As the country continues to grapple with deadly mass shootings at schools, grocery stores and churches, Pearl Jam’s song “Jeremy” keeps infiltrating my thoughts. It’s based on the true story of a teen boy who was bullied in school and then one day, after having enough of the taunting, snapped and shot himself in front of the entire classroom. The song was released as a single in 1992, years before the devastating Columbine High School massacre, seeming to foreshadow the unspeakable violence that would repeatedly play out over the next several decades.
I recently showed the music video to my 17-year-old son, and he said the lyrics echo the violence and societal pressures that continue in 2022 — 30 years later
Of course, a lot has also changed in the past three decades. The Jeremy in the song didn’t have social media or a smartphone. If he had, he may have been bullied all day every day, not only in class but also at home, on weekends, in chat rooms and more. He would measure his young adolescent self through how many likes he gets from strangers and peers, living and breathing under intense scrutiny all while trying to grow up. Social media has amplified dangerous voices and made it easier for today’s youth to feel lost and disenfranchised.
How can we build stronger bonds for our kids so they don’t get pulled into this vortex and go dark?
We all know the teenage years are challenging enough with puberty; imagine measuring yourself through the eyes of strangers, bullies, cowards and keyboard warriors via social media. Where is the escape hatch for these kids? While they are growing up and building their foundations, they deserve the chance to feel safe and free from harassment.
It’s easy to say that our kids should simply unplug, but in the wake of COVID, more and more of our daily activities are handled online. Schools often require it. The line between virtual reality and actual reality is often indistinguishable, especially for our youngest and most vulnerable children.
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I don’t know where I would be if I had a smartphone as a teen. I cringe thinking about some of the poor choices I may have made because of my impulsivity and lack of maturity — common traits for a young adult. Under most laws in the United States, young people are recognized as adults at age 18. But more studies about brain development suggest that most people don’t reach full maturity until the age 25.
Our country is facing a youth crisis because we now have our own homegrown version of suicide bombers: teenage boys who have nothing to lose and want to take down others on their way out. I believe that we should not be selling guns to teenagers because our culture has no guardrails, no scaffolding and time and time again, we see a complete collapse. You must wait until you are 21 to legally drink in the United States, but in most states, any 18-year-old can walk in off the street and purchase a high-powered semi-automatic rifle on a whim. It’s hard to reconcile, but guns are only a part of the issue. Absentee parents, drugs, social media, depression and bullying are also part of a growing epidemic.
When a kid has someone who believes in them, they have a reason to continue, and a reason not to hurt others. Even a tiny sliver of hope can be enough. That’s why our country needs to cherish and celebrate our teachers more. These educators have been on the frontlines of COVID, social justice reform, mental health issues and now protecting our children from active shooters. The fact that schools even have active shooter drills show they aren’t preparing for if one happens, but when — and that is sickening. Teachers are the unsung heroes of our country, and they deserve more praise, and more pay.
Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, atheist or churchgoer, we are united in our sorrow after the tragedy that unfolded in Uvalde, Texas. All of us are hurting. Let’s take this opportunity to harness this common suffering to deal with a safer world for our kids.
This shouldn’t be an either/or debate. Let’s act on multiple fronts. We can start with less access to guns, higher salaries for teachers, more resources for teens, less social media and more community support. Bullies need to be held accountable. If you know someone who is being bullied, say something. If you are the bully — and yes, you know who you are — stop it right now. You will have a much greater impact if you actively stop trying to hurt people. Kindness is an action.
And to the politicians: stop feigning passion and certainty in exchange for power. Stop with your performative agendas to stay in power. It is your job to collaborate and represent the people. All of us. Jeremy’s future depends on it.
Freedman is CEO of Brown Harris Stevens real estate.