Part essay, part interview, part concert review, this piece explores how much things have changed for teenagers over the last 20 years. It’s also the first thing I’ve written (for the public) since the Klassik book came out.

It’s Summerfest 2000. I’m 14 years old. My family and I are at the Marcus Amphitheater to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’m in line for the men’s bathroom. Suddenly, a voice rises from the urinals.

“How long…how loooooong…will I slide?”

Within seconds the entire men’s bathroom is singing “Otherside.” No one is on their smartphone recording video, or taking a selfie, or checking their email, or texting their group chat, or watching the Brewers game, or scrolling through TikTok videos, or posting to their Instagram story, or bumming out because their Facebook post only has three Likes. The collective consciousness of that bathroom is singularly focused on the sing-along. It’s one of those moments of spontaneous communion that fills my soul with pure positive energy and gets me pumped up for the show.

Heavy rain and lightning set the stage for a pair of electric performances. The Foo Fighters open with a rowdy set. At one point Dave Grohl comes into the crowd, chugs a fan’s beer and saunters around like a gladiator. The Peppers absolutely crush it. I remember a trippy stage set, face melting guitar solos, and gleefully jumping around the concrete aisle with my little brother, swept away by the blissful oblivion of live rock ‘n’ roll, dancing my dance.

Fast forward 23 years.

It’s Easter weekend. I’m inside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, once again in line for the men’s bathroom at a Red Hot Chili Peppers show. Suddenly, a young woman barrels towards the bathrooms, her mouth covered with one hand. She slips and does the splits, exposing Harry Potter underwear. At no point does her hand move from her mouth. A friend pulls her off the floor while mouthing “God help me.” As soon as they turn the corner into the ladies room the drunk woman slips on her backside and vomits. Not the same sort of feel good moment from the Summerfest show, but that’s besides the point.

Inside the men’s bathroom I spot a teenage boy leaning on the wall next to a row of hand dryers. He’s wearing flamingo patterned pajama pants, a Kurt Cobain sweater, and the dirtiest white Crocs I’ve ever seen. He looks to be about the same age I was in 2000. He’s staring at his phone and messing with his hair. I can feel his self-consciousness oozing from across the room. At that moment, I find myself contemplating all the ways the world has changed since the last time I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Obviously, the music industry has gone through seismic shifts, but that’s not what’s on my mind. I’m thinking about how things have changed for teenagers. I’m thinking about how it has gotten simultaneously easier and harder to be a teen. Smartphones and advances in technology have led to so much efficiency, connectivity, and convenience. At the same time, social media has led to a dramatic increase in depression and suicide, especially among teenage girls.

As a high school teacher and stepdad, I have intimate access to the teenage psyche. I’ve also read a few studies and books on the impact of technology on Gen Z. (If you’re interested, a good place to start is Jean Twenge’s iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—And Completely Unprepared For Adulthood—And What That Means For The Rest Of Us.)

From both firsthand and secondhand experience, I can report that today’s teens are noticeably more anxious and depressed than previous generations. Some of them even wear it on their sleeve like a badge of honor or an aesthetic. Being depressed has become an all-too-common personality trait.

And so, it’s refreshing and encouraging when I come across a young person who doesn’t fit that bill, who is upbeat, seemingly confident, and not riddled with disaffection and self-consciousness. I find a few of them each school year and I’m going to introduce you to a 15-year-old named Chloe, who happens to be a fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Early in the school year, I noticed Chloe reading Scar Tissue, the 2004 memoir of Anthony Kiedis, the Peppers frontman. The first time Chloe shared in class she mentioned being obsessed with Woodstock ’99 and the band Limp Bizkit, which happened to be my favorite band circa middle school. I wasn’t terribly surprised by this, since my stepson had previously expressed an unironic appreciation for Limp Bizkit.

But it was still a bit perplexing, considering Limp Bizkit is part of the nu metal genre, which tends to attract aggro dudes. So how did this bright, sensitive, theater-loving 15-year-old girl, someone who attended Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour stop in Chicago no less, genuinely get down with the Bizkit?

“Over the summer my sister was talking about the Woodstock ’99 documentary, so I just started looking it up,” says Chloe. “Then I watched it and when the Limp Bizkit part came on I was like, ‘No way this music was making these people so crazy.’ So I listened to it and then my brain was just like, ‘I can’t listen to anything but this!’ Then Significant Other was just on repeat. Every time I was on the bus I was listening to it.”

In this way, Chloe’s discovery of Limp Bizkit is emblematic of pre-internet generations, when you were lucky if you had a cool older sibling/cousin/neighbor/friend that turned you on to the good stuff. The first time I heard Limp Bizkit was their cover of “Faith” by George Michael. I was at a family friend’s house and one of the older kids was playing Three Dollar Bill, Y’all on CD.

Back in my day, my brother and I were always around other kids, especially on the weekends. These days, kids are way more isolated, content with being “together” online. Their default setting is in their bedroom on their phone/tablet/computer, streaming video content, and/or gaming.

After hearing Limp Bizkit at my family friend’s house, the band was all over MTV, which was how I discovered most music at that age, for better or worse. Back in middle school, it was either MTV or 103.7 KISS-FM. My taste didn’t expand until I got to high school and then more so in college.

Thanks to the internet, teens today have access to literally everything. They don’t need a cool older sibling/cousin/neighbor/friend. They can follow almost anyone on social media and Shazam any song they hear. If it’s not on an official streaming service, they’re only a couple of clicks away from obscure b-sides, those tracks that only the most dedicated crate diggers could find back in the day.

As a result, the music tastes of teens today are much more diverse than previous generations. Many of them don’t even think about genre distinctions or have genre allegiances, which was not the case when I was young. Genre allegiance was kind of a big deal to me and my friends. But for today’s teens, it seems to be more about the mood of a song than anything else. With Chloe as a case study, it would appear that the silly, angsty spirit of bands like Limp Bizkit and Red Hot Chili Peppers are still finding an audience.

“I think so many people see music as this serious art form, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but they’ll hear a band like the Chili Peppers and won’t like it because the lyrics are stupid or whatever,” says Chloe. “If it sounds good, I’ll listen to it. Lyrics don’t matter that much to me. Also, I feel like a lot of people today insist on a narrow interpretation of a song and its meaning, but I don’t agree. I think everyone can interpret art however they want, even if it’s different from what the artist intended. Music is for everyone.”

Last September, Chloe missed a few days of school because she was in Orlando with her mom and brother seeing the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a soccer stadium. She walked into class the next week wearing a tour T-shirt and proclaimed, “That was the best concert of my life!”

“There was so much anticipation because the concert was held back like an hour because it was pouring rain,” says Chloe. “My clothes were soaked. We had so much adrenaline going into the show. The Strokes only got to play like three songs, so my mom was kind of sad. But I got to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers live! That’s so crazy! They were soooo good.”

The next month, Chloe had a leading role in the fall play, Zombies On Highland, an original production about a zombie takeover of our school. She nailed it and the play was fantastic overall. As a gift for her excellent performance, Chloe’s sister treated her to last minute tickets to see The Smashing Pumpkins at Fiserv Forum.

When the Peppers announced their 2023 tour, which included a date in Minneapolis, Chloe asked her mom to run it back. I also had my eye on that date, as I couldn’t swing the Chicago show back in August and the Minneapolis show would be during our spring break. A week before the show, I sat down with Chloe to pick her brain.

How did you get into the Peppers?

I remember my mom played them in the car a lot. They were like the one band my whole family could agree on. They are such good musicians. I’ll admit that Anthony can’t really sing and he says a lot of stupid stuff, but he’s a great frontman.

What have you learned from his memoir?

I haven’t made it very far, because it’s about his childhood trauma and it’s hard to process. Some things are just so messed up. Like he did heroin at 14. When he was 12 he had sex with his dad’s girlfriend with his dad’s permission while he watched. Really messed up stuff. He was going out to bars with his dad. One time he jumped off a building into a pool, but he missed the pool and broke his back. His mom was in Michigan and had a really abusive husband. He was doing so many drugs, it was hard for him to grow up.

How do you usually discover music?

I’ll hear a song on TikTok and I’ll like it, then I’ll go through the artist’s discography and see what else is on there. Mostly it’s that and social media recommendations from friends.

What is your social media diet?

I’m more engaged with Instagram. It’s more personal and shows what’s going on in people’s lives. But I also feel like every person my age is on TikTok.

Do you mostly follow people you know on Instagram or celebrities too?

It used to be more celebrities, but now it’s just people I know and I won’t follow back unless it’s someone I know.

To what extent do you think social media can be bad for you?

I think most social media can get bad if you’re just consuming certain stuff. When I go on Instagram, I don’t really look at random people, I just look at stupid stuff, like funny things. I would say it’s more so TikTok that makes me feel so awful. People post a bunch of videos about how they’re so depressed and how they can’t get up in the morning. It’s both people who go on and vent about whatever they feel bad about and then people posting stuff for fun.

So I’ll see a video where someone’s like, “I think I’m going to kill myself.” And then the next video is a dog dancing. Your brain is not comprehending the emotions well. So it’s hard to feel what you’re feeling in that moment because at one point you’re like, “Oh, that’s so sad,” and then in the next moment you’re laughing. And so your brain isn’t like actually processing what’s happening.

Would you say you’re a confident person?

I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily super confident in myself, it’s just more that I don’t project insecurity onto other people, which a lot of people do.

Do you think insecurity and anxiety is super common among your generation?

I think it’s more talked about. I think social media does play a big role in that, because it’s all people know. They get all this information on the internet and they see it and put themselves into those boxes. I think social media isn’t what the brain necessarily needs all the time. I think people aren’t fully experiencing everything in the world when they could be, and that can lead to depression, especially because now people compare themselves to people they see on the internet. And so they get insecure because of the standards they see online.

Also, people on the internet are just mean. If you like something and a majority of the people on the internet don’t like it, they’ll just make fun of you. So you feel like you have to hide some of your personality. I think that because so many people in this generation know that, it affects how they act in real life. So I think more people don’t end up expressing themselves and try to fit into more boxes, which can mess up your brain and your perception.

Last summer, my writing project was an investigation into the implementation and rationale behind the morning phone collection we instituted at our school in March 2022. It was an internal document that I used as a teaching tool. Students annotated the text and we discussed it in class. It remains a hot topic of debate.

Ideally, students would leave their phones in their backpacks during class, taking them out only when their teacher deemed it appropriate. As you can imagine, that rarely happens in practice. In my decade working for MPS I’ve watched phone abuse in the classroom get progressively worse each year.

It reached a tipping point at our school in the fall of 2021, upon our return from the year of virtual learning. Students were embarrassing and bullying each other with anonymous Instagram accounts, blatantly using their phones in class as if they were still alone in their bedrooms, and worst of all, more engaged in physical fighting. One student who had spent the better part of a year on TikTok admitted to me that her attention span had dropped down to basically nothing. She said she couldn’t focus on anything in class, not even a video, unless it hooked her in the first few seconds.

The day we implemented the morning phone collection many students experienced typical symptoms of withdrawal. There was anger and rage that day, but there was also a high level of compliance. There was relief as well, acknowledged privately by students who were anxious about being posted on the toxic Instagram accounts. By the end of the semester my colleagues reported more engagement and social interaction across the board. It has remained an uphill battle, but a necessary one.

Much of the discussion around the dangers of social media, especially since the recent warning by the U.S. Surgeon General, tends to focus on the most intense effects: depression that can lead to suicide. Death is obviously the gravest concern, but there are more subtle effects that we should also be talking about, like dwindling attention spans and kids being more afraid to express themselves.

My stepdaughter had a YouTube phase where she almost exclusively watched families playing elaborate games and pranks, or carrying out complex challenges. As a family, we do fun stuff together, but not on the level of the YouTubers. Our schedules and budget just don’t allow it. Most kids don’t live with a family that keeps them constantly entertained and engaged, so they often turn to these YouTube channels. What is concerning is that their viewing experience can be underpinned by a dull, subconscious pang of jealousy, which can lead to feelings of resentment and depression, especially when the videos are binged. And so, while a young girl’s social media melancholy journey might peak with unrealistic beauty standards and friend drama, it will start with a mild addiction to YouTube families having more fun than theirs.

In my investigation into the phone collection at my school I used three analogies to discuss the impact smartphones are having on our society. I compared them to guns, cigarettes, and cars, for different purposes, with varying degrees of success. Lately I’ve been thinking about them in a different way.

As my seniors approach graduation day, I’ve found that many of them are woefully unprepared for adulthood in specific ways. Part of this has to do with smartphones being the ultimate comfort device. Smartphones are the digital pacifiers of their generation. Teens walking around with their phone attached to their hand are not unlike small children carrying their favorite stuffed animal or blanket everywhere. There’s a similar attachment. The phone is always there when they are uncomfortable, anxious, or bored. As a result, many teens today lack resilience and courage. They are more fragile than previous generations. They are terrified of new experiences. This makes the prospect of adulthood incredibly daunting.

When I last spoke with Chloe, I showed her Jean Twenge’s book iGen and its long subtitle. I asked her if she agreed with everything in the subtitle (she did) and which part resonates with her the most.

“Completely unprepared for adulthood, definitely. I’m afraid of death, heights, spiders, bugs, and like, growing up and having to figure it out on my own.”

Another subtle side effect of the ubiquity of smartphones, social media, and the idea that things can “live forever online” is that young people aren’t putting themselves out there, being vulnerable, and taking risks like previous generations did, due to an acute fear of failure and embarrassment. But failure, especially at their age, is so critical to learning and growing.

One day in class, I was talking to Chloe and some of her peers about the struggle of regulating my stepdaughter’s screen time. They encouraged my partner and I to keep her off social media as long as possible, sharing personal stories about being exposed to mature content at a young age.

Therein lies one of the paradoxes of their generation: the internet is exposing them to adult content earlier, yet they want to prolong their adolescence.

Another paradox is that the internet puts so much culture at their fingertips, creating a vast potential for originality, yet they feel suffocated by social media and suppress their individuality.

Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?

Back at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, King Princess is rocking a mostly empty, very cavernous football stadium, which has a fraction of the charm and wonder of Lambeau Field. The Strokes lead singer Julien Casablancas would later call Mikaela Straus, leader of King Princess, “the greatest voice of the next generation.” I was super impressed by their set and would love to see them at Turner Hall Ballroom or the Pabst Theater.

The Strokes are one of those bands I thought I’d never get to see live. Their mystique has grown over the years thanks to the 2017 oral history book Meet Me In The Bathroom: Rebirth And Rock And Roll In New York City 2001-2011 and the subsequent 2022 documentary of the same name. The iconic band did not disappoint. Casablancas was his usual surly self, almost getting into it with a fan at one point, but not letting it derail their all-too-short set, which could’ve added a tenth song if not for singing “Happy Birthday” to guitar wizard Albert Hammond Jr. Casablancas expressed gratitude to the Peppers for having them on tour, referring to them as “our chiseled megadons.”

As soon as they took the stage, the Peppers flexed those chiseled sexagenarian muscles. Well, at least Flea did. The rock and roll monk came out doing a handstand walk across the stage. (And he’s 60!) It took me half the set to realize Kiedis was wearing a boot on one of his legs due to a previous injury he suffered bouncing around the stage, which didn’t stop him from bouncing around the stage.

The energy wasn’t as electric as that Summerfest show back in 2000, but we definitely went to church that Easter eve, at the one of the largest houses of worship in the Upper Midwest. The “Otherside” sing-along was less spontaneous, but more euphoric. Sure, plenty of people had their phones out, more concerned with capturing the moment than living it in, but there was still an overwhelming sense of communion.

“I love being at a concert,” says Chloe. “It’s not just the music, but everything surrounding it; the lights and all the people having this shared experience.”

Throughout the show, Flea offered bits of wisdom, such as, “To all the children, sing your song, write your book, paint your paint, dance your dance, don’t keep it in!”

Nearby, I could hear a middle-aged man exclaim, “That doesn’t even make any sense.”

When I told Chloe this later, she laughed and shook her head. “It seems pretty obvious man. I think it’s about kids not feeling like they can’t be themselves.”

Obviously. But not easily done.

Exclusive articles, podcasts, and more. Support Milwaukee Record on Patreon.

About The Author

Avatar photo

Joey Grihalva is a teacher, writer, stepdad, Bucks fan, and the author of two books: Milwaukee Jazz (mostly pictures) and The Milwaukeean (centers around the musician Klassik).