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1. Something in the Air

What it is: TikTok posts and YouTube shorts called “subliminals” are taking over teens’ feeds, promising to fix the effects of “school air.”
What does any of that even mean?: “School air” refers to a distinct phenomenon that may even feel familiar from your own teen years. When you check the mirror one last time before you head for the school bus, you look stylish, fresh, and ready for the day. But the minute you catch a glimpse of your face in the bathroom mirror at school, something strange has happened—your hair is limp, your outfit is wrinkled, and your face is breaking out. Teens call this the “school air” effect, expanding the term to a larger umbrella of “airs.” (“Boyfriend air” supposedly decreases how attractive you look and feel.) The “subliminal” genre of social media steps in here to save the day, promising that by focusing hard on a particular post (and, bizarrely, drinking a cup of water afterward) you can straighten your nose, fix your teeth, get clear skin, and change aspects of your personality. It’s yet another extension of how manifesting and the law of attraction preys on the particularly fraught experience of being a young person with insecurities.
Start the conversation: Have you ever seen a video that promised to change something about you?

2. Alien Landing

What it is: This week Disney+ debuted “Ahsoka,” a live-action series that gives the full character-study treatment to a cult favorite from the franchise.
What fans are saying: Ahsoka first debuted as Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice in “The Clone Wars,” a seven-season animated show about the politics and peril of the Jedi order. However, the first two episodes make it clear that this show will continue the storyline of a different animated series, “Star Wars: Rebels.” (Creator Dave Filoni wrote for both animated shows.) Rosario Dawson is admirably transformed to inhabit the role of Ahsoka, somehow lending gravitas to a character with striped horn-like appendages. The “Ahsoka” script so far tries to split the difference between dedicated Star Wars lovers who have seen “Rebels” and the more casual fans in the audience. This means equal parts Easter eggs and exposition, a narrative style that isn’t for everybody. Parents will want to know that the miniseries earns its TV rating of 14+, prominently featuring lightsaber battles and a villian who belongs to a mystical order of witchcraft. Teen audiences might just want to know if this show will be better than 2021’s “The Book of Boba Fett”—and two hours in, it seems like it might be.
Start the conversation: Are you planning on keeping up with “Ahsoka” as it airs on Disney+ each week?

3. Non-Playable

What it is: A recent Twitch and TikTok trend involves users depicting NPCs, also known as “non-playable characters” from role-playing video games.
How to understand it: NPCs are characters who appear in the world of a video game but have no real agency. NPCs will repeat the same few catchphrases, like “ice cream so good” or “nom nom,” and perform repetitive actions. They don’t develop into more interesting versions of themselves over time. They simply exist. Streamers who produce “NPC content” are typically female influencers in the gaming-adjacent sphere—one called Pinkydoll is perhaps the most well-known. When they put on an NPC performance, they aren’t necessarily imitating a particular character (though at times that may be the case). Rather, they are exhibiting a style of behavior that is meant to convey a certain helplessness. Viewers at home can send money or gifts to influence what happens on the livestream. An internet culture and digital labor researcher told The Guardian that this transaction offers “a sense of being able to control a  creator, and we see control become a byword for feeling intimate.”
Start the conversation: Have you ever heard of someone referring to themselves or someone else as a non-playable character?

Song of the Week

“Paint the Town Red” by Doja Cat: Currently at #1 on the Spotify USA Top 50 and #3 on the Apple Music USA Top 100, “Paint the Town Red” is the latest single from the R&B/hip-hop artist Doja Cat. Marrying a traditional R&B sound with lyrics that focus on not allowing others’ criticism to affect you, “Paint the Town Red” blends a simple beat with a catchy and singable, albeit explicit, melodic hook about standing by your words and actions. It’s an interesting lyrical choice considering that Doja Cat has had a turbulent relationship with her fans as of late, losing half a million Instagram followers after a series of combative interactions. (She told one fan to “get off your phone and get a job and help your parents with the house.”). Parents and caring adults should know that shock value is integral to Doja Cat’s brand, and much of the imagery around her upcoming album “Scarlet,” involves blending violence and sexuality and traditional Roman Catholic religious imagery. The music video for “Paint the Town Red” is filled with portrayals of death and demons. For the lyrics, click here (language).

Culture: Translated

In some ways, the way we watch something has become as important as what we watch. Now that movies have migrated from theaters to our homes, and 15-second videos populate personalized feeds in our pockets, our options for engaging with media have become much broader: e.g., paying NPC streamers to say specific phrases on Twitch, and silently wishing for subliminal change from behind a screen.

TV shows and movies don’t require us to interact with characters, but they often inspire us to think and discuss with others. Especially when a character is beloved, like Ahsoka is for many Star Wars fans, conversations about that character’s on-screen behavior and choices can take us to interesting places.

By contrast, NPC live streams can be as long as a feature-length movie, but depict only a few words said over and over. These streams present human beings as vacant containers, and they lead us through no development and present no conclusion. There are no characters to talk about, no themes to understand. Instead, many are drawn in only by how weird it is. A story encourages us to learn and talk, but the lack of a narrative in NPC streaming gives us no opportunity to share about what we’re taking in.

Regular engagement with meaningless content isn’t satisfying. We need to feel like we’re participating in what we see. That’s part of why people send money to NPC streamers; when a streamer says a catchphrase because you paid them to, it’s proof that you’re a part of the experience. “School air” subliminals and other manifesting content can be appealing because of this same expectation: that our engagement with this media will lead to real effects.

When we are around others, letting them speak into our lives and speaking into theirs, we can change each other with what we say and do. That applies to everything from the opinions we exchange about our favorite shows to the ways we challenge each other in how we live out our faith. There is a reason why, throughout His ministry, Jesus chose to have His disciples alongside Him. Jesus understood how what we see can transform us. As Christians, it’s important to make sure that we are taking in that which will make us more like Jesus, and what better way to do that than to keep our eyes on the Father? As far back as the Old Testament, God is named as “the One who sees me.” When we look to Him, we can rest in the knowledge that He is looking right back.

Here are some questions to open up conversation with your teens:

  • Do you feel differently about the things you watch if you talk about them with other people? Why do you think that is?
  • Do you ever feel lonely after watching certain things? What makes you feel that way?
  • Who in your life makes you feel seen? When do you feel like Jesus sees you?