Bzzz. Glurb-glurb-glurb. Bzzz.
That dial-up tone was unmistakable.
I vividly recall the first time I sat in a group chat online, in the early days of widespread Internet access. As a middle schooler, I marveled at the ability to type messages back and forth with strangers all over the world.
My twelve-year-old self sat in bed that night, wondering what the future held in store. “What a time in history to be alive,” I thought to myself.
Fast-forward nearly two decades, and much has changed in the world around us.
As I daily interact with students, I’m struck with the realization that kids throughout history have faced the same challenges. Every child in every generation has struggled with navigating the path to adulthood, forming friendships, dealing with heartbreak, gaining independence, and making their own decisions.
Conversely, though, every wave of humanity deals with trials unique to their generation. Advancing technology, social justice, trends and changing norms have shaped every group of children differently. As an adult, I carefully observe what affects my students, and seek to understand the world they’re growing up in so I can best share the truths they need to know in a manner that intersects with their lives.
With keen insight, my high school students recently opened up to me about what worries them about their generation, in the hope that the adults around them get a glimpse into where they need our support and assistance.
According to my students, here are the top five things that worry students about their own generation:
We’re more distracted than ever.
“Technology gets in the way of God,” explained one of my students. “It’s hard to pray or concentrate because all of our time is either centered on us being on social media or on our phones.”
Observant teenagers have commented to me about distraction for years, and it sometimes overwhelms them. “We’re learning new stuff and we’re trying to discover and advance,” shared another student. “It’s not bad, but it can take control over our lives.”
We cannot fault this generation for their distractions when we share the blame in contributing to the gaggle of electronic and technological advancements that impact their lives. But if our goal is healthy, well-rounded adults who are mentally and emotionally capable of independently handling their lives, we must take our role as mentors seriously.
Our solution to assisting this distracted generation? Model times of solitude, starting at a young age. Give students opportunities to put their phone down, not just on vibrate. Allow them the chance to sit quietly and journal, pray silently, and reflect thoughtfully on Scripture on their own.
Don’t guilt today’s teenagers about being distracted, because it’s the only reality they’ve ever known. Instead, patiently work through it together—and put your own phone down on occasion, too.
Our priorities are all wrong.
“Our priorities are different than any other generation,” claimed one high schooler. “Followers, likes, updating my status—they aren’t the things that really matter. We live in virtual reality: we think our cell phone is more important than what’s going on around us.”
Many students recognize these misplaced priorities in their generation, worrying about ramifications in their future. I’ve listened to teens question if they can really handle life’s challenges, and wonder if their priorities are misguided. As one student told me, “We cope by making every bad situation into something lighthearted. We are the ‘meme generation’.”
Adults must help guide formative minds to the truth that Christ alone matters. In Jesus, we have forgiveness, redemption, acceptance, joy, hope, and identity. He completes the longings in our hearts, gives purpose to our days, and provides comfort in the midst of suffering.
In contrast to a generation drowning in shallow, fleeting distractions, the powerful anchor of Christ outlasts any meme, fad, or iPhone.
Our habits are destructive.
“A lot of kids don’t understand simple joy or simple happiness. They don’t play outside, and they don’t talk to their family,” explained one of my teenagers. “Virtually no one has family night. We’re rarely ever in the same place at the same time.”
In a world driven to near insanity by distractions and commitments, our students are longing for real relationships and experiences that give them purpose. But most students deal with family and friends just as busy and distracted as them, and find themselves mindlessly going through the motions of routines that bore them.
Many teens are already well aware that their bad habits will set them up dangerously for lifetime habits they don’t want to have.
How do we combat destructive habits in the lives of our students? We help reframe their worldviews. Seek to broaden teen’s day-to-day life with experiences that stretch them and expose them to new things, like mission trips, service projects, and outreach to others. Let these moments show them a world beyond their phones, computer addictions, and soccer practices, and give them fresh eyes to appreciate the blessings they have.
In the last year, my own youth have been utterly transformed by serving in unlikely places like pediatric nursing homes, kids’ cancer treatment centers, homeless centers, and with our local brain tumor alliance. Don’t underestimate the power of experience to change lives.
Our social skills are weak.
“People think we’re connected, but we’re not really communicating,” confessed one frustrated student. “I feel so much less connected. You can be connected to certain things, but you’re not actually connected to the people around you.”
One only needs to sit in a roomful of teenagers to realize this is a problem. Today’s kids struggle to talk to each other without a screen in their hands. Whether they’re looking at Instagram, snapping pictures and sharing them, or watching a YouTube video, they’re constantly hiding behind technology as a crutch in nearly every conversation they have.
In order to strengthen our students’ social skills, we must encourage (and sometimes force) teenagers to engage face-to-face. I make peer discussion a priority at every youth event I have, whether we’re driving in a van or sitting in daily religion class. I use every opportunity to put kids in a circle so they can look each other in the eye to speak.
Model eye contact, verbal affirmations, and encourage students to respond, debate, and speak out loud. Allow time for group activities and social downtime, affirming the bonding that happens in the flesh.
We hide our loneliness.
“Our generation is secretly lonely,” chimed one teenager as I quizzed my youth. “A lot of people have virtual friends, but feel alone when they’re around people.”
It may seem hard to believe when you see teens with thousands of followers on social media, but many of today’s students feel isolated. “I’m used to staring at a screen,” explained one of my teens. “I don’t socialize well. I feel alone.”
In silence, loneliness manifests in destructive ways, including anxiety, self-harm, and obsession. As adults, we need to call out loneliness. In recognizing it, we shine light into the crippling darkness of silence on the subject. Be authentic and honest about it, because the chances are that you, too, can relate to feeling alone.
Strive to provide a safe place for your youth to truthfully wrestle with the issues they’re facing, without fear of judgment. Remind students that we are never alone, as we’re reminded by Jesus in Matthew 28:20b, “And surely, I am always with you always, to the very end of the age.”
In this moment, in the lives of the students around us, we have incredible opportunities to positively impact lives—and an entire generation–for eternity.
What a time in history to be alive, indeed.