Two weeks ago, 13-year-old Jordyn Ekberg was sitting on her bed listening to music when a text flashed on her cell phone.
From a number, not a name. The Independence teen had no clue who sent it.
“You don’t belong at this school,” the text read. “You need to go back. Get your own life and stop trying to be one of us.”
She sat there on her bed, fighting the tears and wondering if she should just give up. Stop trying to belong and be accepted, by anyone.
“Maybe they’re right, maybe I don’t belong,” Jordyn says, her voice breaking.
Being a teenager has always been tough, trying to figure out who you are and what you want while your body changes and your mood shifts faster than an iPod changes songs.
But now, ramp it up a thousand notches. With technology today, teens are constantly communicating, sometimes with strangers, and nasty comments are no longer passed in a note but spread over the Internet in seconds. That same technology bombards teens with images of perfect bodies and unrealistic expectations.
They’re always plugged in, never turned off.
At an important time of self-identification, when experts say these new pressures and disruptions make it harder for teens to find their true identity.
“They struggle anyway on the sheer fact of being a teenager,” said Jennifer Vernon, clinical manager for Synergy Services Inc., which offers help for troubled teens. “Then you throw in all that other stuff and it’s tough.”
More teens than ever before are diagnosed with mental disorders, from anxiety and depression to behavior problems. They juggle outside activities, jobs to pay for the latest gadgets to keep up with their friends, and homework to answer the high expectations of parents.
Over the past several months, The Star interviewed teens across the metro about what it’s like growing up in this techno-driven, fast-paced world. The interviews will fuel three Star Magazine features this school year on what teens think other people think of them, juxtaposed with who they say they really are.
Teens stopped what they were doing, set aside their school books. They put their cell phones and iPods down for a few minutes.
What do other people think of them?
Teens in the first installment, which is published today, believe strangers judge them based on how they look. The next two installments, which are scheduled to run next year before the end of school, deal with race and culture and attitude.
“I have people tell me, ‘I always thought you were this serious, mean-looking guy,’ ” says Bubba Starling, 18, a standout quarterback from Gardner Edgerton High School. Sure, he’s 6 feet 5 inches tall and when he’s intense, he doesn’t smile much.
But off the field, he loves kids, likes to joke around and hang out with friends. Not mean at all.
Candace Villanueva, 17, of Kansas City, Kan., believes people think she’s small and vulnerable. Yet she’s a certified brown belt in karate and accomplished debater.
And with Heaven Friend, a senior from Park Hill South, it depends on what she’s wearing, who she’s with. Is she in her cheerleading uniform? Or the black clothes she sometimes wears? Or is she in a hodge podge of styles, accentuated with one of her nearly 50 pairs of shoes?
“I don’t like to be in the stereotypical looks because it lets people be judgmental of you,” Friend said. “And I don’t like that.”
Teens talked about who they are and what they want to become. Many had never really thought about these things before.
That’s what worries experts about this new generation of teens. They’re so busy, they’re so driven and so tied to electronic devices that they lack the time for reflection that other generations had.
“Teens don’t spend a lot of alone time. They’re going, going, going all of the time,” says Shelli Copas, counselor at Ruskin High School. “I don’t know that they have a lot of time in their social world, with sports and working all the time, to just sit and think through, ‘Who do I want to be? Who am I?’ ”
Ask teens if they worry what other people think of them, and more times than not they quickly say no. They don’t care, they’re their own person.
“They need that independence, that self-preservation,” says Daryl Lynch, chief of the adolescent medicine section at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics.
But get to know them and that changes.
“Once they feel comfortable expressing their true feelings to you, you find that they are often in a very scary place,” he says. “They are fearful; they do care deeply about what other people think. They are trying to please parents, other adults.”
And other teens. They don’t want people to think they’re someone they’re not.
“I say I don’t care about what people think about me but you don’t want them to be like, ‘Hey this kid is weird,’ ” says Jordan Nubine, a senior football player at Blue Springs High School. “I don’t want to be labeled that guy who’s rude to everyone.”
And Jordyn Ekberg, the one who received a nasty text message two weeks ago, says she worries all the time what people think. “I want people to like me,” she says.
Jordyn lives with her paternal grandmother. When she was 5, her mom was unable to care for her in South Dakota so she came to live with her grandmother in the metro area. Two years after that, her father was murdered.
It’s hard sometimes to feel like she belongs. Especially when she’s at a new school like she is this year.
“Some people make fun of me because I’m quiet. Some people make fun of me because I don’t have a dad. That my mom doesn’t care,” Jordyn says. “They make fun of me for any reason and some of these reasons are cruel. It makes me cry.”
And it’s tough on her grandmother, Marilyn Logan.
“My heart breaks for her when she comes home,” Logan says. “It’s hard for me to understand why the kids do what they do.”
Life is harder for teens of this generation, she says.
“It’s a constant pressure to have things like others have, to be able to do things that others do,” Logan says. “When you don’t have two breadwinners in the house, it’s hard. Especially on a fixed income.”
Just like in the 1950s or the ’80s or ’90s, fitting in is important. More important than ever, actually.
“The cost of not being accepted, the emotional cost, is much higher today,” says Carol Maxym, a psychologist and educational consultant from Maryland who co-wrote “Teens in Turmoil.” “Kids are crueler if you’re not accepted.”
Nearly half of high school students report they were bullied in the past year, according to a study released last month by Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics. And half admitted they had been the bully.
A Florida teen hanged herself in her bedroom a year ago after a nude photo she sent to a boy spread throughout her middle school and into another community. The subsequent teasing and bullying from other teens — including being called a “slut” and “whore” — sent her over the edge, her mother told authorities.
In September, a Rutgers University student killed himself after prosecutors say his roommate secretly used a computer Web cam to transmit images of the student in an intimate encounter with another man.
In the wake of such suicides, President Barack Obama videotaped a message last month to young people.
“You are not alone,” the president said. “You did not do anything wrong. You didn’t do anything to deserve being bullied and there is a whole world waiting for you filled with possibilities.
“Things will get better and more than that with time you’re going to see that your differences are a source of pride and a source of strength.”
For teens, the focus is often not what’s on the inside, but the outside. Many form their identities based on how they dress, their makeup, their hairstyle. Image is vital.
According to a recent New York Times article, the number of people age 18 or younger getting cosmetic surgery more than tripled in the past 10 years.
“The real identity work isn’t going on,” said Maxym. “Image does not equal identity. Identity is self-formed.”
Teens often want to become what they think others think they should be, said Vernon, of Synergy Services.
“Instead of reaching within and finding out what’s real for them, what’s their true self, they’re trying to mold into outside pressures and influences.”
John Stone talks to teens every day as counselor for Shawnee Mission North High School. He’s been at the job more than 18 years and sees a difference.
It’s not that teens today are worse than the teens two decades ago.
“We had students with issues 20 years ago, like everybody else did,” Stone says. “I just think there are more students today with issues. It’s a volume issue.”
One in four teens says they have a mood, behavior or anxiety disorder, according to a study released last month.
One of the most alarming finds was that 22 percent of teens said they had a severe disorder that disrupted their daily lives, says Kathleen Merikangas, of the National Institute of Mental Health, who led the study.
“It led them to have difficulty in school, difficulty with relationships,” Merikangas says.
She and other researchers analyzed data from the National Comorbidity Study-Adolescent Supplement, which surveyed more than 10,000 teens in the U.S.
Many disorders diagnosed today, from specific anxiety to Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, weren’t well known or discussed 20 to 25 years ago. So there aren’t comparable nationwide studies to see if the problem has increased.
Regional studies, though, show the rate of depression hasn’t changed in the past two decades, Merikangas says.
“Universally, teenagers suffer from depression and anxiety as a part of growing up,” Merikangas says. “To have these kinds of emotions is quite normal. When they last too long, though, or they come back and it continues to happen, that can become a problem.”
Expectations can play a major role in what teens are up against. Families who have been living in poverty for generations may expect little of their children.
“And if there are no expectations put on you, you don’t feel like you need to do anything,” says Lynch, who sees young people from across the metro at the teen clinic at Children’s Mercy.
But for kids in the suburbs, especially those in affluent families, there’s big-time stress. Parents aren’t the only ones fueling that.
“The expectations they place on themselves are tremendous,” Lynch says. “If you have extremely high expectations put on you that are not obtainable, then you always feel like a failure.”
There’s a line parents need to draw, experts say. And part of that is just being supportive, especially in this time of discovery.
“If you have people loving you no matter what, you can slow down your pace of finding yourself,” Vernon says. “For the kids not feeling accepted, who don’t have that support, it fast forwards that quest of self identity.”
That’s why Lynch has one wish for teens: unconditional support.
“If I could do one thing to make a difference in teens’ lives,” Lynch says, “it’d be to have every teenager in the world have just one adult that genuinely loved them, cared for them, and stuck with them through life.”