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Case study: Kids These Days podcast

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Depression and anxiety among teens have gone up over the past decade. Same goes for the number of teens admitted to hospitals for suicidal thoughts or attempts. Suicide for 10-24 year olds is now the second leading cause of death, up one spot from just a decade ago. Some say today’s teens are in the middle of a mental health crisis. 

 

There are no easy answers to what's happening. Kids These Days, a Michigan Radio-produced, nine-episode podcast, is our attempt to shed light on this complex situation. How? We gave the microphone over to the experts themselves.

Michigan Radio teamed up with 20 students from Community High School in Ann Arbor to get an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to be a teen today. The students’ fingerprints are on every part of the podcast. They composed the theme music. They designed the logo. They came up with the story topics and wrote the scripts. Episodes range from parental surveillance and how it affects behavior, to questions about virginity and how queer teens fit in, to what it’s like to be a 15-year old living with anxiety. This podcast debuted in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this, Kids These Days not only captures life right before COVID-19, it also sheds light on how young people are dealing with this new normal.

Kids These Days is noteworthy for several reasons. Unlike so much of the reporting previously done on these issues, Kids These Days is a student-led project written by teens, for teens. It shows the messier parts of life that often get cropped out of an Instagram photo, and are too nuanced to sum up in a tweet or daily news story. For students, it helped them feel less alone when they heard their peers share their struggles. For adults, it provided insight into the minds of teens and helped generate new ways to think about how we parent, teach, care for, and talk with youth.

The episodes: 

Race: I’m Black. And in America, that matters. I don’t have the luxury of not talking about my race. I know the talks in most of the houses in my city don't sound like mine. But I wanted to know: what do they sound like? 

Fear: We’ve grown up in an age of fear -- from school shooters, to the climate crisis, to COVID-19. We look at how that’s shaped our lives. 

Anxiety: Millions of teens in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder. A 15-year old shares her audio diary of what it’s like to live with anxiety.

Identity + Sex: So many teens stress about coming out. Why, in the year 2020, is coming out still a thing? Plus, questions about virginity and how queer teens fit in. 

Teen Life: Part of being a teen is realizing things are not as simple as they seem. That there’s a darker side to the world that maybe we’re just seeing for the first time. It’s also a time when -- some of us, hopefully -- figure out ways to deal with that. 

Phones: The unspoken rules and expectations of social media, and how they can impact our relationships and behavior. 

Drugs: We know there can be serious consequences to vaping. So why do so many of us continue to do it? 

Perfection: We live in a college town where many of us feel a lot of pressure to be perfect. How this quest for perfection affects the way we think of ourselves. 

Advice: A lot has happened since we started making this podcast nearly a year ago. What have we learned? And what advice can we give to ourselves and each other as we navigate all of it.

Kids These Days hit #1 in the Kids & Family category on Apple podcasts, and was featured in Apple’s “New and Noteworthy” section. Producers also received emails from parents, teachers, and caregivers, saying how much they learned about their own children and what other youth are going through, like this one: 

"I appreciate the insight this episode offers. I have kids of my own, not yet teens, and I like being able to see what kids around their age are feeling and thinking. I also can’t help but think back almost 30 years to friends and schoolmates of mine who could have benefited from hearing this kind of thing on the radio, at a time when it was far more rare. It’s a brave thing these kids are doing."

But the ultimate goal of this podcast was always to let other teens know: you are not alone. And that message was reciprocated. The students received texts and messages from youth across the state, many from teens they didn’t know, saying how brave they were for sharing their stories, and how much they can relate. Like this message to Mira, whose audio diary about living with anxiety was featured in episode three: 

"Hey Mira, I just finish[ed] listening to the podcast and I just wanted to tell you I feel the same. If someone doesn’t respond to me I feel like they hate me, I’m a loser and that I’m just generally unliked by the majority of the population. And whenever I talk in class or even at meetings I always feel like I sounded [sic] stupid. I just wanted to let you know I’m in the same boat and if you ever need any[one] to talk about it my number is XXX-XXX-XXXX."

 
Listen to the trailer for Kids These Days below.