A Cautionary Tale of Modern Youth Development

There are real costs of following the herd.

Brad Johnson is your typical American teen. He grew up playing baseball, watching MTV, and taking two Adderall pills each day for his ADHD.

Brad first showed signs of hyperactivity in kindergarten, where he often lost his daily recess because he, “couldn’t keep his hands and feet to himself.” During story time, he’d be flopping his legs from side to side, or playing with the braids of the girls sitting in front of him.

Brad Johnson is your typical American teen. He grew up playing baseball, watching MTV, and taking two Adderall pills each day for his ADHD.

Brad first showed signs of hyperactivity in kindergarten, where he often lost his daily recess because he, “couldn’t keep his hands and feet to himself.” During story time, he’d be flopping his legs from side to side, or playing with the braids of the girls sitting in front of him.

When the class colored, he drew an Army tank and went around the room shooting classmates with it, and when the class played games he was often “too competitive and rowdy.” He loved PE and loved playing with his classmates, but struggled with class instruction.

Soon, however, Brad figured out the regimented patterns of elementary life. He craved approval and worked hard to get good grades that would earn his teachers and parents praise. He was by no means a genius, but he did well. Still, there was the occasional report of overly rough play or running in the halls. His mother had noticed similar patterns at home.

Brad was always running and climbing where he shouldn’t be. He was always fighting with his little brother. If Mom let him outside he’d come in dirty from head to toe. The only time he seemed to settle was when she’d let him play on her iPad or his video games. Consequently, these became his staple home activities.

An avid baseball fan, his father hoped America’s pastime could provide another outlet for his rambunctious child. Brad was kept busy with year-round baseball and evening hitting or pitching lessons. He seemed to like the activity, particularly the attention it brought from his father, but similar reports started coming from his select baseball coach. Brad was great as long as there was action, but he struggled to focus while sitting in the dugout.

Finally, in 5th grade, his parents took him to the doctor where they found the problem. It wasn’t Brad’s fault. He was suffering from a disorder known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This explained everything. He was prescribed Adderall.

“Alarmed by something in the present, we grab for a solution without thinking about the context, the roots of the problem, and the possible unintended consequences.”

–Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature

From then on, Brad was never a problem. He paid attention in school, did whatever his coaches asked, and was compliant at home. He changed in other ways, too. He was unengaged. He lacked intensity. He felt almost numb. But how could you complain? By every societal metric, Adderall had made Brad better.

The Melody of Life For Modern Youth

Then, in 6th Grade, Brad got a smartphone. His days settled into a steady melody:

  • Wake.
  • Pop Tarts, Adderall, and phone games.
  • Play on the phone as mom drives me to school.
  • Go to class. Text and scan social media whenever possible.
  • Soda and school lunch (pizza or nachos), while playing phone games with friends at the table.
  • Go to class. Text and scan social media whenever possible.
  • School ends. Adderall. Play on the phone as mom drives me home.
  • Get a snack. Soda, Gushers, and Cheetos. Head to the bedroom to play video games.
  • Go to select baseball practice or skills coaches. Either mom or dad drives me.
  • Fast food dinner on the way home. A burger, fries, Powerade, and dessert.
  • Come home to video games, or play on the phone in front of the TV.
  • Head to the bedroom and watch TV from bed until falling asleep.

By all accounts, Brad lived a very typical life. As he entered high school he began to stand out for his success as a pitcher. By junior year he’d made varsity. Summers, evenings, and weekends became even more filled with baseball.

The rhythm of life persisted, while always accelerating. Brad often felt anxious and tired but was doing fine. To deal with his growing exhaustion, Brad started throwing a morning and afternoon Monster energy drink into the mix. Also, typical of the American teen, he became increasingly enmeshed in social media—constantly posting, commenting, and scrolling no matter where he was.

Brad now oscillated between anxious and depressed, while always appearing irritated by any personal interaction. He rarely laughed and showed little interest in anything but his phone. His mother worried about his malaise and the growing distance she felt from him, but his father assured her these were typical teenage growing pains. He feared upsetting Brad when he was so close to securing a baseball scholarship.

Congruent with typical high-school rebellion and in hopes of counteracting the purposeless lethargy he felt in life, Brad began smoking marijuana and trading Adderall for Vicodin. When he wasn’t on drugs he became even more irritable and confrontational. Any attempts by his parents to address his now fledgling grades or steer him towards SAT preparation were met with angry tirades. They couldn’t talk to him.

At 2 am one May Sunday, right before the end of his junior year, Brad’s parents got a call. He’d been speeding around in his truck when he lost control and swerved over the sidewalk becoming stuck in the bushes of a local dentist office. No one was hurt, but Brad was visibly intoxicated and high. After a search, Vicodin was found in his vehicle.

Distraught, his parents took him to a psychiatrist who quickly concluded Brad had bipolar depression. Again, the answer came from a pill, Risperdal. Just as with Brad’s previous struggles, the only possible conclusion could be that something was inherently wrong with Brad—time to go to the miracles of modern science to correct this for us. A drug will fix the problem. Yet, might this be a bit too convenient and simplistic?

By masking each challenge with a pill, we miss the opportunity to honestly evaluate our environment, learn about ourselves, and force ourselves to grow through the process. We numb life’s feedback, thus blunting minor pains that should have prompted consistent modest corrections all throughout the chain and, instead, kick the can down the road until it finally manifests in a major blowout. Brad’s adaptable biology tried like hell to accommodate a bizarrely unhealthy world, but they were simply too insane.

While Brad’s upbringing may seem normal, it could hardly be more terrifying for his biochemistry. It’s easy to forget that our brains and bodies are developed for the nomadic world that defined over 90% of human history. We are animals, unprepared for the intense industrialization and domestication of modern society. When we refuse to honor our primal nature and the consequent human needs, we ensure a life of poor physical and mental health.

Now, let’s explore Brad’s challenges and changes with a different lens.

Brad’s Childhood Hyperactivity

Running in the halls. Legs flopping during story time. Rough play. Bored watching baseball. Brad might have ADHD, or maybe he is just a kid. Children learn through their senses, most notably the physical senses. Trial, error, and experimentation are the best teachers they’ll ever have. As always, but especially at this age, children need the freedom to run, to explore, and to play independent of the constant intervention of adults.

Certainly, they need to learn limits and boundaries. I understand the need to operate well in this world and that learning math and reading will require some still-time practicing focus. Still, we too often ignore and demonize the developmental needs of this stage, while ignoring far better methods for combining movement with learning.

Even if Brad was uncharacteristically active, is this a bad thing? Perhaps this is his strength and will unlock countless future gifts as he faces the challenges of applying a physical life in our overly-sedentary world. We needn’t all fit one model.

I don’t have the expertise to comment on whether ADHD is a bunk diagnosis, but, as explained in the book ADHD Nation, the evidence is overwhelming that it is disturbingly overdiagnosed. Keith Connors, the doctor who originally created the ADHD diagnosis, says it best: “The numbers make it look like an epidemic. Well, it’s not. This is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels.”

And who is driving this concoction? Big pharma. The billion-dollar industry who has made an art of manipulating studies to confuse doctors, while creating an environment where parents beg for the diagnosis. These arrogant companies shamelessly broadcast their desire to medicate as many people as possible. Adderall was named by Shire pharmaceuticals to profess their intent: ADD for all.

Driven by a need to meet societal expectations, Brads parents began giving him drugs that changed his biochemistry.

Brad’s Middle School Detached Behavior

With the introduction of Adderall, Brad became docile, compliant, and passionless. Then he was given a smartphone. Suddenly Brad was immersed into a world that constantly demanded his attention. He began creating profiles, taking pictures, sharing pictures, commenting, playing phone games, finding funny apps that manipulated pictures, watching funny YouTube clips, entering dozens of group messages, and beginning snap chat streaks.

There was simply no moment of the day, Brad couldn’t go to his phone and find dozens of activities to distract from less interesting or more challenging pursuits. In the car, waiting in line, sitting in class after a test—every opportunity in life that would have provided mental space or allowed him to develop the desire to pick up a book was now occupied by the phone. The activities of life became an irritating disruption.

“All our unhappiness comes from our inability to sit alone in our room.”

–Blaise Pascal

This technology is simply overwhelmingly powerful. Technology designers have studied human neuroscience to create amazingly sophisticated applications that stop at nothing to keep you scrolling longer. Addiction is their intent and we are all susceptible to the alluring vortex.

More and more, smartphone use consumes the free time of all Americans, particularly our youth. We’ve all seen the lobotomized passive postures, heads tilted, thumbs swiping steadily. According to Common Sense Media, Teens spend an average of nine hours a day online compared to six hours for children between ages eight and 12.

That is in addition to the hours of their day spent seated at school and the hours at home seated in front of a television. A generation is being conditioned to live their lives passively entertained by a screen—an era of voyeuristic living.

The Consequences Come to a Head

By high-school Brad was always tired, irritated by any interaction, unmotivated, depressed, and anxious. We see these patterns more than ever in modern youth. But, you’d have to be blind not to expect to. Brad, like all of us, is a hominid whose biology expected foods available in nature, sunlight, novel movement, authentic human connections, and a sense of meaning that came from group purpose. Instead, Brad’s biology has been given:

  • Two daily doses of a drug stimulant known as Adderall.
  • A daily Monster energy drink full of caffeine and over a day’s worth of added sugar.
  • A diet consisting of candy, chips, fast food, and other sugar-laden, overly salted or fried foods that would have been impossible 100-years ago.
  • Days spent in nearly constant sitting that is briefly disrupted by repetitive throwing and swinging sessions.
  • A mind that is constantly toggling between multiple activities on one screen and constantly tugged to return to that screen whenever he has been pulled away.
  • A phone he looks at in bed and a television in his room that virtually ensures he stays up later and gets superficial sleep.

Our mental patterns and physical abilities are the product of all the decisions we make in our life up to a given moment. Brad is ingesting a disturbing cocktail of food and drugs that have his mind and body thrown terribly out of whack. He rarely moves and engulfs his mind with flashy electric lights and a billion bizarre, unhealthy advertisement-driven messages creating unrealistic life expectations.

As if this isn’t enough, he’s going through the physical and mental changes of late adolescence and he’s added depressants like alcohol, marijuana, and Vicodin into the mix. The doctor thinks he has bipolar disorder, but I think his body has done a miraculous job of processing this toxic environment. The fact that he, and the millions of youth like him, aren’t sitting in the corner, twitching while repeating non-sensical phrases is a true testament to our human resiliency.

The End of Brad’s Story

Brad’s scary encounter and Risperdal prescription proved a potent cocktail to slow his drug-abusing behavior. The scare came at a perfect time. Summer ball was starting, and this being the summer before his senior year, he’d be playing tournaments in 15 states. Every Thursday until Saturday was to be spent in tournament play.

Tangent to his emotional breakdown, Brad’s elbow had begun to hurt badly. This only worsened during summer play. On one July Saturday, he threw a pitch and felt excruciating pain. After years of very little time away from pitching, he’d blown out his UCL. He wouldn’t be able to play baseball in his senior year. Brad’s father was beside himself. Brad was relieved.

Admittedly, Brad’s story was not fun to write. It is a fictional name combining two nearly identical stories I’ve encountered in the past few months. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot worse. This story bears mentioning because it highlights so many of the common flaws and misconceptions of modern parenting norms.

We must come to terms with the reality that the standard model most children are fed is deeply unhealthy and unfulfilling. Brad may have never wanted for much, but even with loving parents he’s been deprived of the deepest human needs: authenticity, competency, and connection.

It could have been so different for Brad, but only with parents who determined to look at the norms, reflect, and intentionally craft a better path. Strong parents make strong kids. Life is too short to be normal.

This Week’s Mission

Get the book Tribe by Sebastian Junger, in either hardcopy, e-reader, or audiobook form. The Audible version is read by the author and a very quick way to digest the content.

It is a short book that will radically shift how you look at human health and the needs of our human nature. When you understand the environment humanity evolved to thrive within, deviating from unhealthy modern norms becomes far more obvious and purpose-driven.