Have you seen Eighth Grade? It’s a new film about Kayla, an awkward, isolated, and endearing teen girl who courageously makes her way through the last week of middle school.
My daughter Megan just finished middle school herself—and with great relief. It was a time defined by academic pressure, social challenges, and an overarching sense of anxiety. During her eighth-grade year, however, I watched her grow in confidence, “putting herself out there”—just like Kayla did.
This fall, Megan ventures into high school with her shoulders back and her head held just a little higher. In light of this big transition in her life, we planned a mother-daughter movie date to celebrate and reflect on Eighth Grade. Here are our five key insights for adults based on the movie.
1. Today’s teens experience most of the world through the prism of social media
Although you may be very aware of social media’s pull in our kids’ lives, the movie makes this phenomenon frighteningly real. Most of the scenes in the film feature some form of technology—typically a phone or a laptop.
The movie opens with the main character, Kayla (played by Elsie Fisher), sharing some tentative, meandering advice about “being yourself” with other teens on her YouTube channel. In the next (ironic) clip, you see Kayla in the bathroom doing her hair and makeup, walking tentatively to her bed, and carefully placing herself in the perfect wake-up position for a morning selfie on Snapchat. (“Ugh, just woke up like this.”)
As the movie proceeds, we view Kayla through the filter of several more self-created YouTube clips. Here she explores topics like growing up, putting yourself out there, and learning to be confident. We also observe her peers with heads buried in their phones—whether they’re walking the school hallways, hiding under their chairs during school safety drills, or engaging in peer-to-peer or parent-child “conversations.” Most of these so-called conversations feature one-word exchanges and minimal, if any, eye contact.
When my daughter Megan and I discussed the film’s focus on social media, she noted that most adults who have seen the film are shocked by the pervasiveness of social media. For me, it was terrifying. But for Megan and her peers, this is just “life” as they know it. No big deal.
A recent survey sponsored by Hopelab and Well Being Trust indicates that more than nine in ten teens and young adults use social media (such as Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter); 81 percent say they use it on a daily basis, and 17 percent report using it “almost constantly.” However, the 1,300 teens and young adults surveyed also report “a mix of both positive and negative aspects of social media use.” Megan and I spotted one of the negatives in Eighth Grade.
2. Social media can heighten teens’ self-consciousness
Am I acting too weird? Am I too quiet? These were questions voiced by Kayla and her sweet, nerdy friend Gabe, who meticulously laid out a dinner of chicken nuggets and fries for her at his house. In one of the few face-to-face conversations in the film (that didn’t center around a distracting phone), most of the dialogue featured detached commentary on the nature of their interaction. How are we doing? Are we getting along? Are we having fun? Yes, I think we are.
Classic research by David Elkind suggests that teens typically become more self-focused at this developmental stage, picturing an “imaginary audience”—always watching and always judging them. These days, this so-called audience may not feel imaginary at all; it can feel very real. Kids do observe each other, and apps like Instagram provide a platform for social comparison and measurement of your worth based on the number of likes and comments you receive for a post. (How do people view me right now? What do my friends think of this post? Why don’t I have very many likes yet?)
In light of social media’s prevalence, my daughter and I agreed that it can definitely prey on the fears and heightened self-consciousness of teens. However, there are ways to help teens to use it more thoughtfully. Tchiki Davis provides a series of suggestions in “How to Be Less Self-Centered When Using Technology,” including taking “friendies” rather than “selfies” and “sharing” advice or words of support with others rather than “humble bragging.”
But how do we help kids to see beyond the filter of social media in the first place, to engage with the physical world, with each other, and be alive to the present moment? We can offer broader supports for helping teens to think beyond themselves by discussing empathy, perspective taking, values, and character strengths with them, while encouraging their hobbies and interests.
Regardless, the Hopelab report outlines several of the benefits of social media use (for example, to find inspiration, to feel less alone, and to explore creative expression), and some of Kayla’s experiences in the film support these findings.
3. Social media can be a tool for identity exploration and personal growth
At one point in the movie, we observe Kayla in her darkened bedroom decorated with colored lights. Enya’s “Sail Away” plays in the background. As she flies through Instagram posts, her face is reflected in her phone and laptop. Director Bo Burnham’s montage of screen images has a dream-like, fantastical quality. Kayla is alone and caught up in this seemingly magical world of social media…scrolling, scrolling, searching.
Is this escapism or a search for self? My daughter reminded me that kids who feel particularly shy or isolated appreciate private online time to explore who they are and what they like through sites like Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram. In this case, social media can serve as a portal to self-discovery.
Kids her age are also looking for heroes, she says. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing to idolize people, but I still think that you should be someone you can believe in, as well. We tend to view celebrities as perfect; we don’t really know them or know their flaws, but we know our flaws, so that can prevent us from thinking, ‘I can do great things, too.’”
Teens need to believe they can be their own “superhero,” she says. After watching the movie together, we think that Kayla’s hero was actually her own YouTube persona. Although she only had a couple of subscribers to her channel, she devoted a lot of time to playing the role of advice-giver (while seemingly counseling herself).
At the end of her eighth-grade year, Kayla and her peers open up time capsules they created at the start of sixth grade—decorated shoe boxes filled with artifacts representing their 11-year-old selves (like a “Bring It On” playbill, a ticket stub from the movie “Lego,” pictures of Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, and more).
The most memorable item in Kayla’s “To the Coolest Girl in the World” shoebox is a SpongeBob SquarePants USB flash drive, featuring a video message from her sixth-grade self. Just as some of the self-compassion research recommends, Kayla speaks to herself in this video as she would a friend, using kind and encouraging questions and comments—and reassuring her future self that whatever she is experiencing (good or bad) is okay.
4. Teen anxiety is real
Kayla’s video message and her YouTube channel clips may have also helped to reduce her ongoing anxiety. In a close-up shot at the end of the movie, Kayla confesses just how pervasive her worry and nervousness are. It feels just like she is about to get on a roller coaster—all the time, she says.
In another tensely vivid scene, Kayla closes herself in the bathroom at her popular classmate Kennedy’s house. Kennedy’s mom has essentially forced her to invite Kayla to her birthday pool party, and now Kayla needs to change into a bathing suit and join a group of eighth graders she barely knows.
She literally struggles for breath as she mentally prepares herself to enter this circus-like atmosphere of tweens at the pool. And her interminable, shoulder-slumping walk to the pool is frighteningly relatable and agonizing for anyone who has ever grappled with social anxiety and body image.
My daughter told me that she knows tons of kids with anxiety, yet their parents don’t necessarily give them the attention and support that they need. “In Kayla’s situation, she had a dad who was a good listener, but not all parents are like that. Kids like Kayla (or me) who are more private find it more difficult to ‘put it out there’ and say what they’re feeling. They don’t want to burden other people. I don’t know exactly how parents or kids should reach out to each other, but I still think it’s an important conversation.”
As researcher Alice Boyes explains, first you need to understand that anxiety is “a human feature, not a flaw.” When fear and distress become overwhelming and actually prevent you from engaging in everyday activities, then you may need support. The National Alliance on Mental Illness identifies some of the symptoms of anxiety—both emotional (feelings of dread, tenseness, jumpiness, restlessness or irritability, anticipating the worst, or watching out for signs of danger) and physical (a pounding heart, shortness of breath, upset stomach, headache, insomnia, and fatigue)—and Boyes offers seven concrete ways to help someone with anxiety.
5. Teens want us to be present
As a parent, I have struggled mightily with just how to respond to my teens’ day-to-day challenges and worries. When do I offer advice? When should I just keep my mouth shut?
During one moment in the car with her seemingly unobtrusive dad (played by Josh Hamilton), Kayla yells in frustration, “Just be quiet and drive; don’t look weird or sad.” Although Kayla’s semi-humorous comment may seem excessive, she definitely wants him to “be there” for her and seems soothed by his calming presence, although she’s not ready to admit it. Likewise, a recent study suggests that children and teens whose parents are mindful (attentive, non-judgmental, and non-reactive) may be less likely to experience depression and anxiety.
Bottom line, the most poignant scene in the film for both Megan and me occurred during a tender exchange between father and daughter. Kayla has asked her dad to join her in a symbolic moment of emotional catharsis (which we won’t spoil here). As they sit by a fire they have built together, Kayla asks him a question that made Megan literally burst into tears: “Do I make you sad?”
Later, she explained her strong reaction to Kayla’s question: “I think that Kayla is someone who cares a lot. She cares about the people she loves, and her worst fear would be worrying them. Teens can often be in their own heads a lot, especially at this age. We feel things deeply as they impact us personally, and we worry that they could impact those around us. But we should also consider that we aren’t the only ones that influence our parents’ feelings.”
In fact, Kayla’s dad reassures her that she has actually helped him to be brave rather than scared. He describes how he has watched in awe as she has learned to do so many things on her own. And in observing her growth, he has released some of his fears about his own parenting—as well as her future. His words resonate so strongly with me; I want to be present and available as a parent and to continue to give my daughter the space to find her own way.
Megan concludes, “I think this scene shows the potential beauty of relationships between kids and parents. The way Kayla’s dad talks to her displays unconditional love and support. It’s so powerful and comforting to watch. I think the lesson for kids who aren’t close to their parents (and those who are) is to treat yourself with that unconditional love.”
“Loving yourself is definitely a process, but it can be done.” That is the strongest message of the film for my daughter, and I’m so privileged to witness her journey.