While on a youth retreat with my church a few months ago, I asked about 10 kids, ages 13 to 18, to take a few minutes and write down three words to describe what their lives felt like. They go to a variety of schools, from private and religious to urban public and magnet, and come from a range of backgrounds. After a few minutes writing down their answers silently, we sat in a circle in the living room of our rented cabin and began sharing. One student wrote on a whiteboard each word that the group agreed aptly described their lives.
By the end of the exercise, the following words were written on the whiteboard: stressful, complicated, overinvolved, full of transitions, anxiety, uncertainty, pressure, and exhaustion.
For the past year and a half, I’ve worked as a pastor to the youth at my church, ministering to a dozen sixth- to 12th-grade students at a mainline Baptist church in North Carolina. About a year ago, I decided I wanted to find out more about their lives. I’d heard from parents, teachers, and friends with children that kids today live increasingly busy and stressful lives compared to previous generations. I wanted to know not only what that looked like but how the kids themselves felt and thought about it. What I discovered gave me a good deal of pause about the world kids live in today and what it’s doing to them.
As the retreat group started to tell me more about why they felt such a collective sense of stress and pressure, a few major themes emerged. All of them said they voluntarily get their grades pushed to their phones through notifications. It took me a minute to realize just how annoying and agonizing that must feel. It means that at any moment, they could find out they bombed a test or missed an assignment. Instead of having the time to mentally prepare to receive a bad grade when a teacher returns an assignment, they receive a notification as soon as the teacher posts their grade to the online portal they all use. Further, their parents sometimes receive the same notifications.
In addition to grades, they use multiple apps such as Remind through which their teachers can send them updates or reminders about upcoming assignments and tests. Like their grades, these can come through to their phone at any time of day or night.
For all the fear I hear from adults about screen-addicted kids, this seems like a far more destructive relationship to technology. It’s not one in which they use their phones to avoid their friends or family, but one in which technology serves as a source of constant intrusion into their lives, never allowing them to forget about their schoolwork or grades.
This was just one of the pressures these students felt they faced to ensure survival in the adult world. And the more I spoke with these kids, the more scared I became for the world we adults have created for them. . .