It’s hard to imagine that it’s ever been easy, at least in the modern world, to be a teenager. No matter where or when you live, the transition from childhood to adulthood, even if you’ve always been working, even if you’ve never been granted a single luxury, is a wrench. Hormones, after all, are hormones.
But now, living as we do in a time — or at least as we did, in the Before Times until covid struck — where most of us don’t have to worry about food or shelter or getting our basic health care needs taken care of, we all have other worries.
Perhaps you can call them First World worries, but they are devastatingly real nonetheless.
Ever since we’ve had the luxury of worrying about what other people think of us, we’ve had those worries. Do we look right? Sound right? Dress right? Walk right? Have the right accent? The right hair? The right shoes? The right nose?
Teenagers always have worried about other people’s judgments, but it used to be that they could go home, go to their room, slam the door, turn up the music, and shut out the world. But now they can’t do that any more.
Now, with social media, the world’s judgment of them, and their judgments of everyone else, and of themselves, teenagers labor under another burden; this one is so new that no one knows exactly how to define it, much less handle it.
On Wednesday, November 18, on Zoom, Englewood Health and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey will present a documentary, “Like,” that examines the way social media has infiltrated everyone’s lives. (See box.) After the film — which was made last year before the pandemic — a panel that includes the director and one of the people featured will discuss it.
Englewood Health and the federation teamed on a similar project last year when it screened the documentary “Angst” and then offered a panel discussion. Leaders in both organizations hope that the films will provide vital information and spark discussions, particularly between parents and their children.
The 49-minute production features many photogenic teens, mostly American, talking candidly about their social media habits. It also includes professionals who provide more nuanced insight into the problems they face. One of those professionals, Max Stossel of the Center for Humane Technology, gives one of the best quotes in the film; when he’s talking about millennials’ storied ability to multitask, he demurs. Millennials are not magic, the millennial Mr. Stossel said; instead, “they are human beings,” whose neurological systems do not permit them to do the physically impossible. They simply transfer their attention from one thing to the other very, very quickly. The film ends with an extended sequence showing Mr. Stossel walking backward down a downtown Manhattan street as he recites a poem about social media and the experience of genuine connection.
Jennifer Yanowitz of Tenafly is a social worker and Englewood Health’s strategic program manager. She also is a parent. As a professional, she helped arrange the program; as a parent, she is vitally concerned with its success.
“I connect with this on a few levels,” she said. “I connect it to Judaism, to the value of the family, to the importance of the integrity and closeness of the family. The addiction to technology is intrusive.
“As the mother of three children — one in elementary school, one in middle school, and one in high school — I feel a little bit robbed of my children’s attention, and that social media is my competition for their attention. It’s about their use of their phones, of the time spent with them, and with technology. It’s about our inability to regulate and set healthy limits. It is an intrusion on our time and energy that otherwise could be used in other places — and one of those places is the family unit.
“When we take a car trip, I think about the traditional family, singing and playing games in the car. Now we take a car trip, and everyone is on their own devices.
“How does this happen?
“As bad as the intrusion of social media into everyone’s life is, it’s particularly bad for children,” Ms. Yanowitz continued. That’s because of “the vulnerability of children’s emotions. Their brains are not fully developed until they are 25.”
Social media intensifies some character traits. “People are predisposed to feel certain things,” Ms. Yanowitz said. “Some tend to feel a little sad. Depressed. Whatever a child is feeling, whatever the predisposition, when that child goes on line and sees that she wasn’t invited to a party — a child who has a strong ego may rebound, but for a child who is more vulnerable, with lower self-esteem and lower self-confidence, that could be more damaging.
“We are asking so much more of younger and younger people, so very early,” she continued. “They are not as stable as an older person.
“On the flip side, they’re growing up with it, as opposed to older people, who didn’t.”
She urges parents and children to watch the program together. “I look at it as an intervention,” she said. “It is a chance to reflect on what the issues and challenges are. It’s about how this isn’t your free will. You are being manipulated.”
In saying this, Ms. Yanowitz is repeating the conclusions of many researchers, who contend that social media users are galvanized by their phones, that their behavior was programmed for them. “Your free will isn’t free will,” she said. “You are being manipulated.”
The film and the panel discussion are a way to fight back, she suggested. “So the parents see it, the family sees it, the student sees it, and they start a conversion about what the values are for our family, what we can do about what is happening — and the conversation begins, bringing with it the potential for making changes, and doing it, as a whole family unit, through dialogue and reflection.”
Danielle Lambert is a licensed social worker and the behavior health manager at Englewood Health. She will be a panelist when “Like” is screened.
“The film is about the impact of social media on our lives,” Ms. Lambert said. “It will look at how we use it, how it is marketed to us, and how it affects us socially, emotionally, and behaviorally. The intent is for us to think about how we use social media, and what changes we can make in our lives to prevent isolation, anxiety, depression, and the symptoms and conditions that can be exacerbated by excessive use of social media.”
While the target audience is teenagers and their parents, “everyone can benefit from this program,” she said. “They speak a lot about youth, but it is for all of us. I certainly walked away from it wanting to make some changes. It is designed to get us all to reflect on what roles social media play in our lives.
“It is a discussion starter,” she concluded.
Casey Halper of Demarest, an occupational therapist, and Audrey Kent of Tenafly, a speech therapist, are close friends; they do not quite share a profession, but they do share an ethos, a desire to help children and their families by paying careful attention to them. Together, the two women founded a federation program, the Wellness Network, that connects young women in the healing professions; it gives them a place to make both business connections and friends.
Last year, the Wellness Network was involved in the “Angst” panel, promoting it as helpful to its members both as professionals and as parents. This year, Ms. Halper, Ms. Kent, and other Wellness Network members are doing the same for “Like.”
“Last year, with ‘Angst,’ we felt that we able to reach out and impact so many families,” she said. “This seemed like a perfect follow-up.”
The film discusses the nearly physical empowerment that clicking through from one thing to another to yet another can provide, Ms. Halper said. “You see what happens to you when you click on a like button, or when someone does that for you, and if you have a better understanding of why it is happening” — about the effects of the adrenaline and dopamine that jolt you awake.
Life during the pandemic makes it even more appropriate just now, she continued. “We are all so isolated, and this is a nice way to connect.” Like many other people and organizations have learned, the irony of life during covid is that technology makes it possible for people who otherwise never would have met to get together, virtually at least. Englewood Health and the JCC never could have assembled a panel like that in the short time it had, but meetings are easier to put together when there’s no travel involved.”
She and Ms. Kent, like the rest of the panelists and organizers putting the evening together, hope that the discussions sparked by “Like” the documentary will be at least as powerful as the jolt viewers get from pushing the Like button, and that they will continue to talk to each other, using real words.
Who: The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and Englewood Health
What: Present the documentary “Like,” followed by a panel discussion
When: On Wednesday, November 18, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: On Zoom
What else: It’s free, but registration is necessary; you can register at BIT.LY/englewoodregister
Made possible by: It’s presented by the Gregory P. Shadek Behavioral Care Center at Englewood Health through a generous gift from Andrea and Neil Strahl.