It’s the most wonderful time of year…
Keystone is a club within the Club that gives teens ages 14-18 opportunities to make leadership decisions, serve others, and engage in experiences that help to shape their knowledge of academic, career community service, and teen outreach initiatives and projects. Keystone Club teens can also attend the BEST EVENT of the summer- the Keystone Conference! Each year, teens from across the country gather together to learn, get inspired, and have the most fun. But the best part? Almost everything at the Keystone Conference reflects youth voice, from the conference theme to the session topics.
At the start of the planning season, BGCA convenes a Steering Committee of teens and advisors from Keystone Clubs, and they have an epic session of brainstorming about what the conference should be about. For 2022, they decided on the theme The GREAT Comeback! It’s absolutely 100% on point, because not only are we all coming back to our new normal, but we are also literally coming back. In 2020 and 2021, the Keystone Conference was held virtually, but this year we will be back in person in sunny Anaheim, California from July 22-24, and we are SO EXCITED!
But circling back to that brainstorming session- the Steering Committee also plans out what the topics for General and Breakout sessions will be, based on what they think their fellow teens will find fun (yes we WILL have glow in the dark yoga and a session all about Sneakerheads!) but also the top issues affecting teens in America today. This gives us incredible insight into what a diverse group of teens thinks and feels. So in no particular order, teens in 2022 care about:
I said in no particular order, but the mental health category was the biggest one for our teens, including anxiety, stress, depression, and self-harm and suicide. New data on youth mental health finds that more young people ages 11 to 17 reported mental health issues in online screenings in 2021 than in 2019, with high rates and frequency of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, especially for young people of color or who identify as LGBTQ+. Youth attributed mental health challenges mostly to loneliness, past trauma and relationship problems, and our Steering Committee members also called out being overstimulated by technology. “I want to learn how to deal with my mental health in a healthy way,” said one teen.
It’s striking how all of these categories are separate, yet absolutely connected, and social media certainly plays a role in the mental health of young people. Our teens called out a couple of subtopics here, including cyberbullying, addiction to social media, the pressure to maintain their image online, cyber safety, disinformation and access to controversial or violent content, and developing parasocial relationships with content creators or celebrities. With the rise of new popular platforms like TikTok and video game streaming sites in addition to other apps popular with teens like Instagram and Snapchat, teens are bombarded from all sides at all times. Youth need support to understanding how to use social media in a fun and safe way.
Self-Image and Confidence
Tied in many ways to social media but worth a mention on its own is self-image. Our teens said it a number of ways: self-esteem, self-confidence, self-love, self-worth, body image. At the end of 2021, it was revealed in a series of internal leaks and Congressional testimony that features that Instagram identifies as the most harmful to teens appear to be at the platform’s core, such as the pressure to look perfect, only to share the best moments, and that the internal algorithms that govern the Explore page send users to increasingly harmful content. Comparing themselves, whether their bodies or their lifestyles, to the curated and edited posts of influencers can lead young people to have distorted self-image and into making harmful decisions, and the pressure to be active on every platform for fear of missing out makes them feel like they can’t escape.
Another category that came up with nearly all of our Steering Committee was substance abuse, including alcohol, drugs, and vaping. Teens feel pressure from their peers to try risky behaviors and to follow current trends, even when they are negative. Recent crackdowns by the Federal Government on vape companies is directly tied to their popularity among teens, but large black markets and unregulated products will make it difficult to actually remove from the market. Marijuana legalization in many states means that weed and weed-infused products are becoming more accessible, and new flavored seltzers and other alcohol products make it easy to over-consume. Teens are looking for outlets to handle the stress that they feel, and too often they turn to these, then finding themselves dealing with the new struggle of addiction.
School and What Comes Next
This last category encompasses a number of concerns. Several youth cited academic problems, finding that the time of virtual school and dealing with COVID left them feeling unprepared for handling in-person school, and without having built the skills they need such as studying, time management, and social skills. What comes after they finish high school is another. “I’m afraid to grow up,” said one Steering Committee member. “I don’t know what my future will look like.” Understanding how to prepare for their next steps, such as filling out college applications, understanding financial aid (and wanting to avoid crushing student loan debt), or what non-college options exist, and how to find their passion to even know what route to take are key. There are also a lot of general life skills teens need to know as they move into adulthood, topics not really covered in school.
Teens today have a lot to deal with. It’s why afterschool continues to be so vital. We cultivate welcoming, inclusive, emotionally safe spaces where youth can connect with their peers and be supported by adults who care about them, and can help them navigate the hard stuff and be ready for the future. These are really big issues, none with easy solves. Sessions on these topics and more will be featured throughout the 2022 National Keystone Conference. You can participate in the fun even if you aren’t coming to Anaheim on BGCA’s National Virtual Club where we will feature live coverage of the General Sessions, and on Instagram @BGCAtapin.