Apathy for Catastrophe

Teens are becoming desensitized to apocalyptic news due to their prevalence in the media.

I always figured as a child that volcanoes would be a much larger hazard in my life than they have proven to be. I remember when my mom first explained to me that in some places, scorching hot liquid rock would spew and splatter from holes in the earth. I remember thinking, “So we’re all going to sit around here and pretend this is okay? Why isn’t everyone else as concerned about this as me?”

About 12 years forward from that moment, an LA Times article breezed through my morning notifications box, warning me that a Palos Verdes fault is apparently “on [the] scale of San Andreas” and could “unleash [a] huge earthquake.” Well, I figured, it’s bound to happen some day, right? I put my phone down, drank a cup of coffee, and went to school.

Each day, headlines flood our headspaces: school shootings, wildfires, war, disease, economic disintegration, climate crises. It always seems like there is some new catastrophe wreaking havoc upon humanity. The saddest part? In order to continue functioning, we have become desensitized to it. If I felt the appropriate level of despondence at every tragedy happening in the world, even the oceans, exer-expanding as glaciers melt, wouldn’t compare to the magnitude of tears I would cry on the daily. It is devastatingly impractical and horrifically impossible.

Attribute it to those pesky cell-phones, but mental health has worsened among teenagers and children. From 2016 to 2020 alone, the Pediatric Journal of American Medicine found an increase in anxiety from 7.1 to 9.2 percent and in depression from 3.1 to four percent. While these numbers look small, that is a 27 and 24 percent increase, respectively. That is nearly one kid with anxiety for every 10 and one with depression for every 25. And that’s before the pandemic.

I am far from the first person to say this and certainly will not be the last, but we live in a world where, whether we want it or not, information is constantly hurled our way. We also live in a world that is rife with injustice, humanitarian crises and a dire and direr environmental catastrophe. A solid majority of that information overload we receive is negative.

As Generation Z, we, akin to past youth cultures, have a knack for calling out the flaws in our society and working to change them. But for all our zest and audacity, I still sense a feeling of hopelessness. The United Nations declared climate change, at its current level of progression, a “code red for humanity” last year. I’ve heard people say they don’t want kids because of a hesitation to bring more people into a planet with a one-way ticket towards doom. End of the world jokes abound. We are freaked out by the possibility of nuclear war, but we don’t find it surprising. We really are the first generation to have come of age in such an apocalypse-aware society as today, or at least the first where that awareness is embedded into a worldwide communication system that permeates every aspect of our lives. 

I don’t at all believe our zeitgeist is apathy or despair. Far from it. We are an enormously active, vocal and upstanding generation. We don’t even need to look to international household names like Greta Thunberg to prove this. Even as close to home as Redondo Beach, students like Rylee Goldfarb advocate in state-level politics for greater environmental awareness. Redondo Beach and Torrance students collaborated to stage pro-choice marches amidst this past summer’s developments. A senior last year raised money to donate to Ukraine in response to Russia’s invasion. Young adults are working at the polls in the upcoming midterm elections to help preserve democracy in this country.

But what does it say about me that, earlier this school year, when wildfires in California turned the sky orange and the air reeked of ash, my first thought wasn’t shock or concern or desolation. It was, “Wow, this really feels like the apocalypse. Crazy.” My friends and I joked as we sat in a sweltering hot classroom that the world was ending. I know that this response was a result of my being privileged enough to not be directly affected by the situation, but I was raised on this type of news. Children are affected by their upbringing, and during all of my teen years I have felt that the disasters on TV raised me alongside my parents. Until catastrophe hits home, it’s easy and at times a defense mechanism to dismiss it as the norm.

What I’m trying to say is this: the seemingly unbothered reactions of teens today to disaster isn’t a symptom of their lack of empathy, but rather a coping mechanism toward the world’s profusion of misery.

So, what to do about it? By all means, get involved, and feel empowered to change the world. There is more than enough proof that we have the enterprise to do so. But, to be quite candid, it doesn’t make me feel any better about our planet’s or species’s future to be told that I can change the world. Sometimes, everything is so heavy that changing just my pillowcase feels impossible. The solution for our constantly accruing grief at the world’s collective and overwhelming misery cannot only be “make the change you want to see in the world.” For a generation with rising levels of anxious and depressed teenagers, this isn’t going to get us anywhere. It is paralyzing to approach such a huge, colossal mess of a world with an ambition of fixing the whole bang-up situation. That is why we, who have been inundated with news of crisis after crisis, might find ourselves apathetic. This staggered numbness won’t change the world, after all.

So, I propose a different approach to a disaster-filled world. Take your level of bandwidth, and do exactly everything you can to make the world at least a bit better each day. Making a difference might be as little as passing on some kindness to a friend or as commonplace as finding a career where you impact others’ lives for the better or as large-scale as running for office and fighting for international justice. I’m not trying to absolve our responsibility to do everything we can to save our planet; in fact, I’m advocating the contrary. We don’t all have to stop oil drilling in its entirety to make a difference, when real difference can come in our day to day practices; every small effort in the positive direction is an act of rebellion against the aforementioned one-way ticket to doom.

Besides, here in Southern California, we are living on fault lines. Maybe my desensitization to the threat of ruin is what allows me to write this so calmly, but at any moment everything really could come crumbling down. Let’s not spend what time we do have frozen stiff in the face of everything wrong with the world.