Thinking Out Loud

March 4, 2013

Teens With Idle Hands

clock spiral

This weekend I accidentally stumbled on the mother of all teen forums. The discussion boards actually generated a fair bit of traffic both from the UK and the US. Adding it all up, I probably spent more than 90 minutes listening to what the kids were saying.

At this point, you should have all sorts of warning lights going off in your brain, so let me assure you that I wasn’t stalking anyone, didn’t create a login where I pretended to be a teenage girl, didn’t chat or leave any comments, and didn’t set up a time to meet anyone in a public park on Tuesday after school.  Actually, the site seemed to be heavily moderated, and additionally, I got the impression that some teens are selected to act as prefects to find problems the moderators miss.

As I considered what I was reading, I realized there is a root issue about life for the modern teenager in western Europe and North America that we might miss.

Parents, generally speaking, worry about what their sons are watching online, who their daughters are texting at 12:30 in the morning, and generally what activities go on in the school lunchroom, on the school bus or at weekend parties. They worry with good reason. Much of your child’s worldview is being shaped by the internet. Television is no longer a big factor. Magazines are no longer an influence. And radio is… what is radio again?

Some of the online discussions were healthy interaction on concerns teens worry about as they face the uncertainties of growing up. I’m not saying we don’t need this type of website. But peer-to-peer advice is a kind of wild frontier where subject matter is often reduced to the lowest common denominator. No one truly speaks with authority, and everything is opinion; nothing is footnoted or referenced.

Your pre-teens’ and/or teens’ worlds are being shaped by social media platforms arriving so quickly that if I were to name any here, it would immediately render this article dated.  Unless the world experiences considerable alteration, kids growing up today will spend a full 25% of their lives (minimum) sitting in front of a screen. That’s not waking hours. That’s hours, period. Whatever happened to playing road hockey and hoops and yelling “car” every time a vehicle wanted to drive through? Card games and board games? It’s hard to generate interest in a plodding game of Scrabble with kids who grew up playing first person shooters. And most teens would rather debate the merits of keeping suburban lawns trimmed than actually help cut the lawn.

The family agenda and the family core values are set by screens and what the screens transmit. These kids have grown up in a screen culture; have never known a world without screens. So how to pull the kids away? Some people say the kids simply have too much unstructured time. But why do they have this free time?

Simple. In our move from rural to urban life, kids have no chores.

Once upon a time, there were cows to milk, eggs to gather, tomatoes to pick, manure to shovel and firewood to chop.  But now that is not the case.

Once upon a more recent time, there were part time jobs for teenagers. But the reality of the new economy is that those entry level jobs at fast food restaurants and departments stores are now scooped up by desperate people in their thirties, forties and fifties who lost great career opportunities and now fill two or three part time positions that in a previous era would have gone to students.

So… no chores, no jobs.  Social media fills they void and they can stay up until 12:30 texting because they haven’t done anything physically exhausting all day.

What is the solution to this? Soccer, swimming and baseball are good, but many families cannot afford to get their kids into sports; though as space permits in local parks and schools, some informal competitive sports  can happen for those who can’t afford the equipment and uniforms.

If you have the luxury of relocating to what is at least a hobby farm, you would be doing your kids a big favor.  Seriously.  Or at least plant as big a garden as you can in whatever space you have.

Youth groups: Can’t say enough good about this option. Get your older teens into one (or two) high school groups and then get them helping out in junior high groups.

Music lessons: You can reduce costs by finding teachers who do group music lessons. You can reduce musical instrument costs by starting the kids off with ukeleles or budget-priced guitars or starter electronic keyboards.

My wife and I are big believers in summer camp ministry. If you can get the kids in for several years as campers, and then let them grow into leadership training and finally staff positions, your initial investment will pay for itself, and in some cases provide the teens with income at a time in economic history when summer jobs otherwise don’t exist.

Urban chores: Get your teens to step up and do things that you or your spouse might normally have done. If their rooms need painting, get them to do it themselves with a trip to the building store for paint and supplies. Do they need some shelving in their rooms? Get them to build it themselves. Set up a pizza garden where they grow some of their favorite toppings. Allow older teens to help with any home renovation you’re doing, or a minor car repair.

Finally, volunteering: At the seniors home, at the local library, at the community center. It’s not only a great place to meet other teens committed to not vegetating in front of screens, but the volunteer hours can be logged and possibly translate to scholarships in their senior year of high school. Furthermore, you can put volunteer positions on a resumé, which means better prospects for part time jobs that do come available.

The teens in the discussion groups I saw this weekend — especially in the areas drawing the greatest number of views — were fixated on things that are not going to improve their character, their prospects, or their sense of self-worth. The discussion forum itself is a glaring example of teens with too much time on their hands.  They often feed off encouragement toward negative behaviors that can only be described as self-destructive.

They need something else — anything else — to occupy their waking hours.

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3 Comments »

  1. As a home schooling mom to 14 year old twin boys, I am well aware of the screen time issue with the computer. Although I knew the draw that held them in the glare of their computer or game system,I had not associated their lack of family/home responsibility with the problem. We do play board games every day as a family ,but as soon as the last roll of the dice they head down to their “first love”. .They completely stopped watching television at least 5 years ago (we all did)…so you are right that TV is not the influence it was in the last generation. You have given me something to mull over this morning.

    Comment by Cynthia Clarke — March 4, 2013 @ 7:48 am

  2. Really great to think about. As a future youth pastor it’ gives me some motivation as to why the youth group might be important, and some ideas as to things to do outside of just “entertaining” the youth. Just out of curiosity, what was the website you were looking at?

    Comment by Josh Privitt — March 4, 2013 @ 7:56 am

  3. The internet as we know it did not exist until I was in college, and I didn’t have a cell phone until after marriage. But we have quickly made the transition to “screen dependence” even though it wasn’t part of our lives at all growing up. For instance, I watched “The Bible” on History Sunday night. I wanted my review to immediately be up as soon as the show finished airing, and so spent the last 30 minutes of the program typing my response – while it was still on. I will have a thought or idea while watching a show, and continue listening to the television while viewing my laptop screen. Comments to my Facebook statues are sent as texts to my phone. And yes, I have sent text message to people that were actually in the room.

    We don’t have a teenager yet, but our three-year-old (pushing four) can pick up her mother’s iPod, unlock the screen, open the folder with her “educational” games in it and start them by herself. She edits pictures she takes by putting funny glasses and facial hair on them, and actually gave me a lesson in how that program works. We go to the park, swing in the front yard, and have a real live dog she plays with. But if I’m blogging and her mom is reading for her online class, it is way too easy to send her to the other room to watch television. She will imitate the behavior we model, and that makes me a little nervous but mostly… sad.

    Comment by Clark Bunch — March 5, 2013 @ 9:25 am


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