Jason was tall and skinny, Mark shorter and muscular. Jason played the cello; Mark played volleyball. Somehow, my sophomore year of high school, I fell in with Jason and Mark—and Jen and Erin and Jason B. and Jon and Candi, the cohort of juniors and seniors who dominated the youth group at our Methodist church. I was welcomed into their gang, even though I couldn’t drive yet. They picked me up on snowy evenings to do doughnuts in the mall parking lot. They picked me up after work to go to the movies. They picked me up on Saturday mornings to play tackle football on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, a thing I still can’t believe I did. That no one broke a leg astonishes me.
I don’t really think I had that much in common with Jason and Mark, and while I remember them with great fondness, I don’t remember them well. I recall that they both were fans of heavy metal and found the success of Extreme’s ballad “More Than Words” excruciating, because they’d so loved the band’s aggro sound. (I exclusively listened to R.E.M., a band they scoffed at.) I don’t remember how religious they were; God wasn’t a thing we talked about outside of the fellowship hall, and even there we left most of the talking to the youth minister. I remember that Jason’s mom was nice. I don’t recall anything about Mark’s family.
It wasn’t that kind of friendship—the kind where you are intimately connected and know everything about one another. We met up, we hung out, and then they graduated and I basically never saw them again.
I thought of Jason and Mark this past weekend, after my wife and I spent another half-hour encouraging our teenagers to Make some plans! Get out of the house! As is often the case, little came of it. Halfhearted texts receive halfhearted responses. School friends have crew practice or something else going on. No one wants to go out into the cold. Maybe they can just talk on the phone while playing video games?
I am torn, in the debate about teenage isolation and smartphone use, between my dislike for seeming a fuddy-duddy and my real concern about how friendship works among teenagers in 2023. Yes, there are still some teens who go out with friends, hang out in basements, throw the occasional kegger. But I see many, including my older daughter, spending most of their time at home rather than out with their peers. Even my younger kid, who’s much more willing to try to make plans, ends up by herself much more often than I ever did at that age.
I remind myself that it’s folly to compare their childhoods with memories of my own—memories that are surely weighted toward fun outings, rather than the many unmemorable nights I must have spent at home. (It’s not an accident I know so many episodes of The Simpsons by heart.) And anyway, much of the time that my kids spend in their rooms, which I instinctively see as “wasted,” is, in fact, social. It’s just social in a way that doesn’t make natural sense to me. It’s spent texting people they met on the internet, or watching and making TikToks, or chatting in a Discord with people who love the exact same animes or whatever.
Indeed, when my fellow parents bemoan the time our children spend online, I often make an optimistic counterargument: When we were growing up, we were stuck with whatever kids were in our high school, whether we had anything in common with them or not. These days, the entire world of teenagers is open to you. My 17-year-old, for example, has a direct line to people who share her identity, who understand her experience, who love the things she loves. Could she pluck from the haystack of her high school the needle of a person who analyzes Madoka Magica, rages about politics, and listens to Carly Rae Jepsen on loop? Maybe. More likely, no such needle exists. But she can find plenty such people online. What a gift!
And yet, the crisis in teen mental health deepens, and teens spend less and less time hanging out. We parents try to figure it out. Is there a causal connection between these two facts, and could it be related to smartphone use? Is it the pressure of social media? Perhaps the problem is a society that doesn’t offer enough “third spaces,” where kids can be out of the house but not hassled by authorities or salespeople. Or that every kid’s calendar is packed with SAT tutoring or crew practice. (It is wild how much time the crew team spends practicing! Really, aren’t they just rowing?) Is it the pandemic, or climate anxiety, or grade stress, or economic panic, or a car-centric world? Almost certainly, the problem is a combination of all these things, in different measures for every kid. That’s what most parents I know say when we discuss it, which is all the time. “But mostly it’s the phones,” we add.
My older teenager professes, despite her rich online friendships, to crave in-person fellowship—yet struggles to make connections with her anxious, overscheduled peers. As I’ve talked to my kids, and read panicked stories about how sad high schoolers feel now, I’ve been thinking a lot about my small, Midwestern high school, and its many limitations, and its pervasive late-’80s unfriendliness toward nerdy kids—and how, even so, I made it through mostly happy and mostly unscathed.
When I say I don’t remember that much about Jason or Mark, I’m not trying to be rude. I’d be shocked if Jason and Mark recall more about me than I do about them. We were casual friends who, nonetheless, in the era of landlines and first-generation Macintoshes, spent enormous amounts of time together.
I remember them now as good-enough friends. My high school life was filled with such people: the funny guys I did theater with, the Catholic-school girls I befriended at camp who lived across the city, the dude down the block who would show up at my front door on nice days with his tennis racket. Sometimes we got jobs at the same places, or visited one another at custard stands, swimming pools, the grocery store. We floated into and out of one another’s lives over the four years of high school, depending on who had a boyfriend or who was going away for the summer or who had a car or whose parents had grounded them.
These days I’m reconnected to most of those good-enough friends on Facebook, which feeds me good-enough versions of the lives they lead. Jason works for some kind of tech company and appears to be into chess. (Maybe he was into chess then, but if so, I had no idea.) Mark’s a doctor who exclusively posts photos of him doing outdoorsy stuff with his family. They seem to be doing great—or rather, I know about as much about them now as I did then, just minus any actual in-person interaction. I wish we could hang out sometime. I’d probably pass on the tackle football.
Through my life, including in high school, I’ve also accumulated a few great friends, the friends of my heart—the ones whom I make a point to see when I’m in their cities, who crash in my guest room, who commit to fire pits and movie nights. Those friendships can last decades. But I find that, at age 48, I don’t have so many of those good-enough friends. Or rather, I have dozens of them, but they’re mostly on the internet, and so while our interactions are rich and funny and frequent—too frequent, if I’m honest, in the case of those on Twitter—they’re almost never in person.
The internet is where I think a lot of my teenagers’ friends live too, whether they’re school friends who don’t get together in person or Discord friends who live in Italy or Minnesota or God knows where. And some of them really seem to be the friends of their hearts—people they’ve professed deep secrets to, people who share a worldview.
I don’t want to discount those friendships, which, in an atomized age, are fun, nurturing, meaningful—everything you’d want a close relationship to be. Yet it’s striking to me how frequently teenagers are able to avoid navigating the awkwardness of real-world connection. As one respondent to a recent New York Times survey of kids pointed out, “When I’m online, I can mute myself, and they can’t really see me. I can’t just mute myself in real life.”
I never had that, and maybe such online friendships of the heart would have changed my high school experience. But I wonder if they would have changed it for the better. I couldn’t mute myself with those good-enough friends. They really saw me. I had to learn to deal with them and their Extreme fandom; they had to learn to deal with my fussiness and nerdiness. That was the bargain we made, to have people to hang out with. I wonder what version of childhood, of life, offers more happiness: the one spent with perfect friends whom you never see, or the one spent with good-enough friends who, as I was, are up for whatever.