“What are we doing to our kids?” is a quote from Cameron Crowe, who wrote the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High a movie from 1982. I ask this question on a daily basis. Cameron Crowe while discussing the movie with CNN for their special report on movies made his statement about teenagers. He explained he went undercover in a high school as a high school senior to write the movie. He stated he was shocked at how sexually active these kids were in high school. He stated between the focus on sex and working, the kids were being denied their adolescence. They were going from kids to adults very quickly. Sadly what Cameron Crowne noticed in 1982 has continued and has only become worse. It is so bad that I typically have difficulties scheduling appointments with teenagers because of tutoring sessions, meeting with college consultants and their homework. Many teenagers are so overbooked that they seldom have a free minute to relax.
Cameron Crowe was commenting on high school students in 1982. However, what he noticed occurring in high school in 1982, however it is now starting to occur in middle school not high school. In middle school today it is not uncommon for kids to be sexually active. In fact, many middle schools now provide condoms to sixth graders. Many 6th graders do not think oral sex is being sexually active. They tell me they are just “messing around, like kissing.” In addition to sex, kids in middle school are using drugs. They are not just using marijuana. Many middle school students are using concerta, ecstasy, vaping and designer drugs. Additionally, what they are exposed to on television and in movies has changed dramatically. I use the film, Good Will Hunting, in an anger management group for teenagers. The movie is rated R, but they only swear. I looked at the release date and it was in the early 1990’s. If you watch some television shows today, they come close to showing people having sex. This is a significant change and has a big impact on the kids watching these television shows and movies.
In addition to being sexually active and using drugs many middle school students are worrying about how much money they will make at their jobs. Kids are looking at different careers and thinking about how much they will get in paid and what they will be able to afford. They wonder about, how big of a house or what type of car will they be able to afford as adults? Mr. Crowe’s observation was correct in 1982. However in 2023, kids are losing their childhood too early and they are losing their childhood earlier and earlier. In 1982 it was high school in 2023 it is occurring in middle school. When will it start occurring in fifth grade?
In addition to these factors, teens in middle school and high school continue to live through the pandemic. Most kids had a year of remote learning which was a disaster. Therefore, teenagers were forced to spend over a year at home by themselves and their main interaction with friends was by texting or gaming. As a result, many teenagers feel like they have lost a year of their lives that they will never get back and a year of exploring life with their friends. Many teenagers are reporting depression , suicidal feelings and anxiety due to the Pandemic. Who can blame them because they have lost a year of their childhood that they cannot get back. Additionally, some children are now having panic attacks regarding going to school or being in crowds. They are not use to being around a lot of people and many still are concerned about being exposed to the Coronavirus or some new virus such as Monkeypox.
Even though many teenagers are back in school, their school experience is not the same as it was prior to the pandemic. Their ability to socialize is still limited greatly and schools have changed many after school activities and have canceled events such as indoor dances. So teenagers are back in the classroom, but they still feel lonely and many see no end to the pandemic or school shootings in site.
Since I specialize in treating children and teenagers, I have had more children and teenagers reporting depression, anxiety and a sense of loneliness over this past year. In fact, in my office the number of middle and high school students seeking therapy has increased by a factor of 10. Besides parents calling, schools and insurance companies are calling daily regarding adolescents who need therapy. Many of these teens are feeling disconnected and out of touch with their friends and other teenagers their age. In 2000, I was noticing this in a few teenagers now in 2023 a majority or teens and middle school students report feeling lonely and isolated and anxious. I am also beginning to hear this from fifth grade boys too. Besides loneliness increasing in middle school and high school, the number of kids feeling depressed is increasing significantly. It makes sense. Teenagers have lost a year of “normal” teenage life and no one knows what to expect next, another school shooting or a return to remote learning due to this new variant. This provokes anxiety and depression when you don’t know what to expect from the future. Especially when predictions are changing daily, teenagers are left having to wait and they see no end in site.
You may ask with their focus on friends and sex, how are they feeling lonely or isolated? With this focus on friends, sex, drugs and the future comes a great deal of competition. Everyone wants to look like they know exactly what they are doing. Therefore, they may be talking and texting each other, but they focus more on shallow issues. No one really opens up about their true fears and worries. As a result, they feel lonely and isolated. The movie and play, Dear Evan Hansen, explores and explains how many teenagers are feeling lonely and insignificant. They have missed a year of “normal, typical” experiences which help them mature. Teenagers know they are not going to get these years back which is depressing. Therefore, they are using computers, drugs and sex as a way to numb out the anger, disappointment and anxiety about what they are missing and not to worry about what their futures will be like.
A very good example of this are teenage boys. Most teenage boys are trying to live up to the outdated stereotype about what it takes to be a man. According to the stereotypes men don’t cry, don’t focus on emotions because they are weak and must be sexually active to be a man. There is a documentary, The Mask You Live In, which focuses on boys conforming to this outdated stereotype. Overwhelming the boys in the documentary reported feeling lonely and isolated. They shared they had no one who they could talk to when they felt overwhelmed or confused by life. They always had to have the right answer and they did not always what was the right answer. As a result, they made mistakes and they felt lonely not being able to ask for help. They felt like they had to hide their true feelings which makes them feel lonely.
Having over two years with little to no personal contact with their friends only increases this feeling of isolation and loneliness. Since teenagers try not to act like they need help, they are experiencing more feelings of anxiety and depression. The CDC has documented a significant increase in the number of teenagers coping with depression and anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic. Also as I stated above we have experienced a tidal wave of teenagers seeking psychotherapy. Furthermore, the longer we ignore issues such as school shootings, the longer children worry about their safety and futures, and the number of kids feeling anxious, depressed and isolated will continue to increase not decrease.
Texting and online gaming have increased as a way for teenagers to feel a connection with their friends. Many parents worry about their teenagers texting or gaming, but if it provides a sense of connection with their friends and the world, I have recommended to parents to adjust their rules regarding these behaviors during this time that teenagers are adjusting to the new normal. Teenagers need a way to feel connected to others. Without this sense of connection during this adjustment period, we will see an increase in the number of teenagers committing suicide or overdosing on drugs.
Another aspect to teenage boys and girls feeling lonely, isolated, depressed and anxious is that they tend to close themselves off emotionally. As a result, they do not know if anyone cares about them. They never know if someone loves them. This can create major issues for teens. In the Disney movie Frozen, they point out how people will act out in pain and make mistakes when they don’t feel loved or cared for by people. The movie also points out how opening yourself up so you can feel love will help people change and make better choices. The lead character, Elsa, when she felt lonely and afraid could not control her power and it only caused destruction. When she finally opened herself up and saw she could be loved she discovered the good her powers could do. When she was afraid she isolated herself and when she felt loved she opened up and interacted with others. The idea of allowing themselves to be emotionally vulnerable is a very scary concept for teenagers. They don’t know what to expect and they don’t feeI in control. Teenagers need to feel a sense of control especially during this time of their lives and with all of the unknowns in our world today. I see this happen daily with teens. When they feel no one cares, they isolate themselves and say hurtful things to keep themselves isolated. When they discover people care, they allow themselves to open up and start to share their true feelings and interact with others. They are very happy and surprised when they make this discovery.
Parents may notice that their teenagers are not taking to them or listening to them despite the fact that parents are trying to be supportive. The problem is that your teenagers are feeling so depressed and anxious that they are ignoring their parents. Many teenagers see how society is acting and they see no hope. They assume you are going to try to make them feel better, but you are just as powerless as they are so they ignore you. Be patient with them and continue to be there for them. By taking this approach when your teenager is ready to talk, you will be there and not miss the opportunity.
In 1982 the world was much easier. In today’s world things are moving fast and make it easy for people to isolate by texting or using social media to communicate. In addition, teenagers have lived through a pandemic (which no other recent generation has had to do), mass shootings and a political climate that has changed how we communicate and view the world and each other. As a result, teenage boys and girls feel pressure to follow the outdated stereotypes about men and women. There are few people telling teens they don’t need to follow these stereotypes. We also need to set examples about communication. Adults need to not text so much and rely on social media as often as they do. Parents need to take time talking with their children as soon as they are born. Technology can be a great thing but it is making many people feel lonely and isolated. Teens as well as adults. We need to study technology and look at how it is impacting our lives and the lives of our children. One thing for sure, I have seen technology increasing the amount of teens feeling lonely and depressed. We don’t want our kids to lose out on their childhood. Therefore, we need to study the impact technology has on us and teach our children how to use it responsibly. Also we need to teach teenage boys and girls that they don’t need to live up to the outdated stereotypes about men and women. We need to encourage our kids to be themselves and to accept themselves.
Additionally, remember today’s teenagers are the only teenagers in recent history who have had to cope with daily mass shootings and a pandemic which has killed over 1,000,000 Americans. We need to look at all these issues and help our children and teenagers cope with the world they have to live in. Hopefully this will help our children reclaim their childhood and be kids.
Dr. Michael Rubino is a psychotherapist with over 25 years experience treating children, teenagers, trauma victims including first responders. For more information about his work or private practice visit his website www.RubinoCounseling.com or his Facebook page www.Facebook.com/drrubino3 or his podcasts on Spotify or Apple.