Children’s Crusade

It’s just as unfair to see teens as activist angels than smartphone zombies

With last month’s student-led nationwide demonstrations against gun violence following a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, the survivors did something adults had failed time and time again to do: galvanize millions in common cause for meaningful legislative reform. What’s more, organizers from the affluent Florida high school have linked their tragedy to the gun violence experienced daily by students in poor communities which disproportionately affects black and brown people, a situation often overlooked by journalists, celebrities and legislators. Center stage at the Washington, D.C. March for Our Lives rally, the Florida teenagers stood side by side with black and Latinx youth activists from Chicago and Los Angeles. Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old girl from Alexandria, Virginia, said in her speech that she was there to “represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential.”

The teenage activists have been met with pushback, slurred by politicians and accused by trolls of being “crisis actors.” But mainly the response has been gushing approbation. They’ve been praised for their intelligence, their oratorical gifts, their resilience, determination and courage. Variations of “These kids will save us all,” and “The future is bright” have glutted social media feeds and op-eds. In glowing tributes, young people are painted as the antidote to all that has gone wrong in the world, a crusading force that will put the gross mistakes of grown-ups right. “The kids,” Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post, “are going to save us from ourselves.”

These two poles — the kids will save us! and the kids spell our doom! — posit teenagers as other than human

And “the kids” have achieved something remarkable, creating a tightly focused protest movement that cannily understands the power of resonant, iconic images: Emma Gonzalez’s extraordinary speech, in which she stood silent for the exact length of time of the gun attack on her school, was praised by none other than master image-maker Steven Spielberg. But the child savior narrative is a troubling one: When we anoint high schoolers as our heroes and celebrate their sacrifice for the collective good, adults cede responsibility for their own past failings and inaction — children become a scrim for projecting adult anxieties. In this way, the current narrative exists parallel to the equally popular but seemingly contradictory prejudice that “young people” represent a dead-end for mankind — that their “addictions” to technology have left them adrift and socially inept. These two poles — the kids will save us! and the kids spell our doom! — express an incomplete, and inaccurate picture of teenagers. Both narratives posit teenagers as other than human.

Generational dividing lines are not new, but the demarcation between the post-Millennials — Generation Z, or, as psychologist Jean M. Twenge has more pointedly dubbed them, “iGen” — and their predecessors has been particularly sharply drawn. The difference is the internet, of course, and the commonly held notion that those born into an era of Google and email and Facebook are a radically different sort of human than those who came before.

In an 2001 essay, educator Marc Prensky coined the phrases “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” to distinguish between multitasking, tech savvy young people gifted with what he viewed as a preternatural ability to thrive in the digital world, and older folks struggling with its language, culture and infrastructure. Prensky’s theory about this generational split — he referred to it as a “singularity” — held tremendous sway in the popular imagination: Young people were understood to be innate technological whizzes, with brains rewired by their device use. “Today’s students,” Prensky wrote, “think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors.” (Emphasis his.)

Optimists marveled at the possibilities held by this rapidly evolving cohort and the amazing things their special brains might accomplish, while alarmists fretted that “digital natives” had lost their humanity and soul. Twenge, in her Atlantic story “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” argued that teenagers were on the brink of a mass mental-health crisis. “The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever,” she writes. “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.” Today’s teens, she says, are risk-averse and socially isolated. They lack self-sufficiency and a sense of independence. In other words, they are incapable of adulting.

Prensky’s thesis has since come under increasing criticism. For one, a wealth of research indicates that Millennials and post-Millennials do not, in fact, possess inborn digital intelligence and faculties — their brains work essentially the same way other generation’s brains have. And mythologizing any one generation (the narcissistic Boomers, the slacker Gen Xers) homogenizes an enormous demographic group with considerable internal diversity, of personal temperament and interest, as well as race, gender, class, geography and so on. Often, one generational group’s tendency to generalize about another is the result of resentment or nostalgia — a longing for what we think older people used up or ruined; or for the freer, easier, more interesting life we imagine younger people are enjoying.  

Most troubling are the racial biases embedded in Prensky’s term “digital natives.” The usage suggests a mystical, innate affinity for the digital environment, much in the same way European colonizers simplistically regarded indigenous peoples’ relationship to their environments. This framing dismissively viewed complex bodies of knowledge — traditions and histories of governance, arts and culture, medicine, navigation, infrastructure, ethics and religion, mathematics and language — as intrinsic or as folk wisdom. This belief in “natural” affinities erases millennia of trial and error, and of research, practice and mastery, as well as the sophisticated channels used to transmit this accrued knowledge. Characterizing young people’s capacity for technology in a similar fashion, the “digital natives” theory trades on these dangerous assumptions about biology and intelligence, the idea that certain groups have different sets of natural abilities than others.

The “digital natives” theory trades on the idea that certain groups have different sets of natural abilities than others

As for Twenge’s work, technology writer Alexandra Samuel scrutinized the data Twenge used to conclude that smartphone use is leading to epic levels of unhappiness and argues, persuasively, that the figures don’t back up Twenge’s analysis. Samuels goes on to say that if young people are struggling with independence, it might be the result of their parents’ reliance on technology, rather than their own. “Fostering independence takes work,” she writes. “We may parody the work of parenting as a set of rules and consequences, but the work of encouraging positive behavior is just as (if not more important) than sanctioning the negative. [But] when parents are distracted — as today’s parents are, perpetually, by our online lives — it’s the encouragement that suffers, more than the control.” The habits parents fret about in children — they’ve lost their ability to focus and to have face-to-face interactions, they’re too readily suckered by what they consume online — may well be habits those parents have inadvertently modelled for their kids.

It may be adults’ own dissatisfaction with their digital habits and competencies that is leading them to project those feelings onto children. Adults, already insecure and confused about a world in which their capabilities and knowledge increasingly seem obsolete, are now feeling even more impotent as they face global pressing threats such as climate change, gun violence and the rise of racist populism. In response, they’ve offloaded their particular fixations onto kids, whether it’s worry (they are device-hooked drones) or aspiration (they are warriors who will rescue us). These projections hold just enough truth to give them traction. But they really aren’t about young people at all. They’re about adults.

On the second day of May, 1963, a few weeks after Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and held in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, more than a thousand black school children abandoned school en masse to protest racial discrimination. The city was then one of the most segregated in the South as well as the most dangerous — it was called Bombingham due the routine dynamite attacks on black homes; that September four girls would be killed in a Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. With many adults reluctant to engage in protests for fear of being beaten, arrested and facing other repercussions such as losing their jobs, James L. Bevel, a Baptist minister and advisor to King, convinced the civil rights leader to let him train young people in civil disobedience.

Walking in groups of 50 or so, those children, some as young as six and seven, marched through downtown Birmingham where dozens of them were arrested. The next day, even more children showed up. This time, Bull Connor, the notoriously racist public safety commissioner, directed police to use force. They sicced dogs on the children, beat them with clubs, and sprayed them with water cannons so powerful they tore the clothes from their bodies. Undeterred, on the third day, the children marched again, many against the wishes of their worried parents, their ranks continuing to swell with hundreds of young people who travelled from other towns and cities to join them. Once more, the children were beaten and arrested. Soon the jails were so full of kids that a temporary holding facility was set up at a local fairground.

The current glorification of the youth activist fortifies the idea that being daring and politically engaged is a young person’s game

At the time, Bevel and King were criticized by some, including Malcolm X, for recruiting children and putting them in harm’s way. But the series of marches, which came to be called the Children’s Crusade, marked a turning point in the nascent civil rights movement. News of the children’s protests went national. Reading about them in the papers, seeing images of young black children being set upon by white adults, pushed President John F. Kennedy to finally consider comprehensive civil rights legislation. The crusade ended on May 10, when local officials agreed to desegregate downtown stores, lunch counters, fitting rooms and drinking fountains. Historians have said the success of the Children’s Crusade gave momentum to the movement, leading to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. King would later write, “Looking back, it is clear that the introduction of Birmingham’s children into the campaign was one of the wisest moves we made. It brought a new impact to the crusade, and the impetus that we needed to win the struggle.”

As tempting as it might be to see in these young demonstrators an animating boldness and forbearance unique to youth, their resistance and fight was the result of organization and labor. They were trained in nonviolent protest by some of the smartest, most strategic political organizers of the 20th century. Their bravery was fostered by their parents and grandparents’ tradition of social activism and supported by a network of adult organizers and civil rights lawyers. They were not alone in their crusade.

Fifty-five years later, the teenage organizers from Parkland are demonstrating for a different cause, with different stakes and with far less personal risk and far more ready support from the mainstream media and the broader public. But their movement draws heavily on the model set by the Children’s Crusade. There are experiences and touchstones unique to this moment: Social media has made organizing more efficient, art and popular culture have become more politicized and socially conscious, and, as others have pointed out, today’s teenagers were raised on hugely popular myths and narratives, such as the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series, in which young people play central roles in fighting oppressive systems and vanquishing evil villains. But young people are no more naturally empathetic, no more inherently capable of sacrifice than the rest of us. As participants in every other movement before them have done, including contemporary ones such as Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and the fight for LGBTQ rights, the anti-gun-violence activists have stepped up to fashion a new movement out of their concerns. They deserve respect, not romanticization. To imagine young people as idealists and credit the sui generis magic of childhood for their success does them a disservice.

What’s more, the current glorification of the youth activist fortifies the idea that being daring, politically engaged and passionate is a young person’s game. As such, teenagers represent an effort-free do-over for adults. In them, we wistfully imagine our own (best) past selves and enjoy a vicarious thrill in our ability to recognize their heroism, while absolving ourselves of the responsibility to participate. Close to half of Americans don’t show up to vote: the bare minimum of political engagement in a democracy and an action that could have a profound effect on everything from environmental protections to gun control.

It’s no slight on the genuinely laudable work and commitment of young activists to point out that actions for which they are being breathlessly praised are not novel; they don’t require a unique set of skills or an inherent talent. Educating yourself on legislation, creating a clever media strategy, mobilizing people to contact political representatives and to participate in demonstrations, registering voters and making connections across race and class to ensure a plurality of opinion and expertise have always been options for adults. Contemporary young people did not invent these things. If adults have been, by contrast, apathetic and inert, or have indulged in divisive ranting or mindless distraction, or comforted themselves with the fiction that striving for social change is too difficult or frightening, then let’s be blunt: That was a matter of choice, not capacity. The difference between kids and adults isn’t age, but the willingness to put in the effort.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of ADULTHOOD. Also from this week, Tiana Reid on black taboo, and Hanif Abdurraqib on the aesthetics of being old

Rachel Giese is a journalist in Toronto. She’s working on a book about modern boyhood and masculinity. You can find her at rachel-giese.com.