It’s late August, and teachers across the state are facing the start of yet another school year. Some of us have begun to stock up on supplies, venturing into Target’s Back-to-School section or, if school’s already started, the wine store, where the employees eye us knowingly. Others of us are soaking up last-minute vacation sun at the beach, perhaps in denial that the summer really is almost over.
I took a different approach and saw Bo Burnham’s movie Eighth Grade at The Charles, hoping to get myself back into the teenage mindset. I’d actually been looking forward to the film for weeks. I teach digital media to middle and high school boys, and I knew it would touch on themes that are of particular interest to me: how smartphones and social media are affecting kids today.
What I saw surprised me, and didn’t.
For a middle school teacher on vacation, Mr. Burnham paints a painfully accurate portrait of eighth grade in 2018. From the kid turning his eyelids inside out at a pool party to the one who shouts “Lebron James!” at the end of an active shooter drill, the film was both universal and very present. Mr. Burnham clearly gets the age. What surprised me was the takeaway. For me, the film was a cautionary tale, just not the one I’d expected.
About halfway through Eighth Grade, our awkward, shy protagonist, Kayla, has found much-needed solace in an adopted group of friends that are several years older than she when, half-joking, one of the boys in the group declares that Kayla, an 8th grader, is from a different generation. "She's wired differently!" he exclaims.
While it seems funny to hear it from another teenager, the older audiences who are attending Mr. Burham's R-rated film are undoubtedly familiar with the sentiment. Kids today, with their smartphones, social media and video games — they're just different.
It has long been popular among educators to collectively bemoan the faults of each generation they teach. Sometimes it’s to let off steam or to bond with colleagues. I have personally ranted about my seventh-grade students for both of the above reasons. Often, though, the belief that a younger generation is unalterably worse and fundamentally different than others is held in earnest and ultimately obscures the real and very important job that teachers have. Such a belief provides a dangerous cop-out: Why even try to reach kids today? They’re just wired differently.
While Mr. Burnham has repeatedly insisted that there is no “lesson” to be learned from his film, as an educator, I couldn't help but see the entirety of the movie as an antithesis to this statement. Eighth graders in 2018 are just like eighth graders from decades past: insecure, scared, earnest, searching, hopeful, desperate and lonely. They ask the same questions that scores of middle schoolers before them have asked: Do I matter? Am I special? Does anyone see me?
Kids today aren’t wired differently; they are outfitted differently. They have the same needs but new tools to address them. In the film, Kayla’s social media presence, her anxious use of her phone, her surreptitious YouTube searches — they are all supporting actors, not the main story. Even as she tries to satisfy different longings with the keyboard on her phone, at the end of the movie, viewers have little doubt that Kayla is going to be OK. She has what she needs: an attentive and deeply caring dad, a support system.
Sadly, that’s not true of all kids. Smartphones may not be ruining a generation, but their effects are felt differently, more significantly, among vulnerable kids: kids who don’t have stability at home, kids with learning challenges, kids who already struggle with anxiety or depression. That’s why a recent UK study found that banning smartphones in schools saw a 6.4 percent increase in test scores, with low-achieving and low-income students gaining the most. Middle school has always been terrible and hard and confusing, but the kids for whom it is especially terrible, hard and confusing: are smartphones helping or hurting them?
As I prepare to head back to school in a couple of weeks, Eighth Grade serves as an important reminder that my students aren’t all that different from my teenage self, and they’re looking for something that’s universal: love and acceptance. My job? Making sure the kids who need it most find it not just on their phones, but in my classroom, too.
Katie Reid is director of digital media at The Boys' Latin School of Maryland. Her email is email@example.com. Twitter: @katiereidwrites.