How Teens Spend Their Free Time

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Written By Pinang Driod

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

Since you’ve gamely indulged my inquiries all year, it’s only fair that I give you a chance to ask me anything––pose a question about any issue under the sun, any article I’ve written or argument I’ve made, or any subject at all that you’d like to see me think through. When I answer, space will be limited, so keep your questions short enough for me to reprint them as prompts.

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com or simply reply to this email.

Conversations of Note

In a bygone newsletter, I asked, “How much time did you spend with peers in adolescence, and what effect did that have on the rest of your life?” I ran responses from some older readers here. To close out the year, here’s one more batch of responses (edited for length and clarity), featuring a younger cohort of readers.

Andrew in Montreal reminisces about the mid-1980s.

Middle school was surprisingly the happiest period of my life. I had a few friends who would come over every weekend. We’d stay up late playing board games or filming ourselves lip-synching on my parents’ VHS recorder. As we got older we used to sneak out and visit girls on our bikes. We had to plan everything during recess––there were no cellphones and we didn’t want our parents to get wind of our plans on the one family phone.

I’ll never forget the freedom and camaraderie I felt during those years.

Joe graduated high school in 1984, in St. Louis.

I’d be out with friends every weekend and almost every night during the summer and holidays. Video games were starting to be a big part of how we spent our time. But mostly, we just hung out. There were a lot of parties and a lot of drinking but not other drugs—pot occasionally. There were also a lot of couples. So a typical quiet night would be four or five couples watching rented movies at someone’s house, while a wild night would be driving around with a gallon of Brass Monkey (the amount of drunk driving we did is appalling to look back on) and ending up at a house party where police would show up, though no arrests would be made. They’d just send us on our way.

I have a son who’s a freshman in college. He had a couple of steady high-school girlfriends but spent a fraction of the time out of the house with friends compared to me. Online gaming is underestimated for its sociability. He has a lot of friends, or at least acquaintances, through his gaming circle, which ripple out from just his school friends. Also, as far as I can tell, he and his friends drink much, much less than we did. (Yes, I may be fooling myself, but I don’t think so.) I’m grateful because one of the lasting effects from those years was a drinking problem that I struggled with for a long time. I’ll take my kid playing PlayStation all night over getting drunk and driving around, that’s for sure.

Ariela is a Millennial in her mid-30s who started homeschooling by seventh grade.

I met up with my friends after they got out of school and worked in retail and hospitality from age 14, where I made lots of friends five to 10 years my senior. I experienced aspects of a classic adolescence––embarrassingly awkward debauchery, crushes, and insecurities. What teenagers face today, however, is significantly scarier than what I faced. LiveJournal was merely an outlet for my writing and Myspace was a way to publicly curate my interests. I didn’t grow up on apps that changed my physical appearance, and bullying was something that we could escape after the school bell rang. It didn’t follow us into our own homes on an addictive and compact device. I would rather the teens of Gen Z get out of the house, smoke a little pot, get drunk, and know what it’s like to be arrested at a pharmacy for stealing condoms than live in a virtual world.

Matt grew up in rural North Carolina in the 1990s, joined the Boy Scouts, and became an Eagle Scout at 16.

There were some cooler kids in our troop who would win the elections to see who would be the senior patrol leader. I was shy, effeminate, and not the sporting type. But I was good at learning things, and Boy Scouts gave me something to be good at: knot tying, camping, hiking, and good citizenship. I had friends there like me. I advanced in rank. There were times that I felt bullied by the cool kids, but I always had my patrol of friends who were laid-back and enjoyed spending time outdoors. I was given freedom to explore my own character. I was taught responsibility and the tenants of the Boy Scout oath and law. I could learn to be me. Maybe it’s too early to know if kids with helicopter parents will come out as responsible adults. Without independence, a kid won’t know who they are until later in the game.

Errol grew up in a small town in a dry county.

My friends and I frequented the local coffee shop College Hill Coffee on nights and weekends. I formed some strong friendships and bonds with them sitting in front of the fireplace with my mandarin-orange-and-cherry Italian soda while we all debated various political points as if we actually knew anything at all. We’d get heated over Bush versus Kerry.

Experiences with them and the random college kids and strangers who would sometimes stroll in prepared me for a life of spirited debates. The feeling of being in a public place with a group of your peers and feeling free enough to announce your disagreement with them is still unmatched in the way of experiences that I’ve had in life. This is why, in my mid-ish 30s, I advocate for being a regular at a bar. Being around your friends and being comfortable enough to say what you believe is vital. It’s also fleeting, as we see with Gen Z and younger. Most important, it never gets old. Talking about stuff with the people around you is one of the greatest pleasures and frustrations in life.

Matt was born in 1984, and recalls spending 75 percent of his unstructured time with friends and classmates during his adolescence.

We spent entire summer vacations outside, riding bikes, getting lost in the woods, swimming, playing sandlot baseball, getting in fistfights and chasing enough spare change for an ice-cream sandwich. I am shocked at the amount of independence and trust our parents gave us, and I’m grateful for it. With age, our interests shifted, but the time we spent was still “quality hang.” Poker, pickup basketball, sneaking out of the house and driving around. Even just sitting around watching TV or playing video games was as a group. I don’t even want to guess at the number of hours we spent playing GoldenEye. If you had to stay home, or you got left out of something, you felt like dying. I am not one of those people who walks around saying “What’s wrong with kids these days?,” but it seems obvious that a certain amount of anomie and self-centeredness follows when kids spend too much time “imperially alone,” as David Foster Wallace once put it, “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

Tex started ninth grade in 1999.

We all knew car = freedom, and were killing time till we turned 16. We didn’t have iPhones or social media, but we had AIM, which wasn’t all that different from modern instant-messaging apps, except you were sitting at a big desktop computer. People were gossiping, spreading rumors, adding friends, but mostly just having a good time learning how to type. During school we would talk about what happened online last night.

Once you added a username to your list, you could see if they were online or not. I remember staring at the username of the girl I liked. I never got the nerve up to send her a message.

Davis is 21, and graduated from high school in 2020.

I’m reflexively skeptical of the idea that the kids these days just don’t hang out in person. I saw my friends outside of school most days, and we almost never “hung out” through texting or other digital methods—we mostly just used it to coordinate physical meetups. And I was a pretty reclusive, depressed kid—I spent more time alone than most.

If technology affected anything, it was the way we hung out—our default was watching (often admittedly terrible) movies and reality shows on Netflix and then talking over them. If we didn’t have that, I guess we might have had those aimless conversations at a mall or a park. But I think they would have been fundamentally the same conversations.

I was part of the no-dating statistic, but is that a bad thing? I see hand-wringing about this, but do healthy, long-term adult relationships even remotely resemble high-school dating?

I have no regrets there.

Robin was born in 1999.

As a teenager in the 2010s, I was lucky enough to spend almost every afternoon in activities with friends. We would spend every Saturday together under the guise of working in our school’s robotics lab (we did plenty of robotics, but also plenty of sitting in someone’s car in the parking lot). Some nights, we would make it home for 10 p.m. curfew, then talk for several more hours on Skype. That’s where we talked about “deep things” like what we wanted from the world, and when we started admitting, even to friends of the opposite gender, that we thought about sex and had questions about each other’s bodies. I am forever grateful for those friends, and I still talk to several of them regularly.

Despite these close friendships, I didn’t date at all in high school. I then spent most of college feeling paralyzed. It seemed like everyone else knew what they were doing and I didn’t. I spent several years thinking I might be asexual, when really I’m just not interested in hookups. I didn’t have my first real relationship (or lose my virginity) until I was 22.

Luckily, I was never very interested in social media. I had Snapchat for about a year when I was 16, but I deleted it because I could feel myself focusing on documenting my life to show others how much fun I was having instead of actually having fun. In college, I finally got Instagram, years after most of my peers. I developed an eating disorder. I deleted Instagram.

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This newsletter will be off next week. We wish you all happy holidays, and we’ll be back the week of January 1.

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