“Youth is dead” is a doozy of a claim, but it’s a valid claim. Maybe youth itself isn’t what’s dying, but youthhood.
When I talk to my parents, my Jewish Papa, or my hometown Rabbi, they reminisce about the unbinding freedom of their adolescence. My mom rode her horse through the brilliant New York countryside. She’d collect frog eggs and arrowheads, and feel the wind in her hair. My dad started a band and hopped fences to skateboard in newly emptied backyard pools. Though vastly different, their experiences were wild and free. Free-play (unstructured, child-initiated activity), creation, and development without any rules is an integral part of development.
Our dizzying modern age has pretty much robbed children of their intrinsic youth. Children don’t play in their backyards anymore or construct elaborate narratives with paper dolls. They’re constantly told what to wear, who to be, and how to act by the media. Instead of playing outside with other kids in the neighborhood, they are taught to congregate in online spaces. If I were tasked with defining youth, I’d apply three qualities: freedom, innocence and creativity. These are all absent today.
There’s no room for originality when you’re constantly expected to broadcast a perfect version of yourself on social media. It’s challenging to truly immerse yourself in adolescence when the pressure to get into a top-tier school with a perfect resume and grades starts so young. Growing up, my childhood best friend and I loved playing with plush bats and reading stories about horses. We were the ones who gave life to our favorite toys, adorning plush dogs with names and personalities. Now, if you walk down the toy aisles of commercial stores, most toys vailable is one from a video game or TV show. Kids don’t have a chance to create; they’re playing out pre-designated narratives. Even the toy store industry itself is dying: Toys R Us, a staple of childhood for Gen Z and Millennials, shut its doors due to a lack of engagement.
Innocence is the hardest construct to apply metrics to. I’ve encountered starry-eyed students in college classes who were lightyears more innocent than some fifth graders I’ve worked with. Innocence can be stolen when someone has to grow up too fast.
Collectively, youth have been confronted with disheartening images from a young age. Climate change is regarded as impending death. American children have a collective imprinted trauma from active shooter drills to 9/11 footage from as young as third grade. Of course, this is nothing to be compared to to the lives of children in Israel, Ukraine or actual war zones. Awareness is important, but the world can be a scary place and part of being young is trust and love, light and hope. These traumatizing images and experiences that kids receive starting at young ages can make them hopeless. If kids don’t have hope, who can?
And what ever happened to the so-called “awkward phase?” I went through a phase, for example,where I would only wear bright, patterned leggings and a side ponytail. I had an obsession with doodling bats always carried a plush bat and told any passerby who would listen just how many species of bats you could find in our city. For others it was a Harry Potter obsession, or a Maybelline blue eyeshadow look complete with neon lipstick. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Kids are supposed to be weird and awkward for a little while.
The problem is: there’s no market for tweens anymore. There are no more joyful, beautiful, cringe-worthy phases. It’s almost as if they wake up one day and decide to shed their childhood chrysalis: out with playing outside, out with Disney movies, and out with nurturing any sense of wonder. Instead, an overly-precocious butterfly emerges. And who can blame them? What’s being marketed to them are push-up bras, violent video games, and an even more addictive need for validation.
Brandy Melville is one of the most popular clothing stores for youth, and it is a caricature of the pressure imposed on young girls. Tween girls idolize Brandy. But the store has a dark side: it only sells “one size”–what is equivalent to an extra extra small). . . Aside from being a breeding ground for eating disorders, many of Brandy’s clothes are arguably over-sexualized for the age range. Schoolgirl-like short skirts are among the highest selling items. Most of the tops are heavily cropped and the pants are tight and short. Picture it. Inside, a group of 11-year old girls congregate. They wear tube tops, perfect makeup and the store’s signature short skirts. They collect glances from everyone ranging from disapproving millennial women to creepy older men. And it breaks my heart.
But at 11 years old, there should be no pressure to market yourself as a sexual commodity. Where is it coming from? Social media and a culture of vanity in an increasingly digitized world. Teenagers on social media are confronted with an endless array of content telling them precisely who to be. “Here’s some ab exercises to get a bikini body,” “here’s how to have your first kiss,” “here’s how to cheat on a math test,” and the list goes on.
Sophia Constantino, a Masters student of Digital Industries and Cultures at the American University of Paris agrees, saying, “For teens, who spend an average of almost 30 hours weekly on social media, the toxic idea of comparison is compounded by constant exposure. Anything a teen posts must also match up to the posts of their peers.”
Girls aren’t the only group that faces this undue pressure. From a young age, boys are taught to hide their emotions. “Don’t cry when you scrape your knee on the black top.” “Play violent video games.” “Don’t go into the doll section.” It’s “hide, hide, hide, “mask, mask, mask,” and above all never feel. How are they supposed to learn to create and imagine when their most basic emotions are suppressed?
But hope is not lost. Are the youth disillusioned? Yes. Do things get in the way of their childhood? Yes. But the youth are alright. Positively, social media has offered unprecedented levels of access and connection. After a devastating school shooting, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School formed one of the most formidable gun control groups in the world. March For Our Lives was born as a result of the harrowing loss of innocence and heartbreaking loss of life following the shooting. But youth were able to mobilize through social media and conquer unfair laws.
Should high school youth really be confronted with their own mortality? No. And that means it’s our job to nurture a safe environment free of expectations. With worlds of instant entertainment at one’s fingertips, it’s easy to become overstimulated. No cognition, creativity, or interaction is really needed in a lot of electronic activities. Overstimulation and easy access kill the desire to explore. Boredom is what breeds creativity. It’s okay to let kids unwind and have fun. Scraped knees from the schoolyard are nothing to be afraid of.
And what does this mean for Jewish youth? Faith has been a saving grace for many. A 2013 case study found that religious Jews reported greater levels of happiness than secular Jews. The Jewish community does a terrific job of fostering the things that make youth so special.
At Jewish summer camp, children revel in the great outdoors and the free-play of friendship bracelets and ultimate frisbee. The Jewish faith has always encouraged art and education. Both are critical in nurturing youthhood, as well as preparing them for growth.
For those who never got a chance at being young… I’m sorry. Whatever the circumstances were, you shouldn’t have had to grow up so fast. In fact, the best feeling is never having to grow up at all. You should never let go of your youth, in all its innocent, creative, and freeing glory.