What are the top cultural forces that our teenagers must contend with today? And how can we be sure we’re “majoring on the majors” with them?
I’ve put together a list of the most important influences in their life—the seven realities that are important for us to know as we pastor students living in a challenging culture. Social media and digital dependence have, of course, a magnifying influence on all of these forces.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents. Boys are more likely to complete a suicide, but girls are more likely to attempt it. Risk factors include: a history of previous suicide attempts, a family history of suicide, a history of depression, anxiety, or other mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse, stressful life events or losses, easy access to lethal methods, exposure to the suicidal behavior of others.
What’s not true about responding to kids who are suicidal:
1) Once a teenager decides to commit suicide, nothing is going to stop them.
2) If you teenagers if they’re planning to commit suicide, you might simply plant the idea in their head.
3) Most kids talk about suicide just to get attention, so it’s best to ignore it when it comes up.
#2—Physical and Digital Bullying
Between a quarter and a third of all U.S. students say they’ve been bullied at school, and one out of eight has experienced cyberbullying in some form. More than half of LGBTQ teenagers say they’ve been cyberbullied. Almost a third of students admit they have actually bullied someone themselves, and three-quarters say they’ve seen someone bullied. The top risk factor for bullying is a teenager who is perceived as different from his or her peers. Girls are more likely than boys to cyberbully, and boys are more likely than girls to bully face-to-face.
What to do about bullying: Help kids grow in their assertiveness, challenge them to stick up for anyone, anywhere who’s being bullied, and show kids how to block bullying online and reduce their exposure to bullies.
According to a report by Common Sense Media, half of all teenagers say they “feel addicted” to their mobile devices—two-thirds have a smartphone, and they spend an average of nine hours a day consuming digital media. What drives kids from “normal use” to addiction to the Internet and technology? Anxiety, ADHD, the promise of an “escape hatch” from reality, the opportunity to “become someone else” online, and kids who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.
What to watch out for:
1) When digital devices and the Internet seem more important than face-to-face time with friends or hobbies they previously enjoyed.
2) When time on the Internet impact kids’ grades or makes them lose sleep consistently.
3) Teenagers who report meeting strangers or threatening people online.
4) Unhealthy eating patterns, or a high intake of caffeine to stay awake. 5) Making lots of friends they’ve never actually met in person.
5) Experiencing anxiety when there is no connection to the Internet.
6) Neglecting their appearance or hygiene because they’re distracted by the Internet.
#4—The Hook-Up Culture
Some experts estimate that almost two-thirds of all teenagers are somehow involved in the “hook-up culture,” which accepts and encourages casual sexual encounters that are “not personal.” The focus is short-term physical pleasure with no commitments and no attachments. More boys report being involved in the hook-up culture, and more girls report regret over their involvement in it.
What you can do: Directly address the prevalence of the hook-up culture, the inherent pressures of navigating that culture, and offer a path to freedom through a closer attachment to Jesus.
#5—Drugs & Alcohol
By the time they reach their senior year, half of all teenagers have abused an illicit drug at least once. But overall, illicit drug abuse among teenagers is either flat or dropping, except for a few notable exceptions. The slight downturn shows up in the broad categories of alcohol, marijuana, inhalant, cocaine, and non-medical uses of prescription drugs.
How to counteract drug abuse: The U.S. government’s Office of Adolescent Health recommends:
1) Strong positive connections with parents, other family members, school, and religion;
2) Parents who set clear limits and give consistent enforcement of discipline; and
3) reduced access in the home to illegal substances.
One in eight young people suffer from an anxiety disorder of some kind, but eight out of 10 are not being treated for it. Anxiety is frequently correlated with depression, eating disorders, and ADHD. And kids who are caught in a cycle of anxiety are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.
Signs of anxiety: Kids who are struggle with anxiety experience fear, nervousness, and shyness, and they consciously avoid places and activities that trigger their anxiety.
#7—Self-Esteem and Body Image
Almost all teenage girls (90 percent) say they’d like to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance, with weight (of course) at the top of the list. That’s because more than 9 million teenagers below the age of 15 are classified as obese—that’s three times the number in 1980. One out of 10 boys are using “unproven” supplements or steroids to improve their physique, and almost three-quarters of girls believe they’re not good enough or do not measure up in some way including their looks, performance in school, and relationships.
Symptoms to watch for: 1) Anxiety and depression related to appearance, 2) Obsessing over a single perceived flaw in appearance, 3) Spending excessive time looking in mirrors, 4) Excessive grooming and exercise, 5) Anorexia, and 6) Bulimia.
Of course, there are many more than seven issues deeply impacting teenagers today—but these are the must-know priorities when it comes to cultural influence. The key question is: How does a deepening relationship with Jesus impact these “weeds” growing in kids’ gardens? We know, from Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, that His intention is for us to grow the “wheat” in kids’ lives so that healthy growth chokes out the weeds. In any case, His focus is on growing wheat, not pulling weeds—He asks us (in the parable) to leave that to Him. It’s a division of labor and skill, and He’s asking us to concentrate on creating a rich environment for growth for our teenagers. That’s exactly the focuse, by the way, of our fall Youth Ministry Local Training tour—coming to 55 cities around the country. Find out more, here.