The Kids Are Alright
Set to the backdrop of a subtly emotive piano theme, clips from a podcast compose a montage with clips from a plethora of social media posts. Then, Truman of The Truman Show makes it to the edge of his sound-screen prison, freeing himself. His hand rests against the wall. “The Internet and technology created an idea of infinity,” cuts in actor Hasan Minhaj. “And the reason why life is beautiful is because it is fundamentally limited.” Mark Zuckerberg introduces the Metaverse. The screen fades to black. The caption reads simply, “Wake up.”
The paradoxical nature of this video does not elude me. It’s a Tiktok, ninety seconds long, with exactly two million likes and over sixteen thousand comments. This message to “wake up” exists within the slumber itself, a manifestation of what is being called the “doom scroll,” the phenomenon of continuously scrolling through social media with no imperative to stop and no reward to be found. People in the comments lament their presence on the app in the first place. They feel exhausted and hopeless, disheartened by what they perceive to be the mundanity of their lives. “I’m so tired” is like a mantra being repeated by the commenters.
Most of the commenters are teenagers or college students, fellow members of Gen Z. As I sift through their words, I feel a strange mix of empathy and fear. I worry about my peers and I worry about our collective present and future. Everyone seems desperate for one thing, I notice. Everyone is asking for a way to block out the noise, the intimate glimpses of others’ deceptively perfect lives, the relentless confrontations with our own deficiencies in the face of unrealistic standards. Gen Z is anxious and weary. Gen Z is scared.
And yet, there are those who are hopeful. “Putting my phone away and going stargazing right now — thank you,” one user comments. “I’ve actually been reading a lot of books lately,” writes another. “I feel like a different person. Less existential dread.” Despite everything — despite being constantly bombarded with troubling information about the state of the world, despite the degradation of human communication to words exchanged between devices — our generation seeks something better, something simpler and more wholesome. Social media, what we have come to view as a breeding ground for hatred, has built friendships across oceans. It has opened our eyes to its dangers, yes, but it has also shown us the world outside of our own individual selves. People are discovering something new each minute that they scroll: art, literature, poetry, music. People are discovering each other. In this terrifying place, our generation searches not for a way out but for a transformation, a way to illuminate the tunnel, not exit it. Despite everything, our generation continues to search.
I think that it’s easy to yearn for a way out, for the return to an easier time, such as the early aughts of our adolescence. New studies are published each day that lament the challenges faced by Gen Z; adults offer sympathy for the problems created by the divide between our lifestyles and theirs. But how different are we, really? Teenagers are interested in the same things they have always been interested in; online discourse about films or albums or books continues to reign. Friendships continue to transpire and be nurtured. The feelings that define young adulthood — the highs, the lows, and everything in between — exist with the same veracity and fervor that make them part of the wondrous, hellish process of growing up. Throughout history, human behavior has remained constant. There may not have been social media, but each generation has grappled with its own afflictions. As the ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, wrote: “Human nature is the one constant through human history. It is always there.”
It is always there. On the train, a young man across from me is carrying a bouquet of flowers. To my other side, a toddler peers up from his stroller, hands reaching for something. I smile at him, and he smiles back. A construction worker calls his wife and makes plans for dinner. Two friends talk about their day. Girls share headphones, listening to a pop song so loudly that I can make out the words. At the next stop, an elderly man enters the train car, roses in hand, the generational divide between himself and the younger man instantly bridged by love. The toddler is singing now. It is always there.
Photo Caption: The screen fades to black. The caption reads simply, “Wake up.”
Photo Credit: Pixabay