I’ve seen this article about the changing nature of pre-teen life being shared online lately. It’s written by a longtime middle school teacher who describes the vastly different social landscape faced by pre-teens today compared to a mere decade ago. The author describes a hypothetical 12 year old kid named Brian in the year 2008. One day, Brian is having lunch at school when the following scenario transpires:
“There’s a slick of water on the tiled floor near the fountain at the back of the cafeteria. A few eighth graders know about it, and they’re laughing as yet another student slips and tumbles to the ground.
Brian buys a grilled cheese sandwich. It comes with tomato soup that no one ever eats. He polishes off the sandwich and heads to the nearest trashcan to dump the soup. When his sneakers hit the water slick, he slips just like the others. The tomato soup goes up in the air and comes down on his lap.”
A few kids laugh at Brian and he feels embarrassed about it, but luckily he’s able to go change into his gym shorts, and aside from a few questions about why he’s wearing gym clothes, the whole incident is over. This was the scenario in 2008.
Now fast forward to 2018. The same scenario transpires, but this time it doesn’t end when Brian changes into his gym shorts. This time a few kids laugh at Brian, but one of them, Mark, also snaps a video and uploads it to Instagram and Snapchat. The likes and comments start pouring in. Soon a bunch of kids from school know about it, and Brian is reminded of the embarrassing incident every time he checks his phone that day, which is frequently and late into the night. Mark learns that the best way to climb the popularity ladder is to make fun of his classmates.
This story is an important one. Little moments that might have embarrassed kids at school a decade ago don’t stop at school anymore. They follow them home. They get magnified and memorialized; distributed and deconstructed — all the things you’d hate to see happen to your worst moments.
Due to social media, kids no longer get a break from the relentless expectations to act a certain way, dress a certain way, or the mocking that comes with social missteps. We should absolutely pay attention to this problem.
Did social media change the life of pre-teens?
With all the buzz about smartphones and social media, an important point is being overlooked. The problems facing middle school students haven’t changed dramatically. The problems are pretty much the same. Just like a decade ago, kids are still being mean to each other. Kids are still learning that the best way to get ahead socially is to make fun of other kids. Kids are still feeling awkward and uncomfortable a lot at school. These problems have been amplified by social media, but social media didn’t create them.
The root cause of these issues is a toxic environment that makes kids think it’s cool to laugh when someone falls, gets hurt, or does something outside the norm.
The root cause is an unhealthy social ecosystem in which the preying on others and exposing their weaknesses is a way to get ahead.
The root cause is a conform-or-else paradigm in which everyone has to hide who they truly are if they want to be accepted by their peers, and in many cases by their teachers.
In a healthy social environment, the proper response to someone slipping and falling isn’t to point and laugh. It’s to ask, “are you ok?” and offer a hand.
In a healthy social environment, people are allowed to have weaknesses and expose their flaws without others rejecting them in their vulnerability.
In a healthy social environment, when a person ventures a bit outside the norm they are accepted and welcomed for what they bring to the table. The world would be pretty boring if we were all the same.
Is social media a problem?
To be sure, there are good reasons why people of all ages should limit social media use. Checking social media too frequently can cause or exacerbate anxiety. It can reduce happiness. It can reduce the face-to-face conversations that humans thrive on. (Of course, there are some positive effects as well). Despite its pitfalls, social media isn’t creating a new problem. It’s uncovering and amplifying an existing problem.
Most middle schools today, just like most middle schools a decade ago, or several decades ago, are not healthy social environments. We’ve been able to overlook this problem for a long time, but social media is blowing its cover now that the effects are seeping outside of the walls of school buildings.
I don’t know anyone who looks back fondly on their time in middle school or dreams of re-living just one day. Most of us would rather forget about those days. We shouldn’t resign ourselves to our kids experiencing a similar fate. Having a non-toxic and supportive group environment is possible in the pre-teen years. I’ve seen it myself in sports teams, after school clubs, homeschool groups, and youth groups. It isn’t the age making kids act this way; it’s the setting.
The environment and culture of most schools are what need to change. Smartphones aren’t the problem. They have just made us pay attention.