histrionic teenagers, “Oh, it’s not that bad. Stop being so dramatic.” While it is true that the hormone-addled and fast-changing adolescent brain tends to make emotional mountains of molehills, teens today may be encountering far more molehills than we did.

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Sissy Spacek in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976)

I recently watched the 1976 horror film “Carrie” again for the first time in a decade, and I was struck by its portrayal of adolescence. Shy, withdrawn Carrie is humiliated by her peers, kept in the dark about puberty by her uber-religious mother, and seems only to find peace alone in her bedroom.

How different would Carrie’s experience be with the technology so ubiquitous among today’s teens? Unless she checked her smartphone at the door and didn’t glance at it until the next day (difficult for the most self-disciplined among us), the awful girls who throw tampons and sanitary pads at her in the locker room would follow her home and into her room every night. She would be tortured by texts, tweets, and invasive IMs on Facebook long after she walked out of the school where she was so miserable.

According to statistics on cyber bullying, more than half of teens have been bullied online, and about the same percentage do not tell their parents about it. Teens also open themselves up to harsh criticism, such as when they post “am I pretty?” videos online. Adolescents’ need for acceptance and lack of impulse control becomes a potent cocktail mixed with the immediacy and connectivity of the Internet and social media.

The fact that so many teens keep silent about their experiences is not surprising; when I was a teen, I wasn’t eager to tell my parents about humiliations at school. But I also felt safe once I got home. If I wanted to, I could talk to my friends on the phone. If I didn’t feel like it, or if I was being harassed, I could take the phone off the hook and shut it all out for the night. The screen of my teen years, television, only comforted and entertained me.

Teens who have smartphones and are being bullied online drag home a blinking, chirping ball-and-chain that reminds them constantly of who doesn’t like them, who thinks they’re ugly, and what these people plan to inflict on them the next day. It’s no wonder so many adolescents are losing sleep.

What can parents do? It’s not a perfect solution, and your teen may hate you for it in the moment, but taking away their devices after a certain time each night might provide the temporary sanctuary they don’t even know they need.

 

A librarian’s take on why so many teens stop reading

Common Sense Media released some discouraging news last week: when kids reach their teen years, they tend to read much less. At age 9, 53% of kids report reading daily. By age 17, only 19% do. Teens don’t seek out fun reading as much as they may have when they were younger; nearly half of all 17-year-olds say they read for pleasure only once or twice a year.

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Follow Naomi on Twitter @yabooksandmore

Naomi Bates is a ‘teacher librarian with a twist of technology’ at a high school in Justin, Texas. Teens’ neglect of pleasure reading is no mystery to her, and she knows how to re-engage them. Last year, Bates launched a reading program in her school that incorporated Twitter, and the response was dramatic: 400 kids participated, and they read a total of 5,000 titles – an average of 18 books per student over the course of the school year.

Bates said Twitter was key to attracting students’ attention.

“When I tweeted about a particular book, kids asked about it,” she said. “They wanted to check it out.”

Bates used social media to engage kids because she knows why teens’ appetite for books wanes. Three things happen when they enter high school. First, there’s more competition for their time, and socializing takes precedence over reading. For many teens, joining groups is so much more important than spending time with a book.

“They’ll put in 20 hours a week on the football field,” Bates said, “but not on reading.”

Second, the amount of reading they’re required to do in their classes is higher than it was in middle or elementary school, and that leaves less time to read for fun. Third, technology that allows them to be connected to others occupies more of their attention.

“It’s about building their social lives,” she said, “and that really takes precedence.”

Many of the students in her school who are most enthusiastic about reading enjoy anime graphic novels, and they engage in discussion and interaction via social media with others about the books. By engaging more reluctant readers via Twitter, Bates taps into this adolescent drive to connect.

Bates also emphasized the need for parents to model reading at home. She said teens who see their parents reading and enjoying books are more likely to seek out reading in their spare time.

“Kids model parents’ behavior, and that’s what it boils down to,” she said. “You can’t just tell your kids, ‘you need to read more.’ Typically a teen’s attitude is, ‘well, you don’t do it, why should I?’”

Bates advises parents to expand their definition of reading when it comes to teens. E-books, magazines, comic books and graphic novels can all capture teens’ attention and open the door to a lifelong reading habit.

 

For one mom, previews and context are key

Annie likes her kids to know what to expect in media. And she prefers to know what they’ll encounter in advance. She screens and previews most of the content seen or heard by her 15-year-old son Eli and her 11-year-old daughter, Margaret.

NPR does not come on while they’re in the car with her, she said, because she doesn’t want them to be surprised by things they may not be prepared to hear.

Approved for Annie's 15-year-old son, but she reads it first

Approved for Annie’s 15-year-old son, but only if she reads it first

Annie said she previews in part because she knows how much inappropriate content is out there and it worries her.

“Everything concerns me about media!” Annie said.  “There’s so much access to stuff that I wouldn’t have seen until my mid-20s, and now an 8-year-old can access it.”

Annie’s family does not have cable service and they only receive two TV channels. Her kids have fairly open access to the Internet, and they’re allowed to watch shows on PBS and via Netflix, as long as Annie knows what they are.

Context is very important to her, she said, especially regarding the social situations in which her kids encounter certain media messages. When her son wanted to read Game of Thrones and see the TV series adaptation, she speed-read the first book and then stayed one book ahead of him as he read it. She then watched the TV show with him, so they could talk about some of the more mature elements in it.

“I wouldn’t have let him watch it on his own, or with a bunch of his friends,” Annie said.

She added that she tries to strike a balance between monitoring and keeping channels of communication open with him.

“Do I risk having him sneak around and read it anyway,” she said, “or do I actively participate it in with him?”

Context in the story is also important to her. She took Eli to see the movie Skyfall, and she said she was comfortable with the violent content because it was relevant within the narrative of a spy story. This standard applies to both violence and sex, she said.

“I don’t forbid my kids from seeing it, but it needs to be relevant to the storyline.”

Annie added that she thinks the amount of sexual content in the Game of Thrones books is excessive.

Her kids are also on social media. Eli uses Facebook and Reddit, and follows several blogs. Margaret uses Club Penguin, but she’s only allowed to send pre-written ‘postcards’ to other users, and she may not share personal information about herself.

Annie credits Margaret’s school for teaching kids about trust, respect, and not posting photos of themselves or others in bad situations. She is impressed with the guidance they provide, and said it boosts her confidence in her kids’ ability to manage online interactions.

She anticipates her kids becoming a bit more secretive as they get older, but she is confident that they’ll come and talk with her about issues they encounter. She occasionally glances at Eli’s laptop if he leaves it open, but she said she has never seen anything that concerns her.

“It’s a very open communication thing,” she said, “and it involves a lot of trust.”