What's Up with the Teens?

A dozen Bergen County high schoolers candidly discuss their lives, worries and dreams.
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Take what you remember from high school and its challenges, and add these ingredients: ubiquitous social media, vaping, fears of terrorism, news reports of frequent school shootings, and colleges harder than ever to get into—and pay for. Isn’t it a wonder that most Bergen high school students maintain their hope, their openness and their sense of humor?

For the third straight year, BERGEN has investigated high school life—not by consulting sociologists or educational studies, but by going to the source: teens themselves. Showing remarkable candor and generosity, our panel of 12 high school students met recently with Editor in Chief Rita Guarna and her team, Daria Meoli, Haley Longman and Darius Amos, for a no-holds-barred discussion that demonstrated two things: (1) These kids are busy high achievers who are more than typically articulate, and (2) if the word “like” ever suddenly vanishes from the language, they’re in big trouble.

Rita: Let’s talk about competition.

Nina: I study theater at Bergen County Academies (BCA), so there is quite a bit of competition in our theater classes—whose monologue is the best, who’s the best dancer. And, of course, in the actual mainstage productions, who’s getting the parts.

Jordan: I’m going to piggyback off that. They actually don’t give us our class ranks at Bergen County Technical Schools (BT) because they don’t want us to fight with each other. The only thing they tell us is who’s valedictorian and salutatorian when you graduate. We’re always asking, “What’d you get on this test?” Everybody’s always trying to be the best.

Elizabeth: A lot of high school students think success is a limited resource, but we’re trying to shift the culture at Immaculate Heart Academy, and we found that helps the bullying issue.

Nina: Especially on social media, it’s almost like a trend to see who the most stressed person is. Everyone is like, “Oh my God, I have all these assignments.” “No, I have all these assignments!” But in reality it’s very possible to go to teachers and ask, “Can I move this over?”

Sophia: I see the same thing. You’ll say, “Oh, I’m taking four APs,” and someone’s like, “Well, I’m taking five!” and they’ll post on their Snapchat story, on Instagram or on their Finsta that they’re stressed about a test.

Nina: Yeah. So then you see someone’s Finsta story and they have, like, a 3:30 a.m. sticker on it. It’s almost like people are staying up so they can post that they’re staying up.

Haley: Can you explain what Finsta is for readers who might not know?

Nina: So, you have your Rinsta, which is the Instagram where you put out the image that you want to project of yourself to the world. And then your Finsta is typically private for your friends, although it’s usually a hundred-something followers where you kind of post your deepest emotions.

Sophia: Sometimes people won’t talk about things in real life, and you’ll go to them and ask, like, “Oh are you OK? I saw you posted something,” and they’ll pretend nothing happened or that they’re fine.

Nina: There are lots of pictures of people crying on their Finstas.

Anna: I think social media definitely adds to the competitive culture. It’s only getting worse and worse. People are getting more, like, addicted, and whether it’s on Snapchat, Instagram, all that [even though] there are some people who will step back from it and say “I’ve had enough.”

Rachel: People don’t ask for your phone number. They’re asking, “Oh what’s your Snapchat? What’s your ‘Insta?’” to stay social and be a part of a social life and the different activities you join. Even here, I’m sure people will exchange different social media accounts. That’s a big part of our culture now. People are constantly competing with, “How many likes did I get? How many comments did I get?”

Nathan: I definitely agree. But for me it’s important to find balance where you’re not off social media—because, like we said, it’s, like, almost entirely impossible—but you just have to realize that it’s kind of a forced image that people are portraying and that it’s not 100 percent real. You can look at it, have fun with it, but try not to obsess over it.

Sophia: Sometimes people obsess over how many likes or comments they get and they have to have at least a thousand followers. And if they don’t, it’s like they go crazy. Also, instead of talking directly to someone when they have a problem, they’ll post an “indirect” message about the person on social media. Then sometimes people can tell who it’s about. So the person still finds out, but instead of directly confronting them, it just becomes more public. And sometimes it creates bigger fights.  

Rita: This is something that came up at last year’s forum when we talked about bullying.

Nina: There’s this girl in my academy, and she’s not really on [much] social media. She texted this one kid and he posted a screenshot of it on his Finsta and he was like, “Oh my God, look at what she texted me. Ha ha!” And then everyone was commenting, “Oh my God, that’s so weird.” She’s such a sweet person, but she couldn’t even see what this kid had posted. It’s really upsetting to watch how people use social media in a destructive way.

Elizabeth: I notice the days when I say I’m not going to check anyone’s Snapchat story for 24 hours, I kind of go through my day a little bit easier. I’m not worried about what every other person in my circle is doing. And oftentimes when you are checking social media, you’re not out with your friends, you’re not out having a good time. You’re sitting there stressing and saying, “Wow, look what everyone else is doing.”

Rita: What stresses you out the most?

Caroline: For me, it’s definitely the fear of the unknown. For the past three years, high school has been, like, my safe place. And you’re walking out of a comfortable setting and into the real world. It’s a little stressful because you don’t know what to expect.

Cierra: I’d say what can be most stressful is balancing work, school and friends, because you’re also trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up. Your work now is also important because you need money—you know, to get to where you want to be.

Rita: When you say “work,” you don’t mean schoolwork, but actual work?

Cierra: Yes.

Rita: Does everybody have a job besides going to school?

[Six students raise their hands.]

Anna: I think the hardest thing is the fact that you have to accept that you’re going to be fine no matter what. It’s just stressful to think about, like, “Is this test or this ACT really gonna affect where I end up?”

Rachel: There’s kind of an expectation for people our age, especially juniors and seniors, that you’re supposed to have it all figured out. Like, I love science, but I also love the performing arts. It’s pretty stressful because, of course, there are the kids who are like, “I know exactly what I want to do,” “I want to get a five-year degree,” “I want to go into med school.” It’s not like we’re not working hard. We’re still putting all the effort in, but we don’t know exactly where we’re going. And it’s hard to compare yourself to people who do know exactly where they’re going.

Nathan: A big stress for me is if you put all your time into one path [but] you don’t really know what you’re going to like later on in terms of a job. And then it might be too late.

Nina: I plan on going into theater. And on one hand, I’m totally thrilled about that. I’m fortunate in that my parents support me. But also, a lot of the programs for theater are like, 2,000 auditions, and 12 kids get in. There’s the top 20 BFA programs that everyone wants to go to. So, you look at your Playbill when you see a show and see that all of these people went to this school. I really better cross my fingers that I get into this school, but there is literally less than a 1 percent chance that I will. And I’m a brunette soprano, so if they happen to already have one of those, it doesn’t even matter how good the audition is. I also should have a backup plan. Like, what am I going to do if the arts don’t work out for me?

Rita: So does everybody have a plan B or backup plan?

All: No.

Elizabeth: I don’t even have a plan A!

Alexander: I’d say my biggest fear and stress is just failing to meet expectations.

Rita: Whose? Your own?

Alexander: My own, my coaches’, my teachers’ and my parents’. I’m expected to get a certain score in my subject tests, on my ACT and SAT, a certain GPA, to try to get into certain levels of colleges. So if I’m unable to do that, it’s disappointing myself and the people around me.

Elizabeth: I have to agree that the person who puts the most pressure on me is myself. I think not being good enough has been a challenge for our generation.

Nathan: Being way too concerned about college is kind of, like, not a good idea. I know people who did everything right. It’s kind of a gamble at the end of the day. And so, you can only do your best.

Rita: Are drugs an issue in your environment?

Christopher: In my school, it’s not as extreme as heroin. But we do have a huge weed and Juul problem.

All: Yes!

Christopher: Especially with the introduction of a “pen.”

Anna: Yeah. I feel bad talking about this. Like, because the “pens” and the Juul just came about, it’s so much easier for people to just be high all day at school without anyone knowing.

Rita: Is that tied directly to the level of stress?

Anna: I don’t think so.

All: No.

Elizabeth: It’s not really a coping mechanism.

Rachel: Because it’s in the “pen” form, people just do it in the bathroom so easily and that becomes an issue.

Caroline: It’s crazy too. Some kids have become so reliant on it that they can’t go about their day without using it. Otherwise they freak out.

Anna: If they’re using not-as-hard drugs, just weed and nicotine, imagine what they’re going to be using in college.

Caroline: So, my high school is connected to the middle school [and] “pens” are seeping into the younger grades. When I was a middle schooler, this was never a thing. Now, they’re growing up in an environment where, like, that’s the norm. Nina: People think it’s artsy. They’ll post on their VSCO [videos] of them Juuling. And then you’re like, “Wait, you’re doing drugs?”

Rita: What about alcohol?

Caroline: Some schools treat it as normal now. There are parties, and people are trying things.

Anna: I feel like when my parents were younger, as teenagers, everyone at one point would drink. A big thing my friends and I talk about sometimes is driving drunk, because it’s so looked down upon. I know no one would ever do that, at least the people I surround myself with.

Nina: I think driving drunk and texting and driving are things that our generation, since we were like babies, have been told not to do. So, if someone is texting and driving, the other people in the car will be like “Put that down immediately!” No one drinks and drives.

Rita: Wait a minute. I know almost all of you are driving. You don’t ever text and drive?

All: No.

Anna: Never. I know people who do.

Nathan: My parents text and drive a lot more than I do.

Nina: Yeah! I love my parents, they’re the best. But, like, they’ll have their phone on their lap [while driving] so they can feel it vibrate if they get a text. In my opinion, that’s still a distraction. So then I’ll be like, “Mom, can you, like, move that or whatever?”

Rita: What about cheating?

Sophia: People just ask each other for answers.

Rita: That is still considered cheating, right?

Sophia: People don’t think it’s cheating. If there are two different classes taking the same tests at different periods, they’ll ask each other for details about the test, but then they don’t consider it cheating because they think, “Oh, I didn’t look at their paper.”

Alexander: I think we all know it’s cheating; we’ve just become so accustomed to it. 

Rita: But if we go back to the issue of competitiveness, if you’re the person who’s being asked, and you didn’t have the luxury of knowing in advance, are you willing to share that information?

Sophia: I say no.

Anna: It’s hard when it’s your friends. When you’re working together on projects and stuff, and you’re helping each other through the whole year and then they ask you what was on it, you’re not gonna be like, “No.”

Rachel: It is pretty common, honestly. The kids that have the test later in the day will ask people earlier in the day about the test. “How was it, what was the open-ended question, etc.” For me, at least, it’s a pet peeve of mine, so I morally think it’s wrong. Even people who share work.

Rita: What do you mean, “share work?”

Rachel: Like, homework assignments. Some people don’t think it’s as big of a deal. But you’re still copying answers and handing that in as your own.

Nina: What happens at BCA a lot is, kids will just get their work done, not really learn stuff, and then the test comes up. And the night before the test, everybody is up all night studying and FaceTiming each other and helping each other out. Again, it’s a part of the stress culture almost, to push everything off like that. But the other thing is, as competitive as everybody is, people want to survive it together, if you will. [They] try to help each other out, because they look at it as almost morally wrong if they don’t help their friends. But, what a lot of teachers do these days is change their tests.

Sophia: Yeah, we started having that too. The teacher would just make different versions because they caught onto what was going on. A lot of my friends, whenever I don’t give them answers, it’s because I just strongly believe that it’s part of my values. They think we’re just helping each other out and they’ll blame me for not doing it. I suggest to people, like, “I can help you with the concept or the chapter.” And they’re like, “No, I just want the exact answers.”

Rachel: People are getting, like, inflation in grades just because they’re sharing work and things like that, which isn’t fair to the kids that actually put in the time. 

Anna: At least at [Pascack Valley], the teachers are extremely helpful. They’re willing to stay after school, come in before school, eat their lunch with you and sit to make sure you really understand what you’re learning.

Rita: What about safety? Do you guys feel safe in your environments with everything that’s going on in the world?

Brielle: I don’t feel bad about the safety in my school. Although one time this year we had a drill and my teacher freaked out because she didn’t know what to do.

Rita: Do you feel like there’s ever somebody who perhaps is going through something and that person is a danger, or do you ever feel unsafe?

Brielle: No, but we always have security guards walking around anyway.

Nathan: I think the lack of bullying makes it feel safer because you feel like everyone’s accepted in some way. At Ridgewood, we have a completely open campus.

Rita: What does that mean?

Nathan: Anyone can leave whenever they want and, like, come back. We can leave during our “frees” and go to town.

Cierra: Throughout the years in high school I’ve definitely seen a change—they’ve taken safety more seriously. But, at the same time, some of the students don’t take it as seriously.

Jordan: I was actually inside BCA when something happened. I was there for a game and I was stuck in the gym for two and a half hours. It was one of the scariest experiences of my life. I saw coaches taping paper to the windows. We couldn’t see what was going on. You could hear SWAT teams going around the building and sweeping it. I was freaking out the entire time.

Rita: How did this come about? Somebody called in a threat?

Jordan: This was one day when there had been threats all across the state.

Anna: My school has definitely taken the right steps to ensure school safety. Like, they added security guards and they closed—we have this breezeway where you can kind of walk into the school, and they closed that. And they have security cameras.

Nina: We have like a lot of exchange programs at BCA, and when the Danish kids visited I had a Dane shadowing me, and we had a drill, and they had no idea what was going on. They were like, “You guys do what?”

Rachel: I feel like for our generation growing up, like, you know, being born around the time of 9/11 and seeing like all these school shootings, more kids are concerned—at least kids that I know—about the safety of the world and of our country than safety in school.

Cierra: Yeah. I don’t know about anybody else, but when I go to the movies, I find myself, like, looking for an exit.

Rita: Do you guys worry about what it’s going to cost to go to college?

Anna: Yes. A lot. It’s like, even if I’m not paying for it I feel bad for my parents.

Alexander: My parents would like me, of course, to graduate college in four years. And they said they already have the costs at least partially covered. But for me, I think that if I could either go to, like, a school that’s pretty good or a school that’s a bit lower, but that I get a scholarship for, I’d easily take a scholarship even though my parents don’t necessarily need the money. I feel like it’s just something to pay them back for everything.

Anna: A lot of kids feel that way now.

Rita: One of the things that came up last year was the political climate in the country.

Nathan: Most kids in my school aren’t very politically informed at all. So when I’m sharing a political opinion and it’s controversial, I feel, like, very comfortable because they won’t know enough to say anything. Even if they do know about it, I like that too. I actually like engaging in conversations.

Rita: So you feel that people are open to listening to the other side?

Nathan: If they’re interested in politics at all.

Elizabeth: A big part of high school is learning how to form your own opinion. So I think that, especially at my school, people definitely aren’t afraid to raise their hand and share their opinion. And for the most part I don’t think they get bullied or judged for it.

Anna: Sometimes I’ll just keep my mouth shut if I don’t know what I’m talking about. ’Cause, like, we don’t learn a ton about politics in school.

Sophia: I feel like the teachers keep it objective.

Jordan: I’m going to disagree with you on that. I just finished taking AP U.S. government politics. That’s part of my major, and my teacher—I like her and I don’t mean to attack her—but she totally brought her personal political beliefs into the class. And I feel like some of the people in our class just absorbed it. They’re like, “I want to get a 5 on the AP exam.” I wholeheartedly disagreed with almost everything she had to say.

Rita: Did you speak up? I’m just curious.

Jordan: No. I didn’t feel comfortable saying anything about it because I didn’t want to get attacked for it.

Christopher: My town is just about as far left as you can imagine, and it’s extremely feminist, which I’m fine with—I have three sisters. But there comes a point when so many people voice the same opinion and I don’t have the same opinion, I don’t voice any opinion because if I do, I’ll just get flamed.

Nathan: In my school, I think we have pretty liberal teachers overall. But I’d say the students are more generally conservative, and that can cause a little bit of strife sometimes.

Alexander: Just one example is the walkout [to protest gun violence]. It wasn’t supposed to be political at all, and the people who went up to talk on stage, it was just kind of bashing everything about the Second Amendment. That was something I didn’t like.

Elizabeth: At my school it’s interesting, ’cause you throw in the religion aspect too. So people have a more focused view of certain issues, but on others they’ll disagree.

Caroline: In our school, I feel it comes with the sense of maturity. Everyone understands that not everyone’s going to agree, and it just comes down to that and that you have to respect what people need.

Rachel: We’re small at Emerson—my grade is like 90 kids. So everyone’s really, like, close-knit. It’s like a closed community. You know the kids who are hard-core Republicans or hard-core Democrats. But we have a lot of discussions and a lot of debates where people aren’t afraid to state their opinions, and they’ll get heated in that moment. But at the end of the day, we respect each other.

Rita: Is that part of the curriculum?

Anna: Teachers definitely like to bring it in as much as possible. It’s just that there’s so much in the curriculum in a year that there’s not a lot of time for it. But it’s good to practice debating.

Jordan: I feel like most of my school leans to the left. Most of the teachers lean to the left. There are a couple of us who are, like, more centrist or toward the right, and we’re kind of just left in the dark.

Rita: Finally, let’s talk about balance.

Jordan: On weekends I am a soccer referee, I coach a soccer team, I help run a soccer club. I find myself in trouble at some point. I get home from school on Friday and I’m like, “I have to do all my homework!” I don’t do it until 3 a.m. Sunday because I’m not home at all on the weekend because I’m doing all this other stuff. But I feel like balance is a hard thing just between schoolwork and outside of school. I’ve known Chris for a long time. We both live in Leonia, and I haven’t seen him in a while. Let’s just be honest. Right, Chris? I don’t have time. My friends are at school, I see them at school and then I don’t have any time other than that.

Christopher: Balance isn’t really a struggle for me because I’ve learned to adapt to five, four hours of sleep a night. I play baseball. And then you gotta do an hour at the gym. Then you’ve got to do your three hours of homework, and then you gotta do an hour of YouTube.

All: [Laugh.]

Rachel: Balance is definitely a struggle. My conflict comes in that I want to be involved in too many things. Next year I’m going to be president of student council. I run all the events during the year. I do theater as well, so sometimes during play season we have rehearsals until 10 p.m. Then I get home and I’m exhausted after a long day and I have to do homework until 2 a.m. just to keep up or else I fall behind. And on top of that, balancing clubs and extracurriculars and schoolwork with trying to have a social life. I feel like, especially as a rising senior with college apps and everything like that coming up, finding balance is important for mental health.

Anna: I’m involved in a lot too, but honestly I don’t know if I find balance a struggle. I think overall, people figure out after freshman year what they want to spend their time on. And if they’re doing too much, that’s on them.

Rita: How many hours of sleep do you get?

Anna: Probably around five, six hours.

Alexander: I wouldn’t say it’s too difficult for me. The most difficult part of the year is when I’m playing a sport—I play soccer.

Brielle: I personally don’t have a problem with balancing everything, but I think a big reason is because I don’t have a job. I think when I do get a job, I’m gonna struggle a little bit to figure out how to balance it, because I do spend a lot of time with my friends.

Nathan: For me it’s not really too much of an issue because I was pretty strategic. I didn’t overload myself with things. I chose the three or four things I care about and I get, like, seven hours of sleep a night, which is pretty good. And I’m able to see my friends very consistently.

Caroline: I have a tendency to want to be the best in everything, [and] I’m involved in a lot. Sometimes I have something that’s very important to do and I can’t necessarily just come out and hang out, and I wish sometimes people understood more so they don’t think I’m just blowing them off.

Elizabeth: At the end of junior year I was kind of able to go, “Wait. I can work really hard during the week and have a really good time on the weekend, and there’s time I can make for family and friends.” I didn’t figure it out until the last couple months of junior year. But I think it’s possible. And what you’re doing, it has to make you happy. If it’s not making you happy, then why are you doing it?

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Darius Amos, Gianna Barone, Victoria Beall, Carly Cannavina, Haley Longman and Daria Meoli.

Categories: Bergen Health & Life, Homepage Features