What would lockdown have been like when you were a teen? In trying to fathom the gap between today’s adolescents and all who have gone before, it’s a useful thought experiment.
For me, a Hawke’s Bay teen in the late 90s, I suspect a lockdown would have been extremely chill. Lots of books and baking and runs around the orchard with our dog. I guess there would have been homework? Posted-out worksheets or something? But no smartphone, no TikTok or Instagram or chaotic class Zooms, or streamed TV to hand 24/7. My brothers and I would have fought over the landline, made eel traps and played cricket on the lawn. I’d have spent a lot of afternoons up trees. Also: COVID would have been pretty much the only hard thing we had to deal with.
I don’t think lockdown circa 2020/2021 felt like that for our kids, or for many teens in New Zealand. Our young people are now part of the pressure cooker. They exist in this busy, uncertain world with us—but they’re also online, and in that world the sun never sets.
Lockdown at our place, in Auckland with two working parents and two young kids, meant that every moment from 5am was parcelled out, consumed by either childcare or work. My husband and I were both working in digital journalism so even when we weren’t technically on shift we were still responding to Slack messages and tweets. There was no way around it and no way to hide it from the kids. By necessity, they had their own screens: the TV in the lounge, streaming endless Bluey and Octonauts while I tapped away on the laptop beside them. The iPad stuffed with e-books and primary-school maths programs.
We got outside when we could. Hunted for fungi, walked endlessly around the block, planted silverbeet. But on the whole it sucked, for everyone. I still worry about what those months did to our kids—and the fact that their future will likely be full of similar, extraordinarily anxious times.
What will the world be like in 10 years, 15, 20? My three-year-old is obsessed with babies. She chatters with happy certainty about having a real one of her own. She will teach her baby to make kawakawa tea, to swim at the beach, turn over stones to look for pinchy crabs. It has recently become an act of self-preservation to smile and slam a door on the thoughts that bloom when she talks like this.
Our parents can’t help us parent in this moment. Nothing they faced compares. Their experience of thinking about their kids’ futures is so far removed from our own that sometimes when I broach the topic, I come away feeling slightly unhinged. But then another news story drops into my feed: an Antarctic ice shelf sets melt records. Millions of dead fish clog an Australian river. This morning, economists updated their predictions of recession—it will be twice as deep as first thought.
In grappling with all this, I think it’s helpful to acknowledge that the gap between teens and adults today is more like a gulf, a parallel universe—in a world in flux every adolescence, from now on, will be profoundly out of whack with our own. It already is.
Yet we never hear from teenagers—they exist on different platforms, they don’t get to vote, they’re often ignored in data collection, and too often what they say in public is misunderstood or disregarded.
So this edition of New Zealand Geographic is a special one. With funding from NZ On Air, we’ve spent nearly a year documenting nine teenagers from all around Aotearoa.
We want to know what the world looks like from their perspective. What it feels like. How they cope. This project is not about chronicling the quirks of youth or the evils of screens, or how to be a better parent. There is no tutting or throwing-up of hands. It is simply an exercise in listening. If you’re a teen reading this magazine, we hope you see something of yourself in it.