Twixters. Freeters. Generation Y (or Generation Why?). Gen X. The MTV Generation. Boomerangs. “Parasite singles” of Japan. In Italy, they’ve even been pegged derogatorily as the bamboccioni – translated, “big dummy boys.”
So many terminologies, yet all implying the same one general group of people: children of the baby boomers, born roughly between, say, 1965 and 1994; victims of their own demographic, some could argue, because the population of high schoolers, college students and recent grads in 2008 seemingly has it tougher than any other that has come before them, pressured to keep up with succeeding in the ever-competitive academic and career worlds.
Their coping mechanism? Call them the “new bad habits” — energy drinks, prescription pills, and a near-constant connection to the text messaging and cell phoning that technology provides — vices some experts believe could replace drug and alcohol use.
Widening the gap, getting a bad rap
“It’s not like it was in my day,” or “Those damn kids these days!” might not seem as snarky or cliché as one would perceive when coming from the mouths of the forty- or fifty-somethings, aka the baby boomers, born after 1945.
In fact, the “generation gap” between today’s parents and their offspring is bigger and deeper than ever before. Baby boomers had Vietnam to deal with, granted, but their Boomerang kids have been, arguably, exposed to far worse in the New Millennium.
“They haven’t been sheltered,” says Lauri Moore, a professor of sociology at Ventura College. “They grew up with things like 9/11. They have the war looming over them. When they think that anything could happen to anyone, any day, it doesn’t matter to them if they’re drinking caffeine.”
It’s no wonder why these things could lead to a lot of disillusionment, agrees another college faculty member.
“This generation, they’re dealing with a lot more loss, a lot more violence, and a lot more peer pressure. They’re being pushed to grow up really quickly,” said Lucy Capuano-Brewer, chair of the Ventura College Psychology Department.
But physically and emotionally, so many are ill-equipped to handle such an imposed maturation of one’s character, she says. It’s a case, she adds, of being “overscheduled, overextended, overwhelmed.”
“I think that teenagers don’t have enough of a childhood,” Capuano-Brewer said. “Their childhood has really been compromised.”
It doesn’t help much that so many parents place their kids at an unfair disadvantage by pushing too hard.
“The level of homework or assignments they have to do is so much more than we had, says Lois Zsarnay, a Ventura dietitian and therapist. “But then, we’re trying to give them the American Dream. Sometimes that’s too much pressure.”
So if kids deserve some credit, what’s with the bad rap? It was Italian economic minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa who, last year, entered the denigrating bamboccioni into his native lexicon, a sort of European version of a “boomerang” — slang for the perceived inadequacy of many of today’s youth to gain their own independence, forcing many to move back in with mom and dad, their full nest-turned-empty, full once again. An obvious assumption on his behalf, both discounting young adults who do succeed at being on their own, and judging those who may fall back on pharmaceuticals, caffeine or other distractions as a means of “medicating.”
They want a new drug
Since the dawn of mankind, the people of Planet Earth have always looked for a quick “fix.”
“Throughout history, we’ve looked consciously and unconsciously at ways to amp (the brain) up,” notes Dr. Michael Vivian, a Ventura physician.
Of course, historically speaking, addiction — when habitual behavior becomes so severe it leads to dependence — has been recognized for centuries. There were opiates in Asia, and urban legend has it that the artistic geniuses like
Shakespeare, Mozart and their ilk were fueled by a bit of reefer madness and cocaine snorting. Even the white powdery stuff was once an important ingredient in the original mix of Coca-Cola.
But it’s what elixirs like Coke are popularly known for, their highly caffeinated content, that appear so innocuous, yet may carry some harmful consequences in the future — especially when considering that something like caffeine just doesn’t cut it anymore for students trying to pull those all-night cramming sessions. Even early forms of the energy drink have since become passé.
“You kind of graduated from a double latte from Starbucks to Red Bull. You don’t even see that anymore,” says Moore.
“Chocolate was huge for a while, then they found caffeine,” Vivian adds. “I think they’ll come up with a whole long list of stuff.”
That list already includes a whole host of ingredients contained in the endless varieties of mass-marketed energy drinks aimed at young, impressionable consumers. Taurine, guarana, creatine, ginseng, sugar, and don’t forget more caffeine on top of that … the list goes on. Promising a nonstop supply of kinetic energy that lasts and lasts, how safe is it to consume these over time?
“I’d be concerned for people who are taking this stuff for a while, more into their 30s and 40s,” he said. “They’re so used to having the energy gates in their brain open they don’t know how to close them again.”
In the quest for opening those gates as wide as they can go, habitual behavior can sometimes border on the illegal. Drug abuse is an epidemic and ruins the lives and futures of many people. It often begins with the acquisition of prescription drugs, or “pharmies.”
Ali Karandish, an Oxnard pharmacist, says at least 20 times in the past year his pharmacy has caught people from illegally obtaining Vicodin, a pain reliever most commonly prescribed by dentists post-oral surgery. The drug, according to Karandish, is known to cause liver toxicity and other dangerous side effects with extended use, and can be fatal with an overdose.
“Kids try to call in prescriptions for themselves from all ages,” Karandish says. “Part of our job is to call a physician to see if the prescriptions are illegal.
“It is a problem,” he continues. “We catch them all the time.”
At the same time, while energy drinks, pharmies and the like are some of the culprits in our go-go-go, Energizer bunny society, teenage lethargy — kids exercising less and less — contributes to the worsening obesity epidemic in the U.S. today.
“We have a lot of kids now, that diabetes is showing up at a younger and younger age than it used to,” Zsarnay says. “A lot of it is a combination of inactivity and fast food. Quick fixes.”
According to Zsarnay, it harkens to a way of coping with pressure; there’s simply no time to eat healthily, she says.
“They get radical food, too. And they’re eating while they’re doing everything else. They rarely sit down and eat and enjoy it.
“They’re always multitasking and stimulated,” she continued, adding, “It does become a form of addiction. They don’t know how to downshift.”
Is there one culprit responsible for the need to be constantly multitasking and active? Try technology.
A sensory overload
Prof. Moore’s biggest gripe in the downfall of attention in the classroom is text messaging.
“I really think,” she says, “people in general are so connected to that text messaging that it consumes their life.”
No less than a cellular phenomenon, “texting” — the transmission of worded messages sent from one mobile phone to another — has become, apparently, such a needed and viable necessity among high school and college students that the cell phone is becoming less of a device to talk on than to type on.
One of Moore’s students was notorious for chronic texting during class, to the detriment of the young man’s grades. What’s worse, Moore says, it would often happen during an exam. Was he reaching out to another student for the answers, or retrieving them stored away in his phone?
On one occasion, the teacher felt obligated to approach the student in the midst of a test-taking session and confiscate the phone. She held out her hand, he placed the phone in it; then, realizing she was onto something else, he reached into his backpack and retrieved a second phone and handed it over to Moore.
Moore walked to the front of the room and placed the devices on her desk. But just when the problem seemed abated, it became obvious to this sociology class that it was just the lesser of two evils.
The student, according to Moore, had set the pair of phones to the vibrate mode so as not to disrupt the exam. But calls kept coming in, and the phones’ buzzing added more disruption to the silent test atmosphere.
Faces behind desks peered up away from their papers, eyes fixated on these two lonely phones, buzzing away on the desk.
The buzzing continued for minutes on end until the phones finally vibrated off the desk, clattering on the tiles of the Ventura College lecture hall.
“I finally had to put them on the floor so they wouldn’t distract other people,” Moore recalls.
What’s more, the young man’s response indicated that he justified his “texting anywhere, anytime” frame of mind. “I don’t like you very much right now,” he seethed at Moore when his phones were returned to him after the class was dismissed.
His grades, according to the professor, never improved, and by the end of the semester he had flunked the class. Sociologically, we live in the digital age of information. Technology has been advancing at an incredible rate over the past 20 years. Children grow up around it; it’s what they know. Can we really blame them for allowing it to become such an integral part of their lives?
“They were raised in a different era of constant communication and connection. This is just one more form of being able to get a hold of someone anytime, anywhere,” Moore says. “I think when you’re raised by the television, and you’re just used to stimulation all the time, it’s just another outlet for them.
“I don’t think we should be surprised.”
That could be hard advice to swallow for anyone unfamiliar with the obsession we have with cell phones and nifty gadgets. Moore has observed VC students bump into doors, and each other, while typing away on their phones’ keypads.
“They’re so zoned into texting, they’re not paying attention to where they’re walking,” she says. “They’re not taking in all around them. Their whole world is in that Blackberry or telephone or iPhone. That is their whole world. You unplug them, and you have discommunicated them.”
In light of the recent Metrolink rail tragedy in Chatsworth, where the train’s conductor allegedly crashed the train, in part, because he was so involved texting two teenage train buff acquaintances that staying “plugged in and communicated,” so to speak, jeopardized not just his livelihood, but his safety.
Since new cell phone laws were enacted statewide in July, barring motorists from using a mobile device without a hands-free unit, it seems people are still notoriously talking and texting while driving on California roads.
According to Tom Marshall, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol in Sacramento, 119 tickets have been issued statewide for one law banning drivers under 18 from using a cell phone, hands-free or not. Why so few? According to Marshall, it’s considered a secondary violation; in this case, police must find a motorist committing some other infraction first.
The other law, requiring use of a hands-free device, applies to all drivers older than 18. Marshall said 14,814 violations have been accounted for since July. There weren’t ages available for the statistics.
Why doesn’t that matter? Boomer or Boomerang, it goes to show that people of all ages are apparently still glued to their phones.
That’s why a professional like Zsarnay, a dietitian, holds parents equally responsible for their children’s behavior, whether it’s partaking in energy drinks, caffeine or too much texting. Sometimes adults are just as misinformed.
“I don’t think (parents) think about it that way. They’ve been desensitized to it,” she says. “The vast majority are really trying to do the best for their kids, but they lose track of the balanced moderation, common sense sometimes.”
Stopping to smell the flowers
She suggests having parents and their kids work together and learn how to find balance.
“They need to start at a young age teaching their children to just relax in a calm, non stimulating way,” she says. “We need to teach them just how to veg out. Not completely, but moderately.”
That means, according to Zsarnay, getting away from stimulants, turning off the TV or cell phone, replacing artificial energy boosters with rest and nutrition, and learning how to simply relax — sitting and talking, going for a walk or stroll, or visiting the beach. She also suggests keeping a journal to track one’s progress, or just to jot down one’s thoughts and feelings.
It could make all the difference in making sure the next generation follows in the footsteps of a good example.
“They’ll either learn from their mistakes and change,” says Zsarnay, “or they’ll perpetuate the problem.”