1. The Pressure to Post
What it is: As Vox reports, everyone’s calling themselves a “content creator” now — whether they are paid for their service or not.
Why it’s confusing: The term “content creator” saturates so many conversations about digital life. What was once a specific job description has come to refer to anyone with a TikTok or an Instagram. Confessional, diary-style posts are content. A single tweet is content. Flippant photo dumps are also content. A sponsored ad is content, but so is an authentic, unpaid review. All online media belong to the same basic category: content. It sends a message that everything, from the deeply personal to the utterly mundane, is equally consumable, and that all individuals are stewards of their worth as commodities (“personal brands”) with everything they put online. The pressure to post and participate in this attention economy continues to rise for young people as “content” is emphasized as the future of work.
2. Make Memes, Not War
What it is: Young people around the world have voiced their opposition to a Russian invasion of Ukraine in the form of—what else—TikTok comments.
Why it’s making kids anxious: Gen Z might not have lived through a worldwide conflict before, but that doesn’t mean they are curious to experience one. Unofficial accounts associated with Vladimir Putin have been spammed with the phrase, “pls no war,” appealing to Putin as “Vladdy Daddy,” since late January. As the shelling of Ukraine has begun, the joke (which wasn’t great) has ceased to amuse. Some young people are very concerned about being part of a military conscription. As of this writing, #worldwar3 has 780 million views on TikTok, with many posts breaking down world events with a tone bordering on irreverent. While this attitude may appear flippant or disinterested on its surface, it’s really Gen Z’s way of expressing fear and confusion. No one can know the future, and the prospect of war is as grim as it is real. We can give teens a safe way to talk about their fear while promoting respect and empathy over irreverence.
3. Me, not an Empath
What it is: Sarcastic posts mocking people who identify as “empaths” on TikTok and Twitter have been shared far and wide, with the subject racking up over 5 billion views.
Why it’s become a meme: An empath is a person who can feel the “vibes” of a situation and internalize the experiences of others. But sometimes people use the term to justify their own beliefs or behaviors toward others, or simply to feel like there’s something special about them. Popular “me, an empath” posts involve the “empath” noticing people are upset as the Titanic sinks or that a woman is in pain during childbirth—blatantly obvious things that don’t require an empath to figure out. There’s no objective measurement of whether someone is an empath, but there are certain types of people who seem more likely to identify with that label. The teenage understanding of an empath inches more toward a person who is a clinical narcissist than a person who feels others’ pain. Of course, “empaths” might be meme-worthy, but empathy itself is still worth cultivating.
Slang of the Week
Pushing P: Another way of saying, “keeping it real” or “that’s dope,” with the “p” represented by the 🅿️ emoji. The confusing nature of the phrase has led to TikTokers using it to describe a wide variety of things, and discussing the slang’s meaning is as popular as the slang itself. Ex: “Hanging out with your grandma talking about the past? Pushing 🅿️. Letting the door slam on an old lady? ❌🅿️.”
Translation: Me, not an Empath
As Charlotte Columbo writes for Dazed, “While the meme takes various forms, a consistent cynicism underlies it: the belief that self-proclaiming “empaths” are either faking their abilities, or confusing the basic ability to perceive people’s feelings with some kind of superpower.” The reaction on TikTok seems similar to how teens in youth group might respond to the kid who insists that they’re “more humble than everyone else.” And yet as we said above, empathy is a disposition worth cultivating in teens and in ourselves—and one we don’t have to be superheroes to develop.
Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Actually being able to do that requires identifying how someone else is feeling, and being willing to enter into that feeling with them. Empathy is fundamentally a demonstration of solidarity, whereas some (not all) who use the label of “empath” to describe themselves may be more interested in using others’ experiences as a platform for their own emotional intelligence. The invitation of Romans 12:15 is to sit with others in their pain without making it about how perceptive we are.
In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen writes, “Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: “Who can take away suffering without entering it?” The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” In other words, the kind of impact that Jesus made, and that his followers make, is made by entering into suffering and transforming it from within. Empathy, when at its best, can be a vehicle for just that.
Here are some questions to spark conversation about with your teens:
- Do you know anyone who considers themselves an empath?
- Do you agree with Henri Nouwen’s quote? Why or why not?
- Do you think empathy can be unhealthy, or is it always good?