I am forty years older than my eighth-graders. So little has changed since I was their age–yet so much.
In 1982, my friends and I had phones, video games, pop music, movies, and television. I was one of the few kids in my school who had a computer, an Atari 800. I did not have a Walkman, though. Many of my peers did.
In 2022, fourteen-year olds also have phones, but these phones are not attached to walls by wires. Teenagers carry around these devices, which have hundreds of times the computing power of my old home computer and are connected to the Internet. These phones put into a young person’s hands more than what my friends and I had at their age, and today’s young teens can access all of this content from virtually anywhere.
True, the best video games, as well as the best television and movies, are better enjoyed on devices at home that are even more powerful than smartphones. But the fact remains that the typical student in grade 8 carries around with him or her a media universe far vaster than what my friends and I could possibly imagine.
And in this media universe, new forms of content–new paradigms for media interaction–have risen to dominance.
A tiny sliver of adults understand the true nature of our teens’ digital lives. While some parents are worrying about the topics of sex education curricula in schools, many young people have ready access to explicit content online. But even behind this lurks easy access to violent footage–real-life video of brutal fights, vicious attacks, accidents, and warfare. Anyone–including young people with access–can watch moving images of people dying, sometimes even by suicide.
While schools, youth activities, and athletic organizations rightly investigate the backgrounds of adults who will interact with children and teens, online gaming exposes kids to people of all ages, the most insidious of whom take advantage of a high degree of anonymity online.
Then there are the social media that have become such a powerful part of the lives of adolescents. Even the most vigilant of parents have no hope of keeping up entirely with their children’s online lives and the toxic elements that reach their children through the conduit of a contrived, distorted, synthetic version of their own peer culture.
According to a 2021 Kaspersky study, fifty percent of parents use software to monitor and restrict their children’s activity online. Few studies take up the question of how effectively parents can hope to do this, but many reports indicate that teens can, to various degrees, defeat parental control apps. The most determined inevitably will.
This leaves at least slightly more than half of young people essentially unsupervised in a digital world whose content spans a spectrum from innocuous to toxic. Digital platforms have become part of everything in a child’s life from academic learning to entertainment to socializing.
To be certain, life itself brims with risks. We teach our children as conscientiously as we can how to minimize those risks, and ultimately, they have to make their way in the world beyond our reach and protection.
But in the forty years since I was my students’ age, our media culture has evolved in ways we could not have predicted. It has in some ways presented advantages for our lives; in others, it has vandalized our humanity.
And still, despite the digital saturation of the lives of most eighth-graders, despite the distraction posed by digital addiction and its affliction of growing numbers of students, despite the pollution of the social atmosphere in which these children are expected to develop as people, many students remain admirably functional in their classrooms and receptive to what their teachers present them. Generally speaking, most teachers will report that students are increasingly difficult to teach, but we might instead marvel that we can even still reach most of them at all.
For this reason, I have genuine respect for my students. I doubt my fourteen-year-old self would have fared nearly as well in the world they live in.