The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to use ‘Eighth Grade’ to jump-start some important conversations with your teen


I recently told two of my kids, who are 15 and 13, they had to see an R-rated movie with me. I even sweetened the deal by offering to buy dinner afterward. Yes, the movie had some potentially inappropriate content, but I thought it was worth it. Though my kids are doing fine, I’m worried about the world they live in. Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” was my opportunity to start some long overdue conversations about social media, sex and mental health.

The movie follows shy 13-year-old Kayla as she navigates the last week of middle school and a complicated social world that seems to exclude her, and that shifts seamlessly between her real life and her social media feeds. She yearns for a popular boy who is kind of a jerk. She makes YouTube videos, which no one watches, that are both insightful and cringeworthy.

In the past year, information has emerged that paints a bleak picture of modern adolescence. Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression affect more than 22 percent of teens in the United States. Measures of well-being such as self-esteem, happiness and satisfaction have steeply declined in the past five years. The suicide rate for teenage girls hit a 40-year high in 2015. The most recent data about adolescents and technology use indicates that 95 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 have smartphones and that 45 percent are on them “almost constantly.” There’s compelling evidence that technology use may be related to these declines in emotional and mental health.

As a mom, a public health professor and a writer who’s spent two years researching the impact of social media and screens on young adults, I found the movie to be an eerily accurate and layered reflection of what the research tells us about being 13. Though it’s been a couple of weeks since we saw “Eighth Grade,” we’re still talking about it. The movie was just what my family needed to kick-start these conversations. Here are some discussion points to help yours do the same.

Is it possible to be always connected and always lonely?

While Kayla wants to connect with others, she seems to use technology as a substitute for actual human contact or a distraction from her loneliness. Her experience reflects that of millions of kids who turn to technology as a way to connect socially — only to find that it makes them feel more isolated. The few times Kayla seems genuinely happy are when she’s actively engaging with other people and the world around her: singing karaoke at a party, going to the mall with friends or having a serious but cathartic conversation with her dad.

Your child wants to start a YouTube channel? Here are some points to consider.

There’s plenty of research that indicates that face-to-face time with others and developing meaningful friendships can make people happier and mitigate the effects of stress. There’s also evidence that when kids use technology to enhance communication and to facilitate getting together in person, it can be a positive force in their lives. In contrast, kids who use it to lurk, and not engage with others, tend to have low self-esteem.

This points to a much larger issue for both teens and their parents — how can we be more thoughtful in how we use our phones? When does “normal” use become problematic? Is it healthy for people to use technology as a crutch or to numb their feelings? How can Kayla find a reasonable balance between the things she does online that add value to her life and those that make it worse? Should Kayla find that balance herself or should her dad take a more active role in helping her? Both of my kids thought her dad should have been more on top of setting limits for her technology use.

Are naked pictures really happening in eighth grade?

Sexting is only briefly alluded to in the film, but it’s something every family should talk about. The degree to which both my kids acknowledged it was happening in their school should not have surprised me. Educators, school administrators, mental health providers and law enforcement officials have told me eighth grade can be a prime time for this behavior. Parents need to address it with some understanding and nuance, though, and be prepared to discuss it when it comes up (even if it’s just a rumor circulating at school).

If your teen lets you know that they’ve sent or received nude pictures, it’s important not to freak out in front of them. Figure out if the situation was uninvited (in most cases, kids are sent pictures they didn’t ask for) or more consensual (they created and shared images of themselves). If your teen received an unsolicited image, the response is pretty straightforward — block the sender, talk to your kid about your family’s expectations and, depending on the nature of the incident, report it (to school, law enforcement, the sender’s parents, etc.).

If your child was a more active participant, the response is more complicated. Work with all those involved (and school administration, if relevant) to contain the images as much as possible. It’s also essential to make sure that your child has the emotional support they need to process the experience and hopefully learn from it. In both cases, reinforce that you love them and that you’re there to help. Remind them that the sooner you or another adult is looped in, the more support and damage control can be provided before the situation spirals out of control.

Boys more typically feel pressure from their friends to get and share pictures. Girls may feel coerced into doing it to start a romantic relationship or to maintain it, only to suffer disproportionate and severe social consequences. It’s easy to say no to someone who’s creepy or whom you don’t like. It’s a different story when it’s a friend, or someone you care about, or who you hope will care about you. The most jarring scene of the movie takes place in the back seat of a car with an older boy. It’s not clear what’s going to happen, only that his intentions toward Kayla are suspect. My kids and I found it unsettling, but it presented an excellent opportunity to talk about negotiating complicated situations where consent, manipulation and emotions become entangled.

Would you Google an awkward sex question?

Curiosity about sex is developmentally normal and using the Internet to answer questions, especially awkward ones, is more common than not. In the movie, Kayla turns to YouTube with a question. But when kids look online for this kind of information, they can find themselves in some of the darker corners of the Internet. Talking about sex online, particularly with strangers or in chat rooms, is a serious risk behavior. This is especially true for LGBTQ teens.

It’s critical that kids know where to go to get safe and accurate answers. Many kids, for lack of another option, will look to online pornography or adult forums (like Reddit) when they don’t understand something about sex. To preempt this, ask your kids where would they go for this kind of information. If they say they’d ask their friends, have them consider if another 14-year-old is a suitable source of sexual health information.

There are so many strategies that are safer than Google, chat rooms or asking another kid. Parents can buy books and store them somewhere they can be discreetly accessed if needed. They can identify another trusted adult, one who is much cooler and possibly younger than they are, as the go-to person for kids to talk to. They can also create a folder of bookmarked websites (that they’ve looked over) and let kids know they’re free to peruse anything on those sites privately.

It can be hard to get our kids to open up about these topics, particularly because doing so may clue parents into things kids would rather keep private. These hard, but important, conversations may need a prompt, and “Eighth Grade” is a great place to start.

Julianna W. Miner lives in Northern Virginia. She’s an adjunct professor of public health, a mother of three, and the author of the forthcoming book “Raising a Screen-Smart Kid: How Parents Can Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age” to be published in 2019. She’s a contributing author of the anthology “I Just Want To Pee Alone” and the writer behind the award-winning humor blog Rants from Mommyland. Find her on Twitter or Facebook.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates, and join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and balancing a career. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

More reading:

Why it’s so hard to get kids’ attention, according to science (and what to do about it)

The real problem with rewarding kids for good grades and punishing them for bad ones

Why 70 percent of kids quit sports by age 13