I am convinced that the greatest challenge for teenagers today is not the smartphone. Overuse of consumer technology does contribute to disturbingly high rates of adolescent anxiety (a), but this addiction is not the source but the symptom of our current difficulty. The deeper challenge is the overwhelming cultural pressure to be indifferent. This attitude of indifference guides adolescents through the world with dazed eyes, more comfortable to stare for hours at images on a screen than to pause and briefly observe the world around them. It is more than distraction; it is a habitual disregard for one’s surroundings because one is simply not accustomed to being interested in their worth. This malaise contaminates one’s studies, social relationships with friends or family, and even personal regard for self-worth, and cannot but lead to confusion and unhappiness. Indifference has become almost an expected rite of passage for teenagers, and it presents an enormous challenge for educators and parents, but most of all for each individual teenager.
But this isn’t anything new. The caricature of the indifferent teenager has been familiar to American life for almost half a century; though the actions that demonstrate this have changed, their underlying pattern remains the same. An examination of two sources of this indifference, while not exhaustive, can provide insight into this challenge for our teenagers today, and the steps needed to overcome it.
Craving Purpose and Meaning
First, if a teenager gobbles down inordinate amounts of junk food each day, the core of the problem is not with the existence or availability of junk food: it’s with the teenager. Deprivation, just hiding the bags of chips or— extending the analogy— snatching away the phone, will only make the craving stronger. The challenge, then, is to address the craving.
A craving indicates an absence or gap which needs to be filled. For teenagers, this craving marks a clear lack of purpose. But adolescents are given a message about their purpose in our society. It’s in movie after movie, expressed in media from advertisements to commencement speeches, and could be summarized as follows: first, each person is equal, unique, and in their own way, beautiful. Then, through earnest perseverance, each must work to use their individual talents to transform the world into a better place.
This message seems uncontroversial, sounds inspirational even, yet teenagers remain dissatisfied. Why? The difficulty arises not from the message itself but from its focus. The message presents the world as a flawed environment to be altered for the good of humanity. Teenagers must wait: they will be meaningful when they grow up, right now they are consumers but later they shall be instruments of change. In short, they have little power as they are, but what they are is unchangeable and good. This is precisely the problem.
Adolescents are notoriously impatient; they have an innate desire to find answers, to test them, to act as empowered adults. Their objective is to grow as soon as possible. They need goals with clear marks of progress, to guide this growth and temper their impatience. Influencing the wide world is a grand and unattainable goal; their focus must be narrowed to something actual and immediate that they are able to accomplish. Ignored in the standard message of meaning is the most important thing teenagers can change for the better: themselves.
Education should be presented not as a step-ladder towards something greater later on, but a clear aid to the pursuit of a good and happy life right now.
The most effective growth for any teenager is interior growth. This happens through personal will, guided by the example of those they respect and the goods they experience. The crossroads of those latter two is often called an education. Through this education they can form and re-form their desires, which is their great power as adolescents: to take in reality, as it is, and use that reality as a guide to change themselves.
This is the opposite of the common story given above, where the self is unchangeable and the reality around oneself needs to be transformed. That message has no clear personal progress, and without clear progress there is only discouragement and bewilderment. Without guidance, unhappiness grasps at anything to avoid or appease confusion. Hence the junk food, one expression of which is addiction to entertainment and consumer technology, feeling good and perhaps meaningful going down, then leaving nothing but the overwhelming need for more junk food. Truth or purpose might be another tap or scroll away. Or it might not be. At a certain point, escape becomes the aim and purpose no longer matters. At the heart of this vicious circle is indifference.
The attention-driven economics behind consumer technology only exacerbate this problem of purpose. Teenagers are bombarded with reasons to check their apps or phones, especially because if they do not, they will become irrelevant. They will miss out, in a way very real to their imaginations and experience, on life itself. This is reinforced everyday by the attitude of their peers concerning internet communication. Phones provide bits of meaning, an illusion of an accessible social reality. This extremely seductive pseudo-reality only has real power, however, if the user is already indifferent to the reality that exists.
Indifference in this sense becomes a way of escape. It’s easier than facing the lack of purpose that most teenagers feel, a lack of purpose often coupled with an overwhelming pressure to succeed in their academic or extra-curricular pursuits, again, so that one day they may in fact become meaningful in their elusive quest to ‘change the world’. Shifting the focus back to the individual teenager, their interior growth and education, their actual experience of the world and finding meaning through their present actions, will combat the above attitude of estranged disillusionment. Education should be presented not as a step-ladder towards something greater later on, but a clear aid to the pursuit of a good and happy life right now. Attending to present growth, and the goods of life each teenager already experiences each day, will resist the pressure of indifference with regard to purpose and meaning.
Relativism and the Crisis of Belief
Another type of indifference is related to personal belief. The reasons are numerous and varied, but the contemporary teenager often experiences, however actively or passively, a crisis of belief. It may not be an exaggeration to say they become indifferent to the idea of belief itself. One enormous contributor to this confusion is the predominance of a tacitly accepted moral relativism, which is worth examining further to approach a deeper understanding of our societal tendency toward indifference.
Relativism treats our moral beliefs like personal tastes. Everyone has different tastes and they are not to be imposed on others; we wouldn’t force our friend to like our favorite food, so likewise we shouldn’t force them to accept our perspective on morality. Relativism teaches that differing opinions are absolute, for moral beliefs are inherently subjective and by nature must always remain distinct. There is no objective criteria that either party can appeal to in order to settle a moral dispute; there is no hope of convergence by means of reason.
If our reasons are not trusted to be at least potentially objective—having some quality of truth beyond our beliefs and our tribe—then genuine moral disagreements cannot be resolved. Moral disputes that forego the possibility of resolution resort to alternative means of persuasion, and the obvious historical example is that of violence. Relativism thus presents argumentative moral disagreement as leading to harm, for at the very least, it can do no good. Our language has been reframed, poked and prodded to encourage tolerance, dialogue, acknowledgment and understanding in the name of peace— with the underlying assumption that this is expedient and necessary since no true consensus can be reached by discussion.
Disagreement itself has become public enemy number one. Yet even a cursory glance at newspaper headlines assures us that moral disagreements are very much alive and well in America. Without hope of rational convergence, reconciliation relies on two extremes, and it’s no coincidence that both extremes are now associated with opposite ends of the political spectrum.
First, the recognition that others do not share one’s moral outlook leads to an enormous effort to create an environment— through institutions, legislation, commerce, cultural media, etc— in which people are actively and passively persuaded. Disagreement must be bypassed by coercion; manipulation of the intellectual, social, or even day to day environment makes it easy to believe one truth and harder to believe any other. A single encompassing moral perspective is propounded as the only rational moral perspective, and no clear reasons are given to support it.
The flip side of this effort to enforce agreement is the effect it has on people who do not have power or influence. For example, our teenagers. They are told that moral disagreements are unsatisfactory, cannot be resolved except through other means. Or, that they have already been resolved by progress in a particular direction. Either way, they have no power in the matter. This perceived lack of responsibility again results in indifference.
Indifference has become one of the default responses to moral disagreement. The indifferent person shrugs his shoulders and calls those who disagree madmen or felons. The opposition simply can’t or won’t reason, so there’s no use reasoning with them (note the shared premise with the first approach). Indifference ridicules those who force their morality on the world and lashes out against any authority as a covert attempt to coerce. Unchecked by reason, the impulse proceeds to attack anyone who believes in anything at all, simply for the reason that they believe. Belief itself becomes the target.
The indifferent dissenters become so accustomed to criticizing others’ beliefs that they cease to believe at all. As good relativists, when challenged to defend or act on their moral perspective they shirk the responsibility; personal uncertainty hides behind a mask of tolerance or uncaring. But the defeasible belief is no belief at all, for truth is not defeasible. The indifferent are dissatisfied with their own moral perspective, nor can they see any way to make it stronger, but they still see the weakness in all others. This is the unfortunate crisis of belief for the contemporary teenager.
Relativism has settled into the heart of the teenager’s confusion, denying the power of reason as an arbitrator for moral disputes and proclaiming tyranny or indifference as the only means of survival in a world without objective truth. But humans can hardly live without purpose and truth. Surrender to an objective truth that is perceived as good and beautiful infuses each action, indeed an entire life, with purpose. Our need for surrender to truth is widely acknowledged across the diverse spectrum of intellectual history, indeed our need for objective truth is manifest in the way we live and talk and act. Whether this truth exists, and in what way or form may be debated, sure. But we need it nonetheless. Teenagers need it perhaps most of all.
Indifference distracts adolescents from their innate desire to get to the heart of the argument, to test their understanding against that of others, to develop their moral perspective. Without this dynamic moral engagement with the world, they begin to miss an enormous aspect of human life and community. Life becomes bare and centered on other principles, perhaps wealth or popularity or other ideas of success, which provide momentary pleasure in exchange for ever-mounting anxiety. Only through sincere belief can there be the heroic loyalty, self-sacrifice, and commitment needed for friendships, marriages, and families. Without a yearning for truth, and without commitment to this truth, there can be no love.
Reason and Engaging with Reality
Teenagers have a striking capacity to reason. They want to be taught to weigh reasons seriously, acknowledge which are good and bad. Reasons are the type of thing to be evaluated, especially as they relate to matters of morality, politics, aesthetics, and religion. Parents and teachers can demonstrate this through their own conversation and example. Arguments and discussions centered on meaning, on what might or might not be meaningful or true, are key to framing good habits of debate. Another key is actually listening. Listening to teenager’s reasons, however bad they may seem, teaches them to listen to others. Part of listening is demonstrating, using reasons teenagers understand, why their argument or viewpoint might be flawed. Most teenagers ignore adults because they believe adults ignore them. Adults simply don’t take their arguments seriously, which is to say they don’t listen. The challenge for the educator or parent is to engage the teenager’s imagination, to understand their perspective and reasons for belief.
Adolescents are fiercely argumentative by nature because they genuinely desire truth. They begin for the first time to reflect in earnest and find pressing questions that must be answered; they want answers that are unshakable and absolute, for they feel their wellbeing depends on it. If they catch a whiff of hypocrisy or inconsistency, they will attack it. Treating these attacks with patience and not dismissal is key to helping them grow in their search. More importantly, patience in the face of attack demonstrates confidence in one’s own beliefs, that same confidence that teenagers crave. Reflecting on and living out our own beliefs, presenting them as living truths to our teenagers, especially truths that can be grasped and spoken of reasonably, is key to setting an example that counteracts the influence of relativism.
Most teenagers ignore adults because they believe adults ignore them. Adults simply don’t take their arguments seriously, which is to say they don’t listen. The challenge for the educator or parent is to engage the teenager’s imagination, to understand their perspective and reasons for belief.
In short, we must take extra care to attend to our teenagers, and in so doing, teach them how to attend to their world. Teenager’s lives are filled with goods and meaning, but indifference obscures these goods, teaches them to mistrust or ignore meaning. Resisting indifference requires its replacement with positive goods, for negative attacks can never be as effective as an authentic change of desire.
This change occurs through dynamic engagement with the reality around them, which could be as simple as a walk through nature with no other purpose than to be alive and in the world. Still, they must be shown how, not necessarily explicitly, but through example. The examples are numerous: this engagement could come through a spirited, yet reasoned, debate at the dinner table. Or reading and discussing a favorite piece of literature, or attending a professional play. Or just giving them space to grow, provided they realize that this freedom is given because you trust their ability to live well and improve themselves, to take in the world in the present and accept it as it is: an undeserved gift.
When cutting into a sizzling steak, who thinks about Doritos? When in the heat of a competitive soccer match, who cares about one’s xbox Fifa ranking? When laughing with genuine friends, who stops to write a tweet or post a pic? Reality will triumph over indifference, always. Let’s keep this truth present to the minds and imaginations of our students and children, help show teenagers what a joy it is to live when their actions are charged with meaning and purpose—essentially what we all strive for each day, to be human in the best possible sense. Then we can talk about changing the world.