- The high school experience has changed drastically between 2010 and 2019. Those who graduated at the beginning of the decade are now nearing their 30s, while today's high school seniors are just beginning adulthood.
- In that time period, rapidly changing technology has influenced almost everything about what it's like to be a teenager in high school, including inside the classroom.
- Changing US politics, more expensive and competitive college prospects, and the rise of vaping are other factors that have affected the high school experience.
- Teens are less likely to get their driver's license right away and they're more likely to experience mental health issues, but they're also more accepting of each other and more politically aware than previous generations.
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In 2010, teenagers were just starting to get iPhones. Nowadays, technology has affected nearly every aspect of the high school experience, from learning inside the classroom to constantly interacting with their peers on social media.
That's just one way high schools have changed over the decade. More high schoolers than ever are aiming to go to college, and they face higher costs and a more competitive application processes. As a result teenagers have busier schedules and are more likely to be swamped with extra-curricular activities.
Social activism causes like school shootings and climate change have also propelled teenagers into political action. Teens say they're more accepting of each other's differences than previous generations – but they're also more likely to experience mental health issues. And then there's vaping.
Read on more for more of the ways high schools have changed over the course of the 2010s.
As high school seniors who graduated in 2010 are now near their thirties, a new decade of American teenagers have overtaken high schools.
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The high schoolers at the beginning of the decade were millennials. Today's teenagers are Generation Z. Born in between 1995 and 2012, the youngest Gen Z-ers are 7 and the oldest are 24. They're the largest generation in American history and the most ethnically diverse.
Even if high schoolers aren't allowed to have iPhones out in class, many use personal laptops throughout the day.
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Nearly 80% of teenagers in 2019 got their first smartphone between the age of 11 and 13. By the time they reach high school, they're well-versed in technology. In comparison, most high schoolers in 2010 had their own cell phones, but the digital environment was wildly different.
One way things have changed is the proliferation of social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Most teenagers were still using Facebook regularly in 2010, but today's Gen Z-ers are significantly more likely to be on Instagram.
In schools, teenagers probably have to put their phones away during class. But more than 60 percent of principals surveyed by The Hechinger Report, which studies inequality and innovation in education, say students in their schools use assigned personal laptops.
Not all high schools have the budget to loan students laptops, but ones that do see an increase in student-teacher communication.
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High schoolers use their personal laptops to take notes in class, do research, share documents with Google Drive, collaborate on projects, check their grades, take tests, and get reminders about homework and due dates.
Compared to students who don't have assigned laptops (and many students take their assigned laptops home with them at the end of the day), students who do have them are more likely to email their teachers. Most high schoolers have some sort of way to use their school emails at home, but assigning laptops has a positive effect on student-teacher communication, according to the Hechinger Report.
They also are more likely to carry their phones on them and use social media throughout the school day.
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The average teenager says they spend five hours a day on their phone, but a full 25% of teens spend at least seven hours a day on their phone. That could be accomplished outside of school, but a lot of teens check their phone during the day, too.
Chas Steinbrugge, a high school senior who runs a popular meme page on Instagram, told Insider that he uses his phone throughout the day to make posts. He's not alone, and some teens use their phones during class – and for longer than the few seconds needed to upload a scheduled post. Studies show teens who get distracted on their phones during class understandably do worse on tests.
Having nearly constant access to screens has reshaped the high school experience, changing everything from curriculum to social interaction.
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Some classes have become paperless, and many high schools offer online or blended classes that rely heavily if not entirely on technology.
Outside of the classroom, teens told Business Insider that the way they use their smartphones has changed everything about their generation. For example, they rarely watch TV, opting to use streaming services like Netflix and platforms like YouTube for video instead. Only 2% of high schoolers watch cable TV, while 62% enjoy Netflix and 31% prefer YouTube.
High schoolers are more likely to discover new things to talk about from social media trends, as opposed to a decade ago.
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Music, movies, TV, and digital content like memes have all changed because of how teens use the internet. That plays into the school environment too, where high schoolers integrate their real-world experiences into the classroom.
It even changes how they talk to one another. Slang terms like "lit," "bet," "shook," "yeet," and "key" have taken over hallways.
And outside of the classroom, teenagers are quickly preparing for their futures.
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Becoming a YouTuber or vlogger has become the top career choice for Generation Z, according to recent polls. And unlike becoming a more traditional celebrity, those career paths can start very young. Teenagers like Emma Chamberlain rose quickly in popularity on YouTube by filming the daily routines of their high school experiences.
A recent poll of American youth showed that they'd rather be YouTubers than musicians or other kinds of entertainers, which reflects the type of viral fame high schoolers see online.
Technology plays a role in after-school activities, too.
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More than a quarter of teenagers told Business Insider that they spend most of their time outside school doing extra-curriculars that aren't sports. Many of those activities have been impacted just as much as any other aspect of high school by technology.
One example is clubs devoted to specific social media platforms. At the beginning of the decade, TikTok didn't exist, but the short-form video-sharing platform has risen dramatically in popularity, starting as Musical.ly. High school clubs dedicated to making and sharing TikToks, in some cases to attain viral fame, have popped up around the US.
Athletics still play a massive role in high school culture.
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About 15% of teens told Business Insider that they partake in sports outside of school. Youth sports are an estimated $15 billion industry, and according to The Atlantic, the rise in high school sports has been a century-long prospect that only continues to get more competitive, as well as costly.
What was once considered a past time of the working class has become financially competitive with the rise and popularization of pay-to-play all-star teams, travel to regional and national competitions, and private training.
Kids also feel pressure to join activities to boost their resumes for college.
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Students who set their sights on elite colleges face more competitive playing fields, which drive them to boost their resumes. But it's not all bleak. Many mid- and low-tier colleges accept more than half of students who apply.
Rising college prices and competitiveness make for teenagers with booked and busy schedules.
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Still, for those with sights set on elite institutions, high-achieving students find themselves in a high-risk demographic due to pressure and burnout. High schoolers facing "excessive pressure to excel" are at risk for chronic stress that can affect their long-term wellbeing.
More than two-thirds of American high schoolers report feeling "often or always worried" about getting into the college of their choice. Experts say the message that prestigious higher education is essential to success has been internalized by this generation of teenagers.
At the same time, higher costs of college continue to grow. Declining public funds is often the cause, and it creates another source of strain for high school students and their families.
Rising costs for extracurriculars creates a divide between economically diverse families.
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Sports aren't the only extracurriculars that can be costly. Students working to add more roles to their schedules may find more costs. Those costs are on the rise, too.
The average yearly cost of extracurricular activities for a high schooler is over $1,100, according to Money. Those costs likely stem from high school administrators' need to allocate funds toward classroom purposes as opposed to clubs and activities.
Even though many high schoolers are busier, the rate of those getting their driver's licenses dropped over the course of the decade.
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Over the course of the decade, one interesting shifting statistic has been the rate of teenagers who get their driver's license in high school. Once necessary for social activities, what was once considered a rite of passage is no longer seen as crucial to the high school experience for many students.
The drop officially started in 2005, according to Bloomberg, and continued to fall throughout the 2010s. There was a bit of an uptick midway through the decade, but the numbers have still not regained the position in the '90s.
Another factor causing the drop is competitiveness for part-time jobs. Bloomberg reports that many teenagers still need to drive to work, but jobs that once were reserved for their age group, like food service and retail, are now often taken by adults who are older than them.
But that hasn't stopped Generation Z from getting involved in issues beyond their school districts, like global activism.
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The hand-wringing about today's high schoolers being on their phones all the time may not be entirely inaccurate but it might be misdirected. Yes, teenagers are on their phones more than any generation of high schoolers before them.
But in terms of activism, they're putting their technological skills and awareness of political issues to use. Experts suggest that today's teens display a more mature sense of agency and understanding of the consequences of greater responsibility.
One of the biggest changes in high schools is the rising rate of school shootings.
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The past decade saw 180 school shootings and 356 victims, according to CNN. Not only are attacks in high schools becoming more frequent, but they are also becoming more deadly, and teenagers have taken notice.
One of the most defining periods of school shooting activism came after the Parkland, Florida school shooting that left 17 high schoolers dead and 17 more injured. Parkland survivors became household names, gracing magazine covers, and high schoolers around the country responded with #NeverAgain movements of their own.
Gun control isn't the only cause that had teens getting vocal this decade.
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Youth activism, in general, is on the rise, according to recent research from MTV and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. 40% of teenagers surveyed said they felt angry about the state of the country, while 36% felt anxious and only 13% felt happy.
Of those, 47% said they were paying more attention to the issues, and one in five said they were motivated to act for causes including climate justice, racial and gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and economic change.
Teen activists fighting for issues like women's rights and against climate change joined a chorus of adult voices in a big way.
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Youth climate activists in the US joined forces with teenagers around the world to protest inaction around climate change, an issue that has taken ahold of high schoolers in numerous ways. Many of them abstained from classes or walked out in September for the global youth climate strike.
Environmental activism has grown as scientists warn of the incoming impacts of devastating climate change. Becoming an environmentally conscious teen has been an ever-growing trend this decade, from sustainable fashion to abstaining from the use of plastic straws.
And with US politics becoming more divisive, those close to or having just surpassed voting age are speaking up.
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High schoolers took part in some of the biggest racial justice campaigns this decade, including #BlackLivesMatter, which was sparked by the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Under President Donald Trump's administration, teens have challenged anti-immigration sentiment, and in 2017 students walked out to protest his ruling to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program that gave many undocumented youth a chance to legally remain in the country.
Some teachers are leading by example, striking and protesting around the country.
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Education workers' strikes rounded out the decade. Teacher wages have shrunk over the decade, CNN reports, and the losses are disproportionately affecting women. Teachers have also protested charter school choice programs, and well as lack of benefits, school infrastructure, and class sizes.
Inside the classroom, at least some teens seem to be becoming more accepting of their peers.
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American teens told Business Insider that they're a more accepting generation than the ones before them. They're the most diverse generation for sure. Almost half of them are minorities, and high schoolers who identify as LGBTQ are on the rise – particularly in terms of diverse gender identities. Almost 3% don't identify as either male or female.
Eight out of 10 members of Gen Z support #BlackLivesMatter, 74% are in favor of transgender rights, and 63% support feminism – so they might be right in suggesting that they are more tolerant than the high schoolers who came before them.
The digital world has brought high schoolers closer together, but it can also be a detrimental force in their lives.
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Part of the open worldview expressed by a lot of high schoolers is their use of technology. Being able to access diverse viewpoints instantly has aided them in shaping their opinions. But technology has also complicated their lives, and many high schoolers say their generation will struggle with dependence on technology.
Unlike their millennial counterparts, Gen Z is more likely to want to be less reachable, according to Vox polling. They're also a little less optimistic than millennials about the effects of technology on society.
Mental health issues and health concerns, such as those around vaping, are on the rise in high schools.
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Mental health issues are on the rise among adolescents in high school. Despite a pervasive belief that it's because of technology, there's no conclusive evidence to suggest causation yet. Rates of mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes have increased significantly among high schoolers this decade, especially among girls.
At the same time, drug use and teen pregnancy rates have fallen. But one new culprit for risky behaviors has emerged this decade: vaping, particularly Juuling. It's something schools have had to implement rules around. Since 2016, teen vaping rates have risen by almost 30%.
As the world changes around them, so has the high school experience for today's teenagers.
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Overall, it seems like this generation of high schoolers is busier: they spend more time on their phones, they're involved in extracurriculars, and they're more politically activated.
Next up for this generation of high schoolers: college. More students are pursuing higher education, and enrollment numbers have surged by more than 5 million this decade at colleges where online course enrollment has increased and populations have grown more diverse.
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