I recently spent some time considering what weighs down the spirits of my youth. I found myself sitting with a large mixed group of grandparents, teachers, leaders and teenagers. As we chatted, the adults found themselves quizzing the teens about what the most difficult thing about teenage life today is.
The ensuing conversation between the different generations in this diverse group was fascinating, and I decided to interview four individuals involved in it to get their opinions on the most difficult challenge that they think teenagers today face.
For this article, I interviewed Grace, a fourteen-year-old high school freshman; Graham, a youth leader in his mid-twenties; Jesse, a principal; and Terri, a grandmother. All four are actively involved in my church and school, and all three adults work with children and teenagers every day. The distinctions in their candid answers reveal much about how different ages view the problems teens face, and how they attempt to deal with them.
When I asked fourteen-year-old Grace to share what the hardest thing about being a teenager today is, she said without hesitation, “Social media. Social status matters so much today, and it’s all about how you handle yourself on social media.” As Grace explained how challenging it is to try to stay connected online and on her phone, she described a seemingly constant barrage of Instagram and Twitter interactions, SnapChat notifications and text messages pouring in at all hours of the day.
As Grace told me, “Most teenagers try to put on a ‘bad boy’ face online, or try to act cool. Most kids now post pictures of them drinking [alcohol] or in their skimpy bathing suits. Social media makes you have to weed through everything to find out what people are really doing or who they really are. It’s hard to try to fit in. You pretty much put on a face on social media just to try to fit in. Your social status depends on your social media standing.” And, she adds quietly, “There’s a lot of bullying on social media. It’s always going on.”
According to Jesse, a principal, “I don’t think the pressures facing teenagers have changed all that much; it’s still probably peer pressure. I think teens feel all the social media pressure, wanting to have 9 million likes.” As Jesse considered the differences between adults and teens, he recounted, “People my age worry about the economy, but I don’t think teens worry about that at all. They still think a lot about themselves, and they think about the things that affect them socially or what group they’re in. Teens ask themselves, ‘What do people think of me?’” As Jesse pointed out, the pressures of caring deeply tend to affect middle schoolers even more profoundly than any other age group.
Terri, a grandmother, believes that the biggest struggle teens face today is desiring to be older than they really are. As she says, “It’s accelerated in this generation, and I think a lot of that has to do with social media, phones and tablets and computers. Everything is thrown at these kids at a much earlier age than when I was a child. When I was a teen, I was still wearing one -piece bathing suits—now you look at these kids and what they’re wearing as young teens, and you wonder what they’re going to be wearing at 17 or 18.” She shares her fears for what this generation is really consuming, citing the fact that they have virtually unlimited access to a lot of dark content online.
According to Terri, today’s teens have no clue about relaxing and having fun with their childhood. As she says, “I think it’s scary you don’t realize that you’re in the best time of life, where you should be simply enjoying life. In a few years, you have to be working and paying bills and having responsibilities, and kids are flying through these precious years.”
When I spoke with Graham, a youth leader who works regularly with teens, he shared his opinion on what today’s teenagers are struggling with. “I think it’s all about the struggle for significance. Teens have associated fame–and particularly web fame–with significance, so that’s where teens are struggling. They’re worried about putting out a next video that people will like, or what will be captivating about the pictures or statuses they’re posting.” As he succinctly summarized, “They’re battling a crave for significance, but looking in all the wrong places.”
Naturally, I was curious about what adults can possibly do to help teenagers with this issue of pressure. I asked Grace, Jesse, Terri and Graham to weigh in on how they think we can best alleviate the stress on our students.
As Grace laughed, she explained, “Adults don’t understand our world! Really, the best way to help us is to give us restrictions. For instance, when you have a mission trip or a small group meeting, have us meet face-to-face and just talk without being on our phones at all. Get us onto teams, get us involved in missions and get us into service for others. Give us something else to think about rather than ourselves.”
Terri agrees with Grace’s advice, saying, “I think it’s important to get kids involved in sports, youth group at church or any extra-curricular activity to keep them busy and out of trouble. Unfortunately, parenthood doesn’t come with a manual–no one tells you, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do.’”
In Jesse’s opinion, it’s all about turning kids to Jesus. “I think we need to let kids know that they’re loved. It’s not about a number or a score, it’s that they have parents who love them and a God who loves them. It’s hard for them to understand because they’re all caught up in it. We need to encourage them to take a breath, and not worry when they’re the one being made fun of. We need to listen to them, and give them support when they need it.”It’s all about turning kids to Jesus. Click To Tweet
Graham echoes this, saying, “It certainly comes down to the spiritual dynamic of a family and understanding your significance in Christ. Social media has given parents an ‘out’ because they feel that their family doesn’t have to do as many things together. Families don’t spend as much time growing and getting to know each other, but it’s important to be present. Eat meals together, catch up with your kids, have that spiritual leadership within the home and understand that your spiritual significance is in Christ.”
As leaders, we are uniquely poised to offer the Gospel to students—a point that all four people I interviewed heartily agreed on. As Graham says, “The world is going to reiterate that their significance needs to be in so many other things, but we offer that foundation of Truth.”
It’s one of our greatest joys that we can share God’s goodness, love and mercy with students freely—they desperately need to hear it as they face pressure. As 2 Timothy 4:2 reminds us, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.”
How can we use these challenges to “correct, rebuke and encourage”? As our teens struggle to live up to the expectations placed on them by the world, we can remind them that the only expectations that truly matter are those placed on us by God. We all fall short of those expectations, but through repentance and confession, we receive forgiveness of sins and are made right with God. For youth who have been baptized, we can remind them of that Baptism and their new identity in Christ. Through confession and absolution and the Lord’s Supper, they receive God’s forgiveness and are strengthened for Christian life in a very unchristian world.
Be encouraged to share God’s abundant love with those around you, especially your teens, as they tackle stress and frustration, fear and failure in their daily lives. No matter what pressures they’re facing—the stress of growing up too soon, keeping up appearances on social media, or handling their peers—they’re all in need of the love of Jesus Christ in their lives.