Library school didn’t prepare me for losing a teen.

Everyone hates teenagers. We all know that, I more than most, as their champion and advocate. They’re mouthy and hormonal and loud and mischievous… and that’s all most people see. Unlike the villainous dislike of children, everyone’s allowed to voice their disdain for teens… and they do, usually within earshot of their subjects.

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Adults don’t care about teens’ confusion and widespread abandonment issues, the extreme self-consciousness caused by the live streaming of their very existence, from their friends and parents and enemies. They don’t care that they’re coming into their sexuality in a minefield of consent and its constantly changing definitions, that their most private texts and photos are often traded among their peers like collectible playing cards, that they’re expected to trade them, themselves. No… most people just assume that if they could overcome their adolescence X years ago, then so can today’s teenagers.

Last night, I learned that one of my daily library kids didn’t overcome his teenage years. I don’t know the circumstances of his arrest, his guilt or his innocence… but I knew him and I liked him. I hadn’t seen him since a program in January. I was beginning to worry, but I was looking forward to having him as one of my teen volunteers this summer. I knew he was looking forward to it, too, since he was the first to register… but I won’t see him this summer. I won’t see him ever again, because he died this week. He was alone and scared and thought he had no future… a self-fulfilling prophecy, because he was discovered hanging from a light fixture in a county jail cell… and that’s all anyone will remember. They’ll whisper about rape charges and suicide and they won’t question why or how it could have been prevented. They’ll only condemn… and my heart is breaking, because I couldn’t help him. I wasn’t that person, wasn’t in a position to do so, but I wish I could have helped him navigate whatever it was to which he was lost. Could I have been clearer, that time on the patio, when I talked to him about the rumors the girls were spreading and the behavior that might lead to them… about respect and consent? Could I have been clearer with the girls about the consequences of such accusations, when upon further investigation, I realized their terms weren’t entirely fair or accurate? I tried, within all my power and professional boundaries, to explain it as thoroughly as I could, without accusation or dismissal… and one of them is still dead.

I wish I could help my teens more, without crossing a line. I wish we were all more invested in protecting them, providing them with the love and care we were so intent on giving them just five years earlier. I wish we were more comfortable and transparent in guiding them through their social and sexual interactions. Mostly, I wish a sixteen-year-old boy hadn’t killed himself in a county jail last week… that whatever landed him there hadn’t happened… that he had a chance to make better decisions and figure out who he could be… that I had any idea how to process this.

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Teenagers are Starved

… for attention, structure, and loving authority figures. It’s not always reflected through school shootings, stabbings on behalf of Slenderman, or torturing animals in YouTube videos, either. Those are just the most sensational stories. No, more often than not, it’s young girls sending nude photos to boys, so they’ll keep talking to them. It’s 5th grade boys vaping so the older kids will think they’re cool. It’s widespread porn addiction, because they don’t understand how their bodies work or what these feelings mean and they have all the stimulation they could possibly desire in their pockets. It’s indiscriminate sexual experimentation, before they’re old enough to handle the physical and emotional complications. It’s the expectation that the latter will look like the former, because no one is talking to them.

While many have spent the past week, arguing about gun control with strangers online, as opposed to… I don’t know, looking at cat videos and posting photos of their coffee, like they do the rest of the time, their children are still floundering. The country is positively baffled as to why kids act the way they do and not one of them realize that we’re so busy arguing with each other, that none of us are actually guiding teenagers. Adolescence is one of the most confusing times in a person’s life and it always has been. The hot debates of gun control, bullying, and sexual education aren’t new. Mean Girls and body shaming aren’t new. Teenage boys using teenage girls and telling the whole school isn’t new. What is new, is the constant distraction in the lives of everyone who is supposed to care for these kids.

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Today, if parents aren’t too busy swiping left and right on dating apps, rediscovering themselves after the divorce, then they’re on Facebook, debating car seat safety and vaccines with someone from high school that they don’t even know or like. They’re thumbing through Pinterest recipes in the drive through line, instead of talking to their children about their day while sliding a frozen lasagna in the oven. It’s not entirely their fault, either. We live in a society that shares everything from day altering information, such as school closures, to life altering information, such as engagements and the deaths of loved ones, via social networking. If you delete Facebook and Pinterest, you’re considered antisocial or an isolationist, and I should know, here in my fourth month without either.

Dad: “You know your uncle’s mom died, though.”
Me: “Nope… not on Facebook”
Dad: “Oh, that’s right! Well, your uncle’s mom died.”

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It’s not just parents who’ve detached, either. Teachers, once a source of love and affection, are now so petrified of ending up on the news, that they won’t even hug their students… and that’s if they even have the time to connect with them emotionally, after the ludicrously detailed lesson planning, IEP meetings, and professional development days. The same is true of youth ministers and counselors and even librarians. Keep the door open and keep your hands to yourself or risk destroying your life.

As a result of our collective detachment from our youth, teens test boundaries, just as they always have, but… they find none. They use their phones in class and their teachers don’t dare confiscate them, for fear of parental wrath. Whereas once it was enough to be able to call the school and leave an important message for one’s child, we must now have instant access to everyone in our lives, just in case we realize they’ve deleted our DVR’d episodes of The Bachelor and we want to share our unhappiness. The reverse is true as well. Even 10 years ago, a child who forgot his homework would have to beg his teacher for an extension and ultimately learn to be more responsible; now he can text mom and beg her to drop it off on her only break. If she doesn’t, then lord have mercy on the teacher who dares to grade him down for it, teaching him only that there are no limits, no consequences.

It’s cyclical, even. We’re all so very exhausted, because we refuse to acknowledge the emotional energy expended in keeping up with 153 friends, and 12 different news feeds, that we relish the moments the young ones in our lives are distracted by technology, plugging them in the second they can respond to an iPad, in part because it’s a societal norm. As a result, we don’t see what it’s doing to them until it’s too late and we feel powerless to police their usage after years of such access and the privacy that came with the adults not caring what was on the screen, if it would only keep them quiet. As a result, such personal technology has become ubiquitous in middle school and beyond, so the parent who does refuse to gift their child with a smartphone, hobbles them academically, when every other student in class has internet access and therefore, the lesson plans begin to require it. No exaggeration, I never used my undergrad to teach in an official capacity, but I substitute taught in over 100 different classrooms in six years and increasingly saw kids without devices at a clear disadvantage.

This past Christmas, my five-year-old nephew spent all of dinner longing for Minecraft on his iPad, completely disinterested in the prospect of family time or even presents, because of technology and that’s the norm, with kids and their parents. We are wasting our lives staring at screens and teaching children to do the same. We spend hours a week keeping up with people we neither know nor care about, arguing with people whose opinions will never change, occasionally even finding ourselves in affairs with our marriages in shambles, as a result of an effort to feel another superficial connection, because we have no real connections in our lives and while we’re undoubtedly suffering as well, our kids are most definitely suffering. I say ours, because they are ours. Every society is judged on how it’s weakest and most impressionable members are treated and while we argue with each other online about the ways we’ve failed them, we are continuing to fail them.

I’m not asking anyone for perfection or even claiming to know what that looks like. I’m not insisting you can’t have a healthy relationship with technology, simply that many do not and the teachers, youth ministers, librarians, or other supportive authority figures aren’t capable of truly picking up the slack. Restore the balance, put down your phone/tablet/laptop, and ask the kids in your life about their day, because the general struggles of youth aren’t new, but being completely ignored by the adults in their lives who are supposed to care is… and perhaps if our children can go home from a hostile environment to a warm and involved one, once again, they’ll learn to cope with their emotions in non-hostile ways. As an advocate for teens and a former neglected teen, I am telling you, no matter how flawed we might all be, the most important thing we can possibly do for these kids is be present and force them to be present.

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