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Teenage Wasteland

Aug 22, 2019 | Featured

#BringBackOurGirls. Remember that one?? Salma Hayek, Michele Obama… it was front page news and a global scandal. Girls had been robbed of their right to an education, and it seemed even possibly to even life itself. Over 200 girls stolen from us –we were outraged.

We need that same righteous fury right now. We are losing millions of girls, perilously standing with one foot on the bank of childhood, unable to make the challenging journey to adulthood. Never has the crossing been more difficult and more dreaded. In fact, today’s adolescent girls are more depressed, anxious and alone than ever. We are losing them, and we need to fix this. Now.

What’s killing them? Simply put, its loneliness. It’s a killer. Literally. According to the US Surgeon General, acute loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And it is consuming our youth. Let’s look at some stats. Mary Pipher, author of the big impact book: ”Reviving Opehlia” co-wrote an op-ed piece in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal sounding the alarm and sharing some theories. She quotes a recent survey by the Pew Research Center which reported that 36% of girls feel extremely anxious every day. Childline, an adolescent support line in the UK, delivered 4,636 counseling sessions responding specifically to loneliness in 2017-2018, a 14% increase on the previous year, with 80% of these sessions given to girls. A recent article in The Atlantic Magazine reports more of the same. “The number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups. Like the increase in loneliness, the upswing in feeling left out has been swift and significant. This trend has been especially steep among girls. Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27 percent more boys.” And finally, a recent study by Cigna health, which surveyed over 20,000 Americans had a similar theme, reporting that the overall national loneliness score was alarmingly high at 44 on a 20-to-80 scale, but the prevalence of social isolation among those ages 18 to 22 raises even more concern. The younger people had loneliness scores of about 48 compared with nearly 39 for those 72 and older.

So how did we get here? With all of our connection devices, why are our girls, in particular, so isolated and alone? I point to a new two-headed Hydra: a monster made of social media, and the elimination of the generation gap. Yup – along with the known dangers and aggression of social media content, we need to look at the seemingly more evolved parenting trends today. The increased respect parents have for privacy and self-exploration needs of today’s teen, along with our own cellphone addictions have served to consign our kids to an echo chamber of insecurity and isolation. As certainly as leaving a four-year-old alone with a set of china, we are guaranteeing a disaster. We just aren’t listening to the sounds of the crash.

Today’s teen is experiencing fear and doubt on hyperdrive. School shootings, environmental crises, staggering college debt, and sexual assaults are delivered to their phones in an unceasing torrent. The other source of anxiety? POMO. Proof of missing out. Today’s kids don’t worry about being the one left out – the loser, the loner; they KNOW they are. In a recent ethnographic study I conducted on social media use, young teen girls shared that they track their friends’ phones, so they know when others get together without them. Mix that in with media’s endless focus on looks and likes, and you leave them despondent and harshly self critical. With proof in hand that they don’t measure up, they create vapidly cheerful social personas as sort of avatars to virtually live the lives they can’t. And, of course, because these personas are not real, they become de facto jailers. Our girls crouch at home, sacrificing self to the gods of social approval.

Today’s parents are savvy and understanding; in fact, many girls report their mothers as their best friends. Close knit families are on the rise as divorce rates drop to a 40-year low. But that very closeness and real empathy might actually be adding to the black hole of space in which teens suffer. Fourteen-year-olds today head to their room to connect with 2,000 of their closest friends – car keys no longer required. And mom, their bestie, understands these needs, and so she shuts the door. Leaving an unformed mind to unpack a tsunami of taunts, terror and tight bikini bodies as best it can. It seems both sides are horrifically unequipped for the monster in our midst.

What’s the fix? There are no easy answers here, but there are some ideas. One 17-year-old UK teen stated it quite baldly: “I think some parents are so worried about seeming intrusive that it becomes difficult for their kids to get close. We want to be able to talk to our parents. We really rely on their guidance.” Smart phones are here. That genie is out of the bottle. But we all can take turns holding it. Parenting is not simply understanding. Parenting is about doing everything in our power to prepare the next generation for rich and vibrant lives. It is our job, and the job of every corporate content creator. We need to provide an alternative avenue of connection and purpose for our youth.

A few days ago, in a new statement about the purpose of the corporation, the Business Roundtable, which represents the chief executives of 192 large companies, said business leaders should commit to balancing the needs of shareholders with customers, employees, suppliers and local communities.

Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) called it “a welcome step toward a more moral capitalism” while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it “agreed wholeheartedly with the renewed focus.” Perhaps part of this commitment should be providing processes and places to encourage young people to come together, physically, in places that teach them skills, offer chances to serve, and to safely explore who they might be. Can you imagine if American Eagle really offered an ‘Aerie’ where girls could gather? If Target subsidized a clubhouse for budding fashion designers, or home designers, with mentors on tap? If Tasty partnered with Wal-Mart, not just on in-app delivery, but in actual physical spaces for cooking classes? What if we collectively created spaces to support individuality and create experiences that kids go to, and then share about? What if we raised our kids together?

#BringBackOurGirls failed on a lot of levels. Hashtags are NOT movements, but they can raise awareness. #SaveOurGirls should be a thing. We need these kids. And funnily enough, they need us too.

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