One of my most cherished worldly possessions is a book that contains all the first editions of the greatest comic books ever. This compilation of classic comics was given to my oldest brother by my grandmother, the year I was born. While a first edition of Action Comics Number One that introduced the world to Superman in 1938 fetches over $3 million a copy, the book I have is not worth much more than the paper it is printed on. But to me, it's priceless. The worn cover and weathered pages reflect the many childhood hours spent reading about the origins of Batman, Superman, The Flash, Wonder Woman and other marvels.
Recently I was explaining to my daughter how, originally, Superman didn't so much fly, but instead jumped really well. As the legend states, he was "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound." As I understand it, Superman was able to jump this way because he was born to a people who lived on a planet at least a thousand times larger than Earth, and they were used to a much, much stronger gravitational pull. So on Earth, a Kryptonian is endowed with superhuman strength, muscles and tissue so dense even a bullet could not penetrate their flesh. Plus they have great hair with inhuman body and bounce!
She queried, "What does this have to do with anything?" as we had been discussing how hard life can be during adolescence.
It strikes me that, like the planet Krypton, adolescence has its own unique gravity, compared to the years preceding and following it. Perhaps this has always been the case, but adolescent gravity seems especially heavy these days. Research near and far indicates that our teens are more depressed and anxious than ever, despite seemingly being more safe and comfortable than ever.
Psychologist Jean Twenge has described these generational trends in her presciently titled books over the past decade: 2010's The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement; 2014's Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before; and 2017's iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. The titles alone accurately depict the devolution of adolescence.
It's hard to deny the impact constant contact and instant access via devices like cell phones and tablets are having on the latest cohort of kids. With the ease of exposure to the experience of others, there are so many more ways for teens to reflect on their perceived shortcomings and all they are missing out on these days. They can see, on a moment-to-moment basis, how their peers are living a more exciting life, with more shopping, more eating out, more glamorous vacations, etc. Even though they may be aware that these impressions are derived from the highlight reels of their peers' curated digital lives, they bewail being deprived what they perceive as the activities and encounters that are clearly part of a normal teen life.
Paradoxically, despite their desire not to miss out on these experiences, adolescents these days are less inclined to venture out of the home to engage in activities and experiences. I suppose if it isn't going to be spring break in Maui, or shopping in Milan, why bother? So they lay about and view these highlight reels in their same old boring home, in their same old boring bedroom, with their same old boring little sister singing a viral song by internet star Conan Gray, "Cause we are the helpless, selfish, one of a kind. Millennium kids, that all wanna die."
I protest supporting in any way the perspective this song espouses. Listening to, much less singing, such an anthem does not seem to help, no matter how infectious the melody. In truth, these lyrics may tragically capture the feelings of the present generation of teens.
So how can we help our youth develop the strength and skills to leap tall buildings in a single bound as adults? I have no simple or succinct answer. But I am quite sure the best approach does not involve us absorbing the forces of life that press upon them. I am quite sure the healthiest path does not include us helping them avoid exposure to life's inevitable pressures.
What we can do is encourage their human connectedness as a foil to their digital connectedness. Staying Connected To Your Teenager: How To Keep Them Talking To You And How To Hear What They're Really Saying by Michael Riera is a great resource. Have a look. Then make a plan, for there is no foreseeable shortage of tall buildings that our teens will need to leap.
Matt Thompson is a pediatrician at the Kids Clinic in Spokane.