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If you've ever asked me to talk about my career journey, I inevitably start telling you about the decision to join my high school debate team. I know there's a risk of sounding like someone who lives for the glory days gone by, but my story starts there, period, and I think it is important to show why early exposure to news and current events - even if it made me a bit weird among my peers - was so valuable in laying a foundation for my future career.
There are many ways young people can be invited to engage in current affairs and politics as teenagers. Debate is one avenue about which I am particularly passionate (I literally wrote a column a few months ago about how "high school debate can save America"). I'm a supporter of things like the American Legion's Boys and Girls State programs, and know that programs like Youth in Government, Hugh O'Brien Youth Leadership (HOBY), Model UN and more have all played a meaningful role in the lives of many of my dear friends.
Back in 2018, in the immediate aftermath of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, I wrote about how I was glad that many students were using their voices to get active and to make change (even if I didn't always agree with their views), noting that the school's strong speech and debate program had equipped many students to be particularly eloquent and passionate advocates.
In the piece I wrote for The Washington Examiner at the time, I noted that we should be celebrating young people who, of their own volition, get engaged on issues and work to bring about change. I said:
Until this morning, it really did not dawn on me that there could be serious downsides to growing teenage engagement with current affairs and political issues. And yet, this Derek Thompson piece for The Atlantic looks at the likely contributing factors in our current teen mental health crisis and finds rising anxiety about current events as an important piece of the puzzle.
Two decades ago, when I was a teenager reading up on current events to prepare for my next debate tournament, I was very much not mainlining a constant stream of news about the world. I recall watching a lot of cable news in the days and weeks following September 11th, but otherwise while I was probably in the very tippy-top percentile for news consumption among my peers, I was also coming home from school and turning on MTV's Total Request Live, not regularly watching cable news.
I also did not feel a sense of despair about the world as a result of this news exposure. Yes, I was worried about terrorism, the emerging war in Afghanistan, gun violence in the wake of Columbine, government debt (which was a quaint $6.2 trillion when I graduated high school), and so on and so forth, but those worries did not meaningfully crowd out all the other hopes and fears I had as a teenager. But I did not marinate in those worries, even as someone who, for her age, was paying a lot of attention to the news. And so it did not really occur to me until reading Thompson's write-up that it is possible for a teenager to actually overdose on news consumption, with social media making it ever more possible for today's youth to marinate in despair.
There is now a social premium that seems to be assigned to caring very, very deeply about the world around you. (The 21 Jump Street film reboot of a decade ago starring Channing Tatum poked some fun at this emerging dynamic, wherein caring about issues didn't make you a nerd, it made you cool.) Being extremely passionate about a cause can make you "an icon". Apathy is out. And on its face, isn't it good that it isn't cool to be apathetic?
Yet it seems likely to me that this can easily intersect in a pernicious way with another trend in Thompson's piece about how teens compete for social status.
Surely there is a healthy midpoint somewhere between being completely ignorant of current affairs and being addicted to "doomscrolling" or the feedback from performing anxiety about the world on the Internet. (Or being so fearful of something like climate change that you stop eating for months.) We should encourage young people to find that balance. And sometimes, that might not mean just giving blanket encouragement to go get immersed in current events.
This is where I still do hold out hope: that things like debate or other civics education programs can help create a healthy environment into which politically-inclined teenagers can channel their worries about the world. It seems clear that a lot of venues that have emerged for political engagement and education in recent years aren't fostering the kind of mind-opening, fact-oriented exploration of issues and solutions that you find in a good model government, debate, or youth leadership program.
In a way, this makes good civic engagement programming even more valuable, not just as an antidote for apathy but for overload and misinformation.
I don't want to discourage today's teenagers from caring about the planet, or the government, or civil rights. I want to celebrate it and encourage it! But that means making sure the adults guiding them are creating less toxic spaces in which that activism and education can happen, helping teenagers find healthy balance and ways to contextualize and process their worries about the world.
Thanks again for being a reader of Codebook. Do you think teenagers today are too stressed about current events in ways that are unhealthy? Hop to the comments to start the discussion.
You can also catch my weekly radio show, "The Trendline", on SiriusXM P.O.T.U.S. Channel 124 airing Saturdays at 10 AM Eastern. Stay tuned Thursday for an update on my guests.
(Cover Photo: Yasin Akgul/AFP via Getty Images)