The new film Eighth Grade by director Bo Burnham is required viewing for anyone who live or works with adolescents. Starring the incredible Elsie Fisher, the viewer gets a unflinching kid’s eye view of the social pressures and inner turmoil that a lot of modern young people experience.
Yes, junior high has always been terrible. At least that was my experience. But I didn’t have to face the ubiquitous peer judgement device sitting in my pocket at all times.
The film in rich detail shows how much of a young person’s life, her social standing, her innermost feelings and insecurities, are all played out on the social media platforms she inhabits for most of her waking hours. Rather than judge this, the director simple shows it as the new reality for young people, for better or worse.
As a recent Pew Internet study shows, 45% of teens reported that they are online “nearly constantly.” Snapchat and Instagram are by far the most popular social media platforms for teens (if you discount YouTube as a social media platform, which I do.) Facebook and Twitter are a distant third and fourth place.
But what are they doing with all of that time online? Eighth Grade depicts the main character Kayla sharing her advice on her vlog “Kayla’s Korner,” posting dozens of carefully composed selfies each morning, and checking the feeds of people she admires or has crushes on. It’s a carefully curated, constant presentation of herself to her peer group for review and judgement. It looks exhausting.
At the same time, the film depicts the typically awkward face-to-face interactions the young people have with each other. It did make me wonder if the increase in screen time meant that young people today had less experience navigating the nuances of a face-to-face conversation. Then again, I was no great conversationalist in the eighth grade, either.
For parents, teachers and others that work with teens, Eighth Grade is a welcome reminder of the tremendous challenges teens face today. Some of these are familiar to us who recall our own teenage years — our first crush, our first date, those terrible pool parties. But others are newer — we didn’t have school shooting drills when I was growing up.
Eighth Grade doesn’t present any easy answers. It draws you in to the inner life of one adolescent during a particularly momentous week in her life. And it reminds me of how important it is for kids to have supportive, loving adults around them during those difficult years.