Disney+, detachment from technology, and meme culture are just a few of the things dominating teen culture this month. Now that Thanksgiving has ended and Christmas is just around the corner — not to mention a new year and a new decade — teens are rounding out this semester steeped in entertainment that makes them feel safe, ongoing consciousness of what their phones are doing to them, and learning to cope with the tougher realities of the world through jokes and sarcasm.
When asked what they’re watching, it will come as no surprise that today’s teens don’t respond with specific channels or cable TV series’ that they enjoy. Instead, they’ve been naming oldies but goodies on some of their favorite streaming services — things like “The Office,” “Friends,” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” But when Disney+ came on the scene, it gave teens access to series that remind them of their childhood — shows like “The Suite Life of Zach and Cody” and “Phineas and Ferb.” Netflix hasn’t been far behind Disney+ either by offering old Nickelodeon hits like “Victorious” and “Drake and Josh” that also have caught teens’ attention.
It’s no surprise that streaming services are offering teens opportunities to escape back into childhood, as this generation is one that’s in a constant need for security and safety. I’d suggest that teens aren’t going back to these series because they’re the best things on television right now, but more so because they provide them with a sense of innocence and safety they knew as children.
Technology and Social Media
Members of Gen Z are becoming more and more aware of what technology does to them. In a discussion a few weeks ago, multiple teens shared about taking intermittent social media “cleanses” to rid themselves of the pressure they feel to always be responsive to messages, alerts, and updates. They expressed a deep awareness of the way social media has made it more difficult for them to focus. They acknowledge that when they’re on social media they feel a need to participate but they have also begun to recognize that at the end of the day the world won’t end without a phone.
I have made an ongoing observation of this generation and I believe they’re growing increasingly aware of how social media affects them and are interested in taking healthy steps to free themselves from its negative effects. As parents of teenagers, it might be productive to have regular check-ins with your teens. Challenge them to ask themselves, and share with you, how they feel after spending time on their phones. Follow up with suggestions on how to better control how much they’re using their phones, and suggest possible accountability methods.
This generation also has a very heightened awareness (even if it’s an incomplete awareness) of global issues. In a meeting with teens a few weeks ago, many expressed concern over climate change, but few had confidence in any real, concrete action to take to combat it. Additionally, nearly all of them expressed concern over gun violence which is a validated concern given the most recent shooting in New Orleans and the two incidents in Wisconson high schools, which ended in officers shooting students who posed a threat just this week. Similar to their lack of confidence in any actionable steps to support the environment, teens expressed a lack of confidence that there’s anything actually happening to keep them safe in their schools and otherwise.
This bleak outlook on the world that teens seem to harbor may be why we see them returning to things like their childhood entertainment but, according to the group I spent time with, another outlet for this dismal view is to lean into meme culture and sarcasm. Essentially, teens are dealing with things that are beyond their control and seem to affect them negatively by “smiling through the pain.” Unpacking what meme culture is and does is a lot more than this blog can contain, but to put it short — memes (elements of internet culture, usually humorous in nature and used in a variety of contexts) are emotional shorthand for teens to find a reason to laugh when things they’re confronting suggest otherwise.
All that in mind, I’d challenge you to ask your teens to talk to you about how they process negative issues, moments, fears, and concerns that they have. I wonder if the culture they’re living in — inundated by fears and way too much information — supports healthy processes to allow teens to breathe or for their emotions to be acknowledged and cared for. As you listen to your children, be open to whatever they have to say and encourage them to not simply move past their concerns, but to seek healthy ways of coping and processing. There’s a lot this generation is going through and, as parents, your support and listening ear is key to guiding teens to the authentic hope that Jesus Himself offers.