In the waning days of high school, I find that my graduating seniors are honest, brutally honest, in fact.
For the past half-decade or so, I tell my soon-to-be-departed students the moment they walk across the graduation stage they have earned two privileges: first, they can now call me by my first name (or anything else for that matter, I suppose), and secondly, they may “Friend Request” me on Facebook.
They gleefully take advantage of the first offer, but in the past year or so they seem cool to the notion of being “Facebook friends” with their former AP Government teacher.
In fact, the vast majority of my Facebook pals are former students, men and women now making their way in life, trudging through their twenties and early thirties. And yes, I admit I enjoy watching them as they meander through the early years of adult life. Sometimes I wax sentimental when I see they are already graduating from college or getting married or having children. Facebook saves educators like me from the worst occupational hazard of being a classroom teacher: the students we give our time, our toil, and our tears usually vanish into the void of the world, rarely heard from ever again.
I was hoping this trend of befriending some of my former students each year would continue in perpetuity.
But in the last two or three years the post-graduation requests to become Facebook compadres have slowed to a trickle. I used to receive 20 to 30 requests every June. Nowadays, that number can be counted on a single hand.
What’s going on?
The most likely answer, I feared, was I am not as popular with the students as I used to be. As much as I hate to admit it, reaching 40 in the past year makes me more of a “dad” to them than a hip, wise, and educated older sibling. My students and teenage daughter, however, claim my suspicions are completely off base. Dwindling student affection has nothing to do with it, or so they say. While their explanation might spare my feelings, their words were harsh, to say the least—especially if you are Mark Zuckerberg.
“I hate Facebook.”
“Facebook is Instagram for moms.”
“Facebook is for old people.”
“Facebook is so boring and they steal ideas from Snapchat.”
“I only use Facebook for general announcements aimed at family members.”
But I admit it: Facebook is my preferred social media platform. I guess this admission makes me old.
Not only does Facebook help me keep track of friends from all over the globe, family in all corners of the country, and a broad spectrum of former students, it has proven to be a wondrous medium for promoting my books and articles. In fact, the moment this article is published on HuffPost I will probably post it on Facebook to widen its exposure. I often enjoy the articles posted by my Facebook friends and except for the mania of election season the platform generally offers benign technological cuisine to read and digest.
For the students graduating from American high schools this spring, however, Facebook brims with the toxicity of being populated by adults. Countless times students explained their disdain by revealing that they simply don’t want parents, aunts, uncles, family friends and former teachers to be present in their digital corner of the social media universe, to observe their behavior, or—God forbid!—offer commentary about the content of their online lives.
I get it. Kids want to be kids without the prospect of adult opprobrium intruding on their fun. Isn’t this just an updated version of kids sneaking out of the house at night, ditching school, or deceiving mom and dad by telling them they were spending the night with a friend when they really decided to attend a party they had no business attending? In the past, sometimes parents found out. Sometimes they didn’t. The point is bad behavior required a temporary escape from the structured world of adult rules, adult expectations, and adult consequences. Escaping into a social media world without any adult footprint is simply this generation’s version of sneaking out of the house late at night.
Wrong. Dead wrong. This phenomenon is wholly different and more perilous.
First, the modern teen doesn’t simply exhibit a veracious cupidity for privacy; they bristle at the idea that they need supervision at all. They will acquiesce to adult supervision in the home and at school, but there is a stridency, an almost dogmatic certitude in their conviction that they deserve their own juvenile domain, a permanent respite that requires not a key but a smart phone for entry.
Imagine if every home in America not only had a room where the adults were not allowed to go, but even worse, the adults don’t even know the room exists, much less who is in it or what is going on. For parents who create Instagram or Twitter accounts merely to follow their children’s social media posts and interactions, consider that many young people are now creating secondary accounts that bear no proximity to their primary account. For instance, “Finsta,” or fake Instagram accounts, are created exclusively for a young person’s close friends, a kind of stealth secondary account whose primary purpose is to stay off the radar of parents, bosses, and supervision in general.
The second and more alarming feature of this behavior is that it exacerbates an already pronounced problem of the modern era. The modern teenager already spends less time around adults than any generation in human history. It is only in the past century with the advent of secondary education that young people now spend the bulk of their time around other young people, in classrooms and extracurricular activities during the day, and now on social media platforms late into the evening.
Gone are the days when young men worked on farms with their fathers starting at a young age. Gone are the days of young women learning the arduous work of the home with their mothers from sun up to sun down. Teenagers no longer serve as apprentices. Obviously, no one wants to go back to these days. And yet, there was a distinct benefit—for most of human history young people grew up around adults, conversed with adults, observed the behavior of adults, and thus quickly absorbed the expectations, values, and behaviors that were consistent with a maturing character. No wonder the length of American adolescence and childhood now seems to stretch into a third decade of life.
Students of the modern era frequently live with parents who both work or a single parent who works two of three jobs. Human beings are creatures who learn by example. We are either inspired, improved, and ameliorated by the examples before us or we are, conversely, mentally and morally impoverished by the absence of nourishing models of high humanity.
Social media is adept at highlighting the frivolous and the frothy, the outrageous and the absurd. This is well and good and, in proper doses, great fun for all. But it should not supplant the influences or mute the voices that empower and impassion young people to become better versions of themselves, to mature, to view adulthood as more than barren drudgery. Those voices in our culture are not as loud or omniscient as they need to be. Our children and our students need our guidance and require our wisdom if they are to experience the full splendor of what life has to offer.
Of course, they want to be left alone to frolic in the grand playground of a boundless childhood. But someone must watch over our children even when they play. Someone must ring the bell when recess is over. The terrifying reality of our age is that our children have decided who gets to watch them and how long they may play.
What could possibly go wrong?