Increased use of technology, greater mental health challenges, and increased awareness of identity issues set this generation of tweens apart from those of the past.
I was visiting my parents in a suburb of Boston when the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. As I held my six-week-old son in my old bedroom, surrounded by soccer trophies and Raggedy Ann dolls, I struggled to make sense of the news. Even in my confused state, I sensed that my son’s childhood would be very different from my own.
I was right, though I couldn’t have predicted the magnitude or breadth of change. Every student I counsel or teach today was born after 9/11, and they’ve grown up amidst school shootings, the 24-7 news cycle, and rapid improvements in technology. Code red drills are both their normal and a source of stress. Their parents are more anxious, too, which may be contributing to a more protective parenting style. And as kids pick up on their parents’ unease, there’s an added element of emotional contagion.
By the time my youngest son was born in 2008, even more changes had come about. Now 10 years old, he doesn’t remember a world without iPads or cell phones.
And yet, whatever the changes happening around them, there are important ways in which tweens haven’t changed at all. The developmental phase is much the same for 21st-century middle schoolers as it was for those of us growing up in the 20th century. Just as I had to do in the 1980s, today’s young adolescents must figure out their identity and place in the world. As their prefrontal cortex develops, they’re malleable, impulsive, and impressionable. They’re capable of reasoning intellectually, interpreting emotions, and taking a moral stand, but they lack perspective or life experience. Sorting out social drama can consume large chunks of their time, and they tend to experience emotions in polarities. Any mishap can register as a catastrophe, and they have little understanding that negative feelings are temporary. They’re trying to figure out what coping skills work for them and where their strengths and interests align. They’re hyperaware of an invisible audience judging their every move and picking up on their shortcomings and limits. They can organize a rally for an important cause but forget to take a two-week-old banana out of their backpack. The same child who will jump from a cliff into a lake might be too self-conscious to raise his hand in class. It’s a time of insecurity, hormonal changes, and contradictions. The only other time a child experiences so much development is between birth and age two.
So how do these young people handle such transitions in a world that is changing at a similarly dizzying pace? We can’t predict the future for today’s tweens, but we do know the unique characteristics of their present-day life. This list is far from exhaustive and doesn’t fully account for socioeconomic, racial, and geographic differences, but here are three significant ways childhood for this generation of tweens is different from those of the past:
Technology is permeating every aspect of their lives.
Tucked among the memorabilia and dolls in my childhood bedroom is a shoebox containing all the notes I passed in junior high. Judging from the size and heft of the box, it’s a miracle I learned anything. But middle schoolers today have to contend with far more distractions and challenges, many of them related to technology. According to the Pew Research Center report Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018 (Anderson & Jiang, 2018), 45% of teens say they’re online “almost constantly.” That’s double the number in the previous Pew report.
On the social side, kids who are developmentally wired for adventure somehow have to preserve their reputation, stay safe, be kind, and make solid judgment calls online without the benefit of face-to-face social cues. Plus, there’s the potential for permanence in everything they do. When a few boys in my 7th-grade class smeared pats of butter on all the cars in the school parking lot in 1986, no one beamed it out to the world. We were just as prone to mischief and mistakes a generation ago, but our transgressions could fade into the ether.
The butter-smearing incident seems rather quaint today. Now, principals have to call police if a 12-year-old forwards a classmate’s nude snapshot across state lines and unknowingly violates child pornography laws. Technology has brought new avenues for harassment, too. One study found that more than 25% of middle schoolers reported being a victim of electronic dating aggression, and more than 10% said they were a perpetrator (Zweig et al., 2013). Kids must consider the long-term impact of more mundane behaviors, too. A couple of years ago, one of my 7th graders allowed his friends to record him swishing his head in a toilet for fun. I asked him, “Do you want that to be the image someone stumbles across when they’re considering your college application?” The thought had never occurred to him.
Further, while my generation didn’t have to worry about measuring up to Photoshopped and carefully curated images on social media, today’s kids are constantly contending with unrealistic ideals, and that’s taking a toll on their body image. Researchers at the University of Kentucky recently found that middle school girls and boys not only tend to feel dissatisfied with their bodies, but their negative feelings increase as they spend more time on social media. The study, which included an ethnically diverse focus group of 11- to 14-year-olds, also found that teens who reported posting more pictures on social media had a greater awareness of their appearance and a more negative perception of their body (Salomon & Brown, 2018).
On top of having to worry about things like cyberaggression and sexting, today’s kids are faced with more distractions, and many are toggling inefficiently between homework and technology. Simply having a phone on hand in class can affect students’ grades. A study in Educational Psychology found a causal link between students’ use of cell phones in class and lower exam scores (Glass & Kang, 2018). Kids are losing sleep because of technology, too. For some, it feels rude to drop out of a group chat, even if it’s 1 a.m. and they’re exhausted. Others have difficulty disengaging from gaming or other online interests.
Technology is even changing the age-old phenomenon of cheating. A 2009 Common Sense Media survey found that 35% of teens with cell phones admitted to cheating with them at least once. Half of those polled admitted to cheating using the internet, while 38% had plagiarized work from websites. And according to a survey by McAfee, a computer security firm, 29% of students admit to using tech devices to cheat in school (Cortez, 2017).
The internet also is exposing kids to darker and more mature information earlier, whether it’s pornography or graphic images of a school shooting. According to Break the Cycle, the average age of first exposure to pornography is now around age 11. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that 42% of a sample of 1,500 internet users ages 10 to 17 had seen porn in the prior year, with two-thirds reporting only unwanted exposure (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2007). When kids see something they know is “off-limits,” they may be reluctant to ask adults to help them understand it, so many are getting their information (or misinformation) from fellow 8th graders.
Whatever the changes happening around them, there are important ways in which tweens haven’t changed at all.
On the plus side, there’s less incentive to memorize facts when most information can be Googled, which means kids are more likely to focus on making connections across ideas and thinking outside the box. With half of all U.S. jobs at risk of being automated in the coming years, kids will need to be able to think critically, innovate, and solve problems to perform the new jobs that emerge. Schools are reacting with more experiential learning, too. Middle schools in the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in New Jersey, for example, dedicate a week to creating an action plan to tackle a real-world issue, such as global health, education, or gender equality. The Soundings program in the Radnor Township School District in Pennsylvania challenges 8th graders to work on selected global issues for a whole year.
Mental health issues carry less of a stigma, but kids are less resilient.
The good news is that parents have become more forthcoming about their children’s mental health struggles, whether they’re disclosing a diagnosis or a therapist’s treatment plan. They’re also more honest about struggles at home, such as a divorce or job loss. At the same time, however, kids have become less resilient and feel less in control of their fate, at least in part because parents tend to afford them less freedom and autonomy than in the past.
Many parents perceive increased threats to their kids’ safety, work too many hours to facilitate self-directed play, or find it easier to sign up for organized activities and sports than to help their children manage their own schedules. Further, many are hyper-involved in their kids’ lives in an attempt to shield them from failure and secure them a bright future by pushing them to outcompete their peers. And this isn’t confined to achievement-oriented communities alone. When the Making Caring Common Project (2014) surveyed youth across a wide spectrum of races, cultures, and classes, a large majority valued achievement and happiness over concern for others. The researchers noted that part of the problem may be the gap between parents’ rhetoric and the real messages their actions convey to their kids about their priorities: 80% of the students said their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.”
In contrast, as a middle schooler in the 1980s in suburban Boston, I’d play neighborhood games of Capture the Flag that seem almost mythical now. My own kids’ lives are far more constricted. In my suburb of Washington, D.C., I could drive the neighborhood streets for hours without encountering one unattended child. There are of course exceptions (and, as Annette Lareau describes in this issue of Kappan, significant differences between growing up in more and less affluent neighborhoods), but large numbers of us have collectively altered the way we parent.
There’s a parallel in schools, too. Increasingly, recess has been sacrificed to make room for more testing and other state mandates. In many schools, educators and coaches tell kids what to do every minute of the day, depriving them of opportunities to learn problem-solving skills, develop a sense of agency, resolve conflicts, and build confidence. Thankfully, some organizations, such as the Let Grow Foundation, are pushing back, helping school districts incorporate more time for play into the schedule, and growing numbers of educators are coming to understand that when we deprive kids of play, we put them at risk for depression and anxiety.
But still, there’s plenty of reason to be concerned about middle schoolers’ mental health. The American Psychological Association (2018) surveyed more than 3,000 teens and found that they were far more likely than adults to report poor mental health. In a survey of 22,000 high schoolers conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Born This Way Foundation (2015), 29% of students surveyed said they felt stressed. According to a study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, more than 1 in 5 kids had current anxiety or depression in 2011-2012 (Bitsko et al., 2018). And according to a report just released by the Pew Research Center (Horowitz & Graf, 2019), 70% of teens surveyed “see anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers.” Meanwhile, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled in the United States from 2007 to 2014 (Curtin et al., 2018). But when it comes to access to mental health care, there are great disparities among states. The prevalence of depressed youth who don’t get treatment ranges from 45.8% in Connecticut to 71.3% in Texas. Overall, 61.5% of kids with major depression get no mental health treatment at all (Mental Health America, 2019).
Here too, though, there is also some good news to report: More schools are incorporating social-emotional learning into the curriculum and are proactively teaching coping strategies. For example, the Signs of Suicide program, which has been adopted in numerous middle schools across the country, trains students to recognize and care for at-risk peers and seek adult help. The Youth Mental Health First Aid Program, part of the National Council for Behavioral Health, teaches educators to respond effectively to children in emotional crisis. Some schools are integrating curricula such as the Resilience Builder Program, which teaches kids how to make positive interpersonal connections and be proactive in the face of challenges. And some middle schools are even reevaluating their structures and programming to better meet the developmental needs of kids this age. Project Success, for instance, has been implemented in two public middle schools in Montgomery County, Md., to ease vulnerable students’ transition to middle school. Kids in the program take core classes with one consistent teacher and cohort of classmates, and the data show they feel more engaged in learning and have a greater sense of belonging.
Hate is rising to the surface, but there’s also more focus on identity work.
Several middle school boys approached me about 18 months ago about starting a group where they could talk about what it means to be a boy today. They felt compelled to push back against societal messages telling them to be tough and to conceal deep feelings. As the researcher Joseph Nelson has noted (Fagell, 2018), boys are getting the message, “Stand up for yourself, be tough, don’t let anyone disrespect you, don’t act like a girl, don’t pick a girlfriend over your friends, don’t show sadness. Particularly for low-income black and Latino boys, so much of their physical safety is dependent on whether they’re perceived as weak.”
In the era of #MeToo, more parents and schools are asking whether we’re doing enough as a society to raise emotionally healthy boys, and boys themselves are worrying more about being viewed as potential predators. I see this as a hinge era. On the one hand, we’re seeing an uptick in racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, but we’re also seeing heightened interest in Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) and other affinity groups. This is a positive development. LGBTQ+ kids are particularly vulnerable to bullying whenever hate rises to the surface, but fewer than half of LGBTQ+ students report that their school has a GSA or other club that explores LGBTQ+ issues, and the number of such groups is lower for LGBTQ+ students of color and students in the South, small towns, and rural areas (GLSEN, 2007). According to a GLSEN school climate survey, in middle schools with GSAs, students hear fewer homophobic remarks, feel safer, and are less likely to be bullied.
In the era of #MeToo, more parents and schools are asking whether we’re doing enough as a society to raise emotionally healthy boys, and boys themselves are worrying more about being viewed as potential predators.
Overall, I’ve observed more parents and schools expressing interest in building kids’ character, prioritizing authentic inclusion, and encouraging moral action. In the age of the selfie, more adults are recognizing that we need to de-emphasize “likes” on social media and spend more time underscoring the importance of empathy. Middle schoolers have always been tuned into justice and fairness, but today’s tweens are perhaps even more likely to take on an activist role, whether they lobby for gun control, the environment, or immigration rights. A quick internet search will uncover countless examples, such as the 8th grader with alopecia, Sanah Jivani, who founded Natural Day, a movement to end insecurity, or the 14-year-old with autism, Chris Miller, who created a superhero alter ego with an anti-bullying message.
The more things change . . .
In some ways, kids are growing up faster today. Parents can no longer shield their children from bad news, particularly if they’re carrying a computer in their pocket. In other ways, they’re growing up slower. As they spend more time communicating online, they’re spending less time together experimenting, taking risks, and dating. That said, some aspects of being this age haven’t changed at all. A principal once told me that he loves this age group because the same child can present as 13 going on three, or 13 going on 30. No matter how much their landscape changes, that’s as true today as it was a generation ago.
American Psychological Association. (2018, October). Stress in America: Generation Z. Washington, DC: Author.
Anderson, M. & Jiang, J. (2018, May 31). Teens, social media, and technology 2018. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
Bitsko, R., Holbrook, J., Ghandour, R.M., Blumberg, S.J., Visser, S.N., Perou, R., & Walkup, J.T. (2018). Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 39 (5), 1.
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Cortez, M.B. (2017, September 22). McAfee finds teenagers use tech to cheat in school. EdTech.
Curtin S.C., Heron, M., Miniño, A.M., & Warner, M. (2018). Recent increases in injury mortality among children and adolescents aged 10-19 years in the United States: 1999-2016. National Vital Statistics Reports, 67 (4).
Fagell, P. (2018, February 14). 10 ways to help boys form the close friendships they crave. The Washington Post.
Glass, A.L. & Kang, M. (2018). Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance. Educational Psychology.
GLSEN. (2007). Gay-Straight Alliances: Creating safer schools for LGBT students and their allies (GLSEN Research Brief). New York, NY: Author.
Horowitz, J.M. & Graf, N. (2019). Most U.S. teens see anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers. Pew Research Center: Washington, DC. http://bit.ly/teenSurvey19
Making Caring Common Project. (2014). The children we mean to raise: The real messages adults are sending about values. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Mental Health America. (2019). The state of mental health in America. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Salomon, I. & Brown, C.S. (2018). The selfie generation: Examining the relationship between social media use and early adolescent body image. The Journal of Early Adolescence.
Wolak, J., Mitchell, K., & Finkelhor, D. (2007). Unwanted and wanted exposure to online pornography in a national sample of youth internet users. Pediatrics, 119 (2), 247-257.
Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence & Born This Way Foundation. (2015). Emotion Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
Zweig, J.M., Dank, M., Lachman, P. & Yahner, J. (2013) Technology, teen dating violence and abuse, and bullying. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.
Citation: Fagell, P.L (2019). How childhood has changed for tweens. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (7), 8-12.