Coming of (the Digital) Age

It’s no secret that modern technology has changed the way people live.

As I write this, I am in a coffee shop full of people working or doing classes far away from any centralized location. People all over the world are communicating with each other with no limits on distance. These technological innovations have led to some amazing things, but we shouldn’t allow the excitements of these new technologies to leave us blind to the potential negative side effects, especially for the people who grow in this digital age.

Recent research from social psychologist Jean Twenge shows that teenagers spend less physical time together than in they did in the past. Instead, they prefer to hang out digitally, through Xbox live, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Facetime, Snapchat, Twitter, and many other apps that give off the allusion of connectedness.

Further research shows that depression, anxiety, and suicide rates are increasing, especially in young people, and while it’s difficult to say conclusively that these statistics are due to the decrease in physical connectedness, they seem highly related. According to Twenge, “the results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy.”

Despite these dangers, these technologies are likely not going anywhere, so instead of longing for “the good ole days” before all these technological problems, we need to develop a better understanding of how to live and grow within the digital age.

A Place to Start

Bo Burnham’s 2018 film Eighth Grade focuses on Kayla, an eighth-grade wannabe-YouTube-star who is awkwardly trying to find her place in the world. Like most young people today, she is most comfortable behind a screen of some sort, spending her nights scrolling through Instagram and waking up an hour early to prep for her perfect “woke up like this” picture. She eats dinners with earphones in, ignoring her single father’s desperate attempts to connect with her.

Through Kayla, Burnham shows how easily we can construct an entire identity online that doesn’t fit our actual lives. Kayla’s YouTube videos center around her talking about building self-confidence and making friends, but in real life, her insecurities cause her to keep to herself.

Early on, viewers see that Kayla focuses more on creating a well-branded life than an authentic one. When a popular girl is forced to invite her to a pool party, Kayla gets excited about the potential friendships that will come from it. When she arrives, however, she mostly just stands alone in a corner. When the host’s cousin, Gabe, comes and speaks with Kayla, she hesitates to let her guard down because Gabe is weird and obviously not a part of the in-crowd. The two share some laughs, but Kayla only feels truly accepted, truly good about herself, when Aiden, her crush and obvious cool-dude-in-school, invites her to join the rest of the cool group.

In most coming of age films, this would feel like the natural climax. Finally, the awkward girl gets accepted and comes out of her shell, but Eighth Grade is more than just another teenage film focused on clichéd self-discovery. This film critiques the common “be yourself and everyone will accept you” narratives by reminding its viewers how terribly cringeworthy early adolescence actually is, how terribly cruel Eighth Grade actually is. Aiden eventually makes sexual passes at Kayla, the cool girls mock her thank-you letter, and everything goes back to normal. They forget about her, and that big breakout scene was just a moment that the school kept scrolling past, faded away like yesterday’s snapchats.

So, where’s the good news?

Finding Genuine Connections

Kayla begins to look elsewhere for her comfort after she attends a High School preview day. For the soon-to-be Freshman, High School is an entirely new world. She meets Olivia, a senior who symbolizes change and maturity and tells her frankly “Eighth grade is the worst.” Olivia represents the opposite of all that Kayla saw in Middle School. Instead of waiting for Kayla to prove her value like Aiden or the popular girls, Olivia welcomes her in immediately, offering up her phone number and answering when Kayla calls.

This friendship leads to Kayla’s real breakout scene, but it doesn’t involve her Youtube video going viral or the girls in school apologizing to her. No, it comes after another inappropriate sexual pass from another teenage boy. Kayla is rightfully hurt, scared, and confused, but instead of turning to her phone or computer for comfort, she seeks human connection in her father, who helps her burn the time-capsule she made in Sixth grade, containing all the things she thought would make the picture-perfect life. After burning the time-capsule, she stands up to the popular girls and goes on a date with Gabe, embracing his quirks despite how “uncool” they may be.

Ultimately, this film is not just about Kayla; it’s about all of us living in the digital age. We’re essentially in the teenage years of technology, and just like in middle school, we don’t actually know what to do. We have all the opportunities to be more connected, but we just become more isolated. Many of us, like Kayla, construct a digital identity that we can never actually live up to in real life, so we separate ourselves from others, fearing that they might find out who we really are. If we seek real experiences, we often channel them through the eyes of someone else: How cool is it that I’m at this concert? Instead of simply, I’m having a good time at this concert.

If Kayla’s struggles mirror our own, we should seek to mimic her transformation. We cannot live in these awkward years forever, looking for connections through likes and retweets from the right audience. We need real, face-to-face relationships with friends, mentors, and family members that accept us for who we are. Things won’t look picture-perfect, but they’ll be real. And that’s what we really need.