“Stressed Out” is a radio megahit that leaves some parents with a severe case of eye roll. A new nationwide study of teens, however, confirms why the song is heading toward 1 billion YouTube views. As any of those teens might explain, it’s totally on point.
The stereotype of youth has never been about savoring those oh-so-precious moments. Ever since teenagers were invented, they’ve battled to escape the limbo between childhood and adulthood. Time always seemed to drag, and teens sought the freedom to move onward and upward.
Given a lifespan time machine, previous generations of teens would have reached for the fast-forward button, zipping ahead to college, work, marriage, or whenever you get to set your own curfew.
Not the post-millennials.
While in search of a few cultural insights on our newest generation of teens, the dscout researchers — who typically are working to answer Silicon Valley’s big tech questions — expected a familiar set of topics to emerge: technology, extracurriculars, friends. The concept of “time,” however, continually popped up in unpredictable places — even in answer to a lightweight question you’d typically find on high school essay tests, job interviews, and annoying internet personality quizzes:
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Superpowers were the topic of just one of many questions posed to the 120 teen sample, which dscout recruited from its base of more than 100,000 participants. But that question’s answers yielded the most unexpected results.
The teen frontal lobe is responsible for some age-appropriate self-absorption. So, as you might guess, signs of teen-powered altruism were rare. Only one kid in the study planned to use their superpowers to end world hunger. About half, however, said they were trapped in a zone where time feels accelerated.
A few other ways teens expressed their time-centric superpowers: The Time Halter, Time Freeze Ray, Time Control, Stopwatch, Controller of Time, Teen Teleportation Time Saver, and Timefreeze.
From Tacoma, Wa., to Jupiter (the one in Florida), more than half of teens yearned to press the Pause button on their clocks — digital, analog and biological. Do teens today just truly adore these golden years of adolescence? Or is their hunger for godlike time control or temporal slicing intended for something else entirely?
For about half of the teens surveyed, superpowers would be employed get more done, and get it done faster, better, with less pressure.
Here’s a quote from Ella D, 17, from Illinois, which reflects the thoughts of many of her peer participants:
“My superpower would be to control time…to help teenagers to take the time they need to complete tasks without feeling the need to stress. Any obstacle can be thought through and addressed at any pace, time taken to recharge for increased mental prowess. It would give each person the ability to explore different fields…I know there are many things I would try if I had time. School takes up so much time, and on many occasions I’ve heard people comparing their sleep deprivation to each other. I’d like to live in a world where people had time to put into themselves and could do the things they love and cultivate their talents rather than try to one-up one another on levels of miserableness.”
Gen X, did your high school chit-chat include plans for increasing mental prowess? One-upmanship for sleep deprivation due to homework? Spend a few minutes in your kids’ school cafeteria, invisible of course, and the banter might surprise you.
Which brings us, somehow, to teleportation.
After the power to control time, many of our teen participants long to teleport. Their coordinates, however, are not set for anywhere that bends the imagination. Not Mars, Mt. Everest, or even Mall of America. The Big Teen Dream is a split-second commute between school, home, and extra-curricular activities.
Teleportation: It’s a great way to get more done! Here’s Amanda R., 18, from New Hampshire:
“I would teleport to places on demand, because we have so much on our plates. On a typical day in high school, I would go from school (7hr) to choir practice (1.5hr) to swim practice (2hr) and maybe try to squeeze in a social outing. And let’s not forget studying for midterms. Plus, I want to be able to do other things, like travel and get away from the stresses I face at home, school, and work.” — Amanda R, 18, New Hampshire
Even the quest for “super intelligence,” somehow found its way back to time control. No teen planned to use their big new brain to reverse global warming or cure Zika. Superintelligence would be ideal for producing faster and better homework.
Even when insta-cloning and mind-control were requested, they were just to relieve the pressure teens feel to go more places, see more people, read more things, and check more tasks off their Evernote lists.
Do teen’s changing perspectives reflect trends in the adult world? Perhaps. Have you downloaded Timeful or 30/30? Listastic? Any.do? Finish? Focus Booster?
See, kids, we adults have this time-crunch problem all figured out.
The driving force of technology in time compression was not entirely lost on the Gen Z. A couple of teens wished for superpowers to turn off all the devices, everywhere, at least once in awhile. Here’s Margo P, 18, from Nebraska:
“We spend our free time glued to screens or are constantly overbooking ourselves. I would love time to just relax and enjoy my youth.
Dakota S., 18, in Arizona aspired to mind control …. his devices.
“I’d never miss a call…my projects would be completed quicker, things I’m unsure of could be quickly searched online, and I could always keep up with recent events.”
But the vast majority of our digital natives viewed their internet-enabled environment as neither savior nor saboteur. Technology is simply integral to their connection with people and information.
The Ps, of course, don’t get it. Digital access was viewed as a common point of disconnection with parents. A quarter of teens believe their parents most failed to understand teen stress and time pressures. Another quarter say the generation gap is most evident in their battles over screen time. Promit G, 19, from Massachusetts, explains:
“Technology streamlines my life and allows me to deal with more things while maintaining my sanity. But they think I’m just wasting time on the Internet.”
Streamlining to maintain your sanity is not quite the aspiration we once expected from teens. Where’s the lofty idealism? The yearning for love or personal happiness? For depth of understanding and authenticity?
Actually, one third of teens did wish for a superpower to improve happiness — either for their own or for the entire teen population. Social media was sometimes a barrier to happiness, as teens longed to jettison negativity, reduce bullying, and boost empathy.
But, as you may be coming to expect, some teens hope to boost their happiness in more…pragmatic ways. Here’s Jared Z, 17, from New York:
“Being able to complete my work more efficiently would improve my happiness…”
A few more “traditional” teenagers, however, may still be out there:
“My superpower would be to make the band One Direction to fall in love with me and also who ever I want them to fall in love with.” — Erica S, Missouri, 19
Are all teens, in all socioeconomic strata, feeling pulled in all directions by their high-engagement high-technology circumstances? Of course, not. We all know about teen dropout rates and other communal ills claiming our young.
But social scientists have been observing time compression and its effects for years. And even those outside the research community are beginning to interpret each moment of the human experience as a series of interactions to be captured, analyzed, and coveted or manipulated.
FOMO for teens is not just fear of missing out on a big experience — it’s the fear of missing out on any moment, because each and every one is labeled as potentially significant, critical even, and there are just so darn many of them.
As if adolescents needed another reason to overestimate the meaning of minor events.
Technology has transformed customary teen FOMO from its former state of mere speculation into something very real, observable and quantifiable. Call it KYMO: Knowing You’re Missing Out. Teens used to worry that other people might be doing cooler things than they were. Today, we’re all painfully aware that yes, in fact, people are doing much cooler things than we are. Much, much cooler. All the time. Right now.
Right now, thousands of teens are sprawled on unmade beds, mindlessly scarfing Cool Ranch Doritos, obsessively scrolling on iPads, watching thousands of other teens posting on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Snapchat about that snatched concert, camping trip, shopping date, brow threading party, or donut they just had.
Teens do see the gap between the identities they are truly developing and the ones they want to project. Their understanding is manifest in their sad and wised approach to social media.
High schoolers may not sound so idealistic these days, but they seem to know it — and to know what they are really missing out on. After doing everything we’ve told them is important for a full life — to stay connected, experience broadly, excel deeply, join in, keep moving — it seems they know they are out of time.