Listen to this story
Something is going wrong with our kids, and to understand that something, we need to talk about what’s happening to a pivotal, defining moment for them: the middle school relationship. You all know what I’m talking about — the note-passing, “check yes if you like me,” gossip around the lunch table about who likes who. It’s a hilarious time of nerves, tension, and a whole lot of trial and error. But there are parts of it that aren’t so funny. The middle school relationship is an iconic coming-of-age moment that has been left untouched for decades.
Your parents, your grandparents, and your great-great-great-maybe-even-fantastic grandparents were all raised differently than you, but your junior high relationships are something you all had in common. Junior high is where you learn about love, about human connection.
You learn for the very first time the sheer size of love, how one moment can make everything feel so big it trips your nervous system.
You start to look for attributes to like in someone else, you start to analyze other people’s relationships, and you learn — for the very first time — how daunting, incredible, and terrifying it is to be vulnerable with another person.
But with the dawn of new technology, Gen-Z is in the midst of overhauling a staple that has lasted for generations. They are communicating more than any generation before them, but experiencing significantly less human connection. It should come as no surprise that this goes hand-in-hand with being the most anxious generation, and the most heavily medicated. These vast differences started here at the fulcrum: when the middle school relationship we know, and love, was lost.
The article from WIRED gives a more detailed outline of the stages of dating, but in the interest of keeping you here I will tell you briefly. Before this era, when kids felt that funny feeling they hadn’t felt before they might:
- Ask their friends “What do you think about so and so? They’re cool, right?”
- Declare to said friends they “like” them, giggle, and then see if they can gather some intel.
- Send them a note (!), in a move of brazen and maybe even misplaced courage.
But things have changed, drastically. Now that funny feeling translates into:
- Posting a picture on Instagram to show people you’re worth direct messaging.
- Messaging the handful of potential mates that impress you in Snapchat, where you can be more visual.
- Giving the person you choose your number (!) to build a textual (read: sextual) relationship.
There are a few major elements at play here, and we need to talk about them.
Let’s start with some nice things: This generation will likely be the most communicative of any generation before them. They are learning more (thanks, Google!), can express their feelings and thoughts more eloquently, and may prove to be the best generation of writers in human history (some have written more by the time they are 13 than most of us will in our lifetimes.) They are more tuned in to the news and to what’s happening in the world. Their relationships actually progress — on a communication level — much faster than those of their parents or grandparents before them. They are talking to their junior high companions more deeply than any other generation, and for more hours of the day.
The problem is they aren’t actually talking to them, and there are some big changes that occur because of that.
One change happens because kids, and adults, are much more daring through text than they would be in person. Text is always an option, so a middle schooler never has to go through the crucial life event of mustering up the courage to hold someone’s hand. In fact, they skip that and go far beyond it, but from a distance and without that foundation. Kids know more about sexual positions than some adults do, but have no idea what it feels like to finally have your crush touch your hand and send a shockwave through your body that lasts the rest of the day. They can talk about Trump, and opine about drug addiction, but don’t know the sheer panic — and rush — of watching someone open a note that leaves them vulnerable. We have a generation of children who can talk and act like adults, but without the foundations of being a kid. They’re launching into adulthood, but still have the wants and needs of children, desires that were never worked out while still children. This leads to the next problem: Without in-person contact, it’s hard to tell who is talking to who.
Because text interactions aren’t on public display, it’s impossible to tell how many of these relationships one kid might have. Because of this, there’s no real reason to step out, be vulnerable, and become official. No reason to trust. Why have one when you can have five?! An official relationship would also require more in-person contact, which just won’t fly. Kids end up feeling the pain of adult jealousy anytime they see their crush pick up the phone. Are they just talking to one person, or to several? Deep-seated jealousy issues at such a young age are sure to only crawl deeper as a person gets older. And yes, you might think that at some point, when these kids are adults, they’re going to have to learn how to have in-person contact. How will they go on dates? Or have serious relationships? Well, my friend, you would be wrong again, thanks to the dawn of dating apps.
What used to be note-passing turning, with age, into bar conversations, is now texting turning into Tinder. This generation won’t actually have to learn how to have good, deep connections and approach someone in a vulnerable way, because dating apps allow them to run their adult relationships the same way they are running their junior high ones. The introduction of text-relationships and dating apps are so prevalent, kids in this generation are attending college parties markedly less than generations before them. Parties are scary, require in-person contact, and your entire dating pool lives in your phone. Why bother?
Kids end up feeling the pain of adult jealousy anytime they see their crush pick up the phone.
And this leads to another — the last for now — defining characteristic of Gen-Z: They’re likely to be the most medicated generation in human history. Sure, some of that is from over-prescription and new drugs, but the lion’s share of Gen-Z drug use comes as the cavalry for crippling anxiety and depression. There are many factors that lead to this: the pressures of social media, the pace of the new world, the difficulty of education, the separation of socioeconomic classes, but the main factor? Human. Connection.
Humans need deep connection to survive, and even the iPhone 15 won’t change that. Deep connection doesn’t come without deep vulnerability, and if all you know is text relationships, constant jealousy, and a 24/7 world that doesn’t end at the end of a school day, how could you not be anxious? Love is only as good as what its defined by, and for Gen-Z, love’s calling cards are distance, uncertainty, and thumbs.
It is hard to tell what’s coming next. Perhaps more apps like TBH, which asks anonymous questions such as “Who is the cutest?” and “Who’s the best basketball player?” and allows kids to gain confidence while — yep, you guessed it — not requiring any vulnerability. Kids learn from apps like these what they’re considered good and bad at — as defined by anonymous and sometimes downright mean middle schoolers. They are not escaping their bullies, they are being defined by them. Social media may have already picked a U.S. president, but it’s also deciding the traits a generation deems worthy of carrying into adulthood.
I’m not a parent, and I don’t know that I have advice. I’m simply a person who covers technology, has nannied some wonderful kids who have been through this phase, and has seen how technology has intersected, and dissected, their lives. I really do believe this generation is on their way to chart waters we’ve never sailed before, but it’s important to remember that the boat set sail when we lost the iconic, multi-generational, middle school relationship.