In early 20th century America, a revolution in formal public education swept the country. It wasn’t the introduction of the blackboard or the creation of standardized tests.
It was the invention of “secondary education,” known today as “high school.”
Since its introduction into the American educational system about a hundred years ago, the American high school experience has been as defined by its social phenomena as its educational effectiveness.
The high school experience is as defined by what happens in the hallways that connect classrooms as it is by what happens inside the classrooms themselves.
To the average high school student, the high school hallway is as high pressure a performance environment as the catwalk is to a fashion model or the weight room is to the football player.
We live in an age in which the high school hallway is no longer limited to the corridors between classrooms on campus.
Today’s high school hallways are the always-on social media platforms that occupy the pocketed phones of America’s teenagers.
Recently, I’ve been reading Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson. The purpose of the book is to look at what makes things popular.
Phones in Hand, Always on Stage
Why do some songs explode and some songs fizzle?
Why has Fifty Shades of Grey sold over 150 million copies? (It’s not just because of the content.)
In the book’s “interlude,” Thompson gives a brief history of teens. Studying Millennials is fascinating to me, but studying teens of any generation is just as fascinating. Teens are on the forefront of popular culture. As go teens so go their parents (see every social media platform).
(FYI: current teenagers are not Millennials, but are part of iGen, or Gen Z, those born after 2000.)
Perhaps the most interesting part of this interlude on the history of teens was on the effect phones are having on teens and their relationships with each other. After explaining that the logos on teens’ clothing once defined them, Thompson writes:
In a new age of cool, the smartphone screen has displaced the embroidered logo as the focal point of teen identity. It was once sufficient to look good in a high school hallway, but today Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram are all high school hallways, where young people perform and see performances, judge and are judged. Many decades after another mobile device, the car, helped invent the teenager, the iPhone and its ilk offered new nimble instruments of self-expression, symbols of independence, and better ways to hook up.
This paragraph just breaks my heart for today’s teenagers. I was a teenager only eight years ago, which seems both like it was yesterday and it was long ago, but even we didn’t have it this bad. The iPhone was released when I was a junior in high school and even then few students had such phones. We often “performed” in online spaces like Myspace and AOL Instant Messenger, but we weren’t carrying those platforms around in our pockets, thankfully.
In an article published earlier this summer in The Atlantic titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” Dr. Jean Twenge makes her readers aware of what’s at stake for a generation of young people glued to their phones:
What’s at stake isn’t just how kids experience adolescence. The constant presence of smartphones is likely to affect them well into adulthood. Among people who suffer an episode of depression, at least half become depressed again later in life. Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them. In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.
(Dr. Twenge just released a book called iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us, which is now on backorder at Amazon.)
Today’s teens are always in the hallway because the 21st century adolescent catwalk is the smartphone and the terrifying worlds it holds.
It’s depressing teens and keeping them from spending real time with their friends.
Whether you’re a parent of a teen, a boss of a teen, or a pastor of a teen, please be aware of the sad fact that teens today feel as though they are always performing—perhaps they’re even performing for you. Be a person in the lives of the teens you know who doesn’t require them to perform. Be a person teens can approach with their real selves.