NANCY’S BLOG: (in)visible Teens.

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It’s always exciting to talk about big shifts and how to tackle complex problems with bold ingenuity, but when we look to the future, one giant topic demands more of our attention than it often gets: the health and well-being of today’s youth.

This week we focus our attention on those poised to inherit our past and create our future: teens. And in the process invite us all into a new conversation about what it might take to build more supportive structures and attitudes.   

Let’s step back from a moment and imagine what it must be like to be raised by a mom wired to look at trajectories and who helps all kinds of organizations create meaningful paths to the future. There isn’t a topic my tribe of three beautiful children ages 11, 14 and as of last week, 18(!) are afraid to dive into. Yet, I know that there are many needs that are still invisible. And many concerns we often focus much too much attention on at the expense of others.

Similarly, as a society, are we worrying about the most relevant things? And are our behaviors and systems truly setting this generation up for happiness and success? I wonder….

 I spent yesterday with 800 teens

A champion for the power of big ideas, I created a TEDx event for youth ages 11-18  (how perfect, right?). The third annual experience took place yesterday in Austin for nearly 1000 folks. It was themed (in)visible and an amazing line-up of speakers shed light on what we might not currently see–from a college professor who chose to live in a dumpster for a year to a computational neuroscientist, an AI specialist and a psychologist who helps her colleagues at Intel see hidden patterns in language. We also heard from three stunning young adults’ including a KONY/LRA survivor and a 17 year old magazine publisher, who are already leading significant change. During the break, thirteen kids got to make their business ideas visible to our city’s most innovative entrepreneurs.

This is all created with a rotating 50 person Youth-led, Adult-mentored team and each year I learn a lot about what these kids crave, how capable they truly are, and how current systems + structures support them (and don’t). As we think about what it takes to program a meaningful event, I’m curious to better understand the world around them. Here are some staggering numbers:

According to the CDC, in the US, 8% of all kids in grades 9-12 attempt to kill themselves every year. As frigtening, 16% actively consider suicide and 13% actually make a plan. 

Really?! I hope those numbers outrage you, too! What is happening? How is it possible that we aren’t talking more about it?

A closer look: “a generation plagued with insecurity, anxiety and despair”

The Pew Research study on Millennials has been quoted quite a bit in the past few years. I’ve used the “confident, connected, and open to change.” description in many presentations. So what is going on? And importantly, what about the group of post-Millennial teens we have yet to collectively brand with a clever cohort description?

Gratefully, I bumped into this article on teen pressure. As described by the author, a long time educator:

Beneath their energy and commitment to building a better world, though, is stretched, for too many, a fragile membrane that is easily punctured. We have raised a generation that is plagued with insecurity, anxiety and despair…

He goes on to quote eye-opening research from various studies that show:

… self-reports of emotional well being have fallen to the lowest levels in 25 year study… fifty percent of college students report feelings of hopelessness; one-third reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function in the last twelve months … They are stressed-out, over-pressured; [they exhibit] toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness, and isolation.

And that:

Preteens from affluent, well-educated families… experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country. As many as 22 percent of adolescent girls from financially comfortable families suffer from clinical depression. 

As society and the rules of the economic game continue to shift, what role do technology, our education structures, and nervous parents play? And what can we all do to stop the madness?

 “Put away that Papyrus”: teens and screens

More than 9 out of 10 American teenagers use social media, and according to Pew Research, fully 95% of all teens ages 12-17 are now online. Digital communication is not just a part of teenagers lives—it is teenagers lives.

There is very mixed debate around the value of so much screen time. Does it make youth more isolated or more connected? While on the one hand, secret photo sharing apps can wreak havoc, high school student Samantha Goodyear wrote an article for Huff Post recently (The Power Of Social Media) that argues rather than demonizing the overt use of social media, there’s another side to the story. In her words, “the youth of today have a voice like we never have before…”

Meanwhile, as school districts continue fiery debates on the use of technology in classrooms and as parents struggle with how to engage their seemingly screen-addicted kids, we offer this thoughtful perspective on “kids and their darn gadgets (grumble grumble)”  from our friend, collaborator and successful tech and cultural innovator, Arthur Brock:

Most [complaints] are said by folks who are very well-intentioned, really caring for the kids and wishing the best for them. But I am so sick of hearing this kind of blind and backward obliviousness to what is probably the most important type of skills and literacy for children today. 

… I can just picture our primitive ancestors complaining about how their kids are wasting their time playing with those silly sticks (bows and arrows) all day instead of practicing swinging big clubs and lifting big rocks for crushing predators and prey. “They’ll never be able to survive if they don’t focus on the basics of rocks and clubs.” (As if they’re difficult to learn.) 

And in early civilizations, I can see the angry parents complaining about kids wasting their time scribbling shapes in clay and on papyrus, when they should be learning the times, rhythms, and skills of planting. Meanwhile their child climbs the ranks of the priesthood or aristocracy by gaining access to the knowledge of the whole civilization. 

Talk about anti-social behavior! Think of those terrible 17th Century youth spending hours a day lost in books and frivolous fantasy worlds when they should be plowing fields / weaving baskets / thatching roofs / planing wood / laying bricks / etc. “They just have their noses stuck in a book!”  Of course, then those lazy youth go on to create the Renaissance and lay the foundations of modern Science and Academics.

Hmm! Fair enough… and on the topic of social isolation, Arthur continues:

In fact, just because they’re not interacting with you, doesn’t mean they’re not being social. For most kids, modern device use is naturally social. …

They learn extensive skills in collaboration, cooperation and co-creation… Together they build elaborate worlds, machines, and creations in Minecraft, SIMS and other digital frontiers.  I regularly witness kids working out social tensions and dynamics in those worlds, where one destroys another’s virtual creation and they play out the drama of hurt feelings and reconciliation just as if it was a valued possession without any physical harm coming to anyone or anything. 

Many kids actually discover a greater sense of belonging and acceptance for who they are and what they care about in online communities than in their classrooms, schools or neighborhoods.  And there’s nothing anti-social about this. Rather than becoming alienated and isolated because they feel different or don’t belong, they have an opportunity to find out there are others with whom they do belong. If only one out of a thousand people care about the stuff you’re into, that means there are literally millions of people you can find online who care about it too. 

From what I’ve observed, the antidote to too much screen time isn’t restrictions as much as it is giving youth a big juicy project to dive into and a way to apply all that creative energy. Our TEDxYouth@Austin team is invited to create a very real production – and one that is broadcast live to the world. They design everything: the logo, the program, the line-up, and an extensive xLabs intellectual playground. They manage logistics, registration, partner outreach + expectations, the cameras and a really tight budget. They learn to work as a distributed, cross-generational team while finding their own voices, talents and curiosities. There are no grades, AP tests, trophies or community service credits to earn. The currency exchange is mentorship for commitment with a shared desire for impact. I watch talents be expressed here that would have no other place to be seen. The loyalty forged is deep.

Which makes me often wonder, do we really see who these kids are? And appreciate all they are so capable of?

The 21st Century Youthquake

As this excerpt from a Forbes article states, “Think about it. A 17-year-old girl wins the Nobel Peace prize becoming the youngest person ever to receive the prestigious award.” The cover of TIME magazine features a teenage activist in the democracy movement in Hong Kong. Vogue magazine coins a new term, featuring a generation of “InstaGirls” on its September cover.” Inspired by a roster of young speakers who’ve all started their own businesses and who want to inspire others to do the same, TEDx Teen talks have now been viewed more than 8 million times across 141 countries.

Youths are vocal, activist, optimistic and boldly forging their own paths faster than you can say Snapchat, but not all are as visible as the group above. Take David Saddington for example, who shaped UK government policy by getting climate change on the national agenda with a media campaign that reached 3 million people, leading to him setting up his own environmental enterprise. 15-year-old Erik Finman turned a $1,000 inheritance from his grandmother into $100,000 and a thriving company that pairs students looking for work experience with interns. And Ocean Maranda, who at 17-years-old has started her own national magazine called REAL, aimed at using mainstream media and celebrity to give voice to the next generation around big social change issues (yep, she was a speaker yesterday). And this is merely three…

So what do we really need to teach?

We are at a point in time where many adolescents understand that the future is less defined than promised.  And that the education system designed to prepare them has not kept pace with the skills and knowledge necessary to thrive and succeed in a new global knowledge economy. Exploring new models of schools that are motivating and inspiring today’s generation to solve tough problems, education expert Tony Wagner, author of  ‘The Global Achievement Gap‘, believes that a dynamic and engaging approach to teaching is the key to children’s success—one that will produce “strong economies and vibrant democracies.”

This approach can be seen in action all around the world as nations are actively reforming their education systems to encourage greater innovation, creativity and participation. While these shifts may seem excruciatingly slow, the good news is that there are alternative learning models cropping up everywhere.

From the Agile Learning Centers (founded by Arthur), to the Alt School in San Francisco, many are establishing new and more student-centered, humanistic platforms for educating and empowering youth. And while a range of extra-curricular offerings is filling the gap for co-creation and innovation, why should all this start after the bell rings? Perhaps this what is driving the desire to opt out altogether to pursue the most agile learning of all…. unschooling.

Channelling our anxiety differently…

Every week parents tell me how worried they are about the future. They know the world is changing and want so much for their children to be prepared. Unfortunately much of that anxiety is channeled into pushing for placement in top tier, increasingly competitive schools – at every age. In the hopes that a prestigious degree from the best university will guarantee success (the definition of is very much in flux, isn’t it?), “engaged” parents game the Advanced Placement system, drive their kids crazy long distances each day, hire test prep instructors and videographers to tape sports practice… and so much more. Much of which may be having the exact opposite effect for many kids – robbing them of discovering their own curiosities, passions and the reassurance that those who love them most really see who they are.

No doubt, I can be every bit the “tiger mom”. But learning all this has changed me. When my son, the co-captain, State-bound champion begged to quit the varsity wrestling team, I re-read the first article above and agreed. When my other asked to drain his bank account to build his own computer, I sat back to see what would happen (he did it!). And though I can only watch so many episodes of Dance Moms, I marvel at my 11 year old daughter’s ability to manipulate any photo, video or song …on her phone. She is 10x the editor I wish to be.

So, as the opening article provokes, imagine shifting the questions we focus on.

Truth is, we know full well that lasting happiness springs from good health, solid values, meaningful work, multiple positive relationships, and selfless service. So how about we cease and desist on the pressure front – and get our eye back on the ball that matters – stop asking What (What grade did you get? What team did you make?) and begin asking Who, Where, and How?

  1. Who tells us who we are?
  2. Where do we want to go with our lives?
  3. How do we want to get there?

My closing remarks to the kids yesterday offered the wish that the day had inspired them to do just two things:  1. unleash their unique curiosity and 2. strengthen the sense of their own agency, for that is what the future most needs from all of us.

Wishing you a provocative week in which all that is important to you becomes equally visible.


Nancy + Emma

Stories we pinpointed last week:

Teens And Screens

The 21st Century Youthquake Is Here

The Troubled Side Of Teens

Which to Foster: Skill vs Will?

Kids and Their Darn Gadgets 

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