Globe and Mail

The kids aren't all right

It's Y2K: Do you know what your kids think? On the eve of the millennium, schoolyards across Canada ring with tales of Armageddon. But after that, Utopia.

ALEXANDRA GILL
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, November 27, 1999

Psst. Did you hear what's going to happen on New Year's Eve? At midnight, the moon will turn bright red. Then all the computers are going to blow up and we won't have any lights or electricity. And then Earth's going to be hit by some really bad tornadoes and hurricanes. God is going to come down and take all the good people into underground caves. The evil people will probably die and so will all trees and plants. God's going to build an underground world and they'll take all the food and stuff they need and stay down there for 20 years. When they come back up, the Earth will be regenerated. There will be new flowers and no pollution. Everything will be fresh and clean and we will begin a new world.

No, this is not some pimply-faced recruiter for a doomsday survivalist cult peddling pamphlets on a dingy downtown street corner. Think a little closer to home. The apocalyptic tale you've just read comes from a bright-eyed 14-year-old who wears butterfly clips in her hair, idolizes Ricky Martin and, lately, has been spending her spare time holed up in a cozy suburban bedroom with her best friend, nervously contemplating the end of the world as she knows it. Surprised? You shouldn't be. This is just one of the countless disaster scenarios kids are furiously swapping in the schoolyard.

As we bear down on the next century, the mass media have been oversaturated with stories about the impact of Y2K bugs, pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the stockpiling of bottled water. Films (The Omega Code; Y2K: The Movie) fuel our anxieties, TV shows (Millennium; Roswell; The X-Files) indulge our fears, Web sites capitalize on paranoia (take a gander at the Y2K Real Estate Exchange), and philosophical books (Mark Kingwell's Dreams of Millennium, for one) examine the meaning of all this cultural detritus.

But has anyone stopped to wonder how millennial madness is affecting the kids?

That today's youth are haunted by visions of an impending apocalypse might seem unremarkable. "Every generation has its Armageddon," says Dr. Claudio Violato, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Calgary and director of research at the National Foundation for Family Research and Education. "It was the A-bomb in the fifties, nuclear annihilation in the sixties and seventies. . . . This time, it's a bug in the computer that's going to do us in."

The fears might be familiar, but the context has completely changed. Today's kids are growing up in a social milieu that is a whole lot murkier than anything their parents ever experienced. The bad guys -- no more Russians with their fingers poised on the nuclear button -- aren't so easy to spot. Mom and Dad? Well, they're partly to blame for the depletion of the ozone layer. Politicians can't be trusted and there isn't always a priest, reverend or rabbi around to provide comforting answers.

We're living in what Stanford law professor Lawrence Friedman dubs the "horizontal society" -- a virtual reality where traditional social hierarchies have been replaced with a mouse, a modem and the technicolour static glaring off the TV screen. "Never before have there been so many disconnected people," Friedman writes, pointing to the suffocating grip of electronics on a generation of young minds. Let loose from our traditional moorings, we believe anything is possible, but we have also never been so alone or unsure. For kids, the rules aren't clear and the messages are a jumble of confusion.

"I've heard stories that there's going to be a giant riot and lots of things with religious beliefs," says Sean Kady, a Grade 7 student at Bowmore Public School in the east end of Toronto.

His fellow 12-year-old classmate, Allan Lheng, has heard a similar story. "People are saying that Jesus is coming. Like, Christians are getting ready for Judgment Day or something like that. And people are saying that God is making more natural disasters because he's getting more angry at us." Lheng ponders for a moment. "On record, there have been more earthquakes and hurricanes in the last century. I'm not sure what to think."

The 11- and 12-year-olds in Madame Dawn Drugeot's class eagerly shove their geography books aside and look up with confident smiles as they launch into a discussion about what's going to happen this New Year's Eve. Y2K is the least of their worries.

"That's my worst fear," says Alexander Aziz. "That for some reason, an asteroid's going to hit the earth and there will be a huge disaster." Britanny Marriott quietly pipes in: "Stars are going to be falling down." At the back of the room, Vanessa Taylor raises her eyebrows. "Well, like, it's probably impossible for stars to fall down."

Matthew Thomas isn't so sure. "The Jehovah Witnesses are saying one thing," he says with a sigh of shared exasperation. "The Christians are saying another thing and the Baptists are saying something else. You don't really know what to believe because there are a lot of different religions and they're all saying different things. So you don't know what to prepare for."

And what does Thomas believe?

"I don't really believe any of it. I just think it's going to be another New Year's, except the parties are going to be bigger."

Kids at schools across the country echo similar apprehensions. "I heard that the Earth will turn into a ball of fire," says Ola Otomanski, a Grade 6 student at the Sacred Heart School of Halifax. "But I don't believe that story because babies are still being born," she adds, via E-mail. "It would be tragic for little babies to die if they died right after they were born. The world will not end now, I hope."

In Toronto, doctors at the Hospital for Sick Children report that patients in the Anxiety Disorders Program are panicked about the millennium. And in the United States, hundreds of parenting groups have been busy dialling up a hotline that is called 1-800-Therapist because their children are hearing about Y2K at school and coming home afraid.

Should we be worried?

"Nah," says Professor Violato. "This idea that they're agonizing over the end of the world is an adult projection. These kids are just reflecting what they see on TV." Violato likens millennial excitement to the wranglings kicked off in kindergarten classes across the country in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial. "When the verdict came in, there were very heated debates among kids -- 'Yes, he's guilty. No, he's not.' But when our researchers probed, they didn't really understand. It's the same with Y2K. It's just another form of entertainment for them."

Alan Mirabelli, a sociologist and executive director at the Vanier Institute for the Family in Ottawa, isn't so sure. "What you may be hearing is a cry for reassurance and the snicker may be a test, a talisman of sorts: What do others think?" Instead of the O.J. Simpson trial, Mirabelli compares children's millennial angst to the widespread fears he observed during the Gulf War in Iraq. "Some kids couldn't differentiate between what they saw on television with reality. With no good sense of geography, they wondered, 'Could this happen in my backyard?'"

In a society without a monolithic authority, children tend to isolate themselves from adults and lean more on peer interaction for answers. They all draw on common references, electronic ones in particular. "If kids are watching the same shows and playing the same games," asks Mirabelli, "where does the reassurance come from?"

We shudder to think that the truth for children lies in the viral apocalypse hovering over The X-Files or that they are somehow comforted by the image of Arnold Schwarzenegger facing down the devil in End of Days. John Pungente, a TV-addicted Jesuit priest in Toronto who recently authored More Than Meets the Eye: Watching Television Watching Us, dismisses the influence of popular teen shows on millennial anxiety. Rather, he points to the religious right and the Internet. "Buffy [the Vampire Slayer] might be apocalyptic, but it has nothing to do with the millennium. I'll lay dollars to donuts, they're listening to evangelical stuff. It's got to be right-wing, it's got to be alternative and it's got to have a lot to do with the Web. No net nanny will stop them from getting into the doom-and-gloom web sites."

Type "Y2K" and "Armageddon" into any Internet search engine, and you will indeed find close to 3,000 Web pages of cyberpanic. A few clicks of the mouse and you'll land on the Christian Broadcasting Network where Pat Robertson of the 700 Club preaches to his disciples about "serious dislocations" at the end of the year. Follow the links and you'll find suvivalist cults selling off tracts of land in the Midwest, equipped with a 20-year supply of water and ammo or Grant R. Jeffrey flogging his book Millennial Meltdown, which warns that a computer glitch will set the stage for the rise of the world government of the Antichrist.

It's not hard to see how a 14-year-old might take the news about Y2K, embroider it with an electronic interpretation of the Book of Revelations, stitch it together with an image of Buffy's Hellmouth in Drysdale and impose her own hopes for environmental purity on the fanciful pastiche.

Marion Balla, a family educator, psychotherapist and director of the Adlerian Centre for Counselling and Education in Ottawa, says these fantasies provide children with a sense of security. "They think, 'Good, someone's going to be in charge of this.' What these young people are trying to do is make sense out of a world that nobody seems to have a clear handle on."

And making sense of it they are. Listen closely to what these kids are saying; they're a lot more optimistic than previous generations that grew up with nightmares of a postnuclear dystopia. ("It's not death I worried about so much as survival," writes 30-year-old Andrea Curtis, a Toronto journalist, of her childhood fear of nuclear holocaust, in the current issue of This Magazine. ". . . I was likely to be one of the sole survivors. A tattered straggler fighting for the last radiation-free drops of water, the final dented tin of Spam, forced to scrap and claw over others in order to survive myself.")

Kids today might agonize about an apocalypse, but no matter how bleak their underground worlds are, no matter how many hurricanes cut the Earth down to size, they still hold out hope for an acid-rain-free utopia. And if you consider their dreams a reflection of how society is coping, it looks like we might be okay.

"I think computers might be a little screwed up," says Kate Morrison, back at Bowmore. "But I don't think they're going to blow up." Arianna McLaughlin agrees: "People lived without computers for thousands of years. So we can live without them for a while."

Simone Romain wants to think beyond New Year's. "I'm kind of concerned, but it's not exactly about the millennium. If we don't watch pollution, we're going to destroy the Earth. But I'm also kind of excited about what is going to happen. Are they going invent new technology and go to Mars or find a new galaxy?" Andrew Horsburgh hopes "all the nuclear bombs will break and never work again." Their eyes light up at the possibility of "special cars you can ride around in malls" or flying -- sans spaceship -- "like the Jetsons."

Sean Kady sums it up: "If anything does happen this millennium and we lose all our technology and live in the dark, then I hope that when it comes to the year 3000, we don't make the same mistakes we did in the years leading up to 2000."

ANXIETY.COM

The Internet is a gold mine for those who want more to worry about. Here is a selection of alarmist sites:

Countdown to Armageddon (http://www.prophecysite.com):

Ezekiel's world war prophecy will occur in the year 2000 -- as prophesied -- but not before. Why? Because a financial crisis is crippling Russia and the country's leaders cannot afford to fix their Y2K problems. Government leaders have had to rely on assistance from the United States. So, naturally, it would not be very shrewd of them to attack Israel until after New Year's Eve. Visit the site and find out why Vladimir Putin is the Gog of Magog and we are The Last Generation.

Armageddon, The Millennium, Y2K and You (http://www.linkopp.com/members/armageddon): Are you spiritually prepared for the coming chaos? Sidle up to this site and learn how to protect your loved ones. All you have to do is realize that Jesus Christ became the Ultimate Sacrifice for future Mankind. And, while you're at it, don't forget to stock up on enough non-perishable food and water to last several days.

Y2K Disaster Prepared.Com (http://www.y2kdisasterprepared.com) While the folks who run this Internet shopping site say they "do not wish to inflame or excite anyone, they do, nonetheless, recommend that you hoard a three- to four-month stock of provisions in case of a prolonged emergency. Need bulk toilet paper (96 rolls for only $41.48)? Alkaline batteries? Or perhaps a Rubbermaid Floor and Carpet Sweeper? Act now. With Y2K just around the corner, these deals won't last.

Koscielski's Guns, Ammo & Surplus -- Y2K and Survival (http://www.kgsguns.com): Prepare yourself for the potential disruption in the year 2000 with Mark Koscielski's Y2K and Urban Warfare: A Manual for Self-Preservation and Self-Defense During Civil Unrest. The book ($4.99, plus shipping and handling) offers details and checklists for equipment and supplies. Other publications that might be useful to the post-Y2K warrior include manuals on booby traps, sniper training, unconventional warfare devices and improvised munitions.

Y2K Survive: Personal and Family Resources for Y2K (www.y2ksurvive): Got your food and water? Check. What about a piece of rural property? "Procrastination is suicide." So say the dealers at the Y2K Real Estate Exchange. "Get out of the city!!!" It may not save you from the brutal effects of a Y2K meltdown, but a self-contained country retreat is still "the best defense against the violence, destruction, theft, rioting, looting, murder, rape and anarchy of a Y2K social collapse." How 'bout a three-bedroom cottage in rural Maine on one partly wooded acre? It comes with hot water, baseboard heat, a kerosene furnace, two wood-burning cookstoves and a jacuzzi. Only $109,000. Don't delay. There are only 34 days, 11 hours, 25 minutes and 45 seconds left till 2000.

IN THEIR WORDS

"There will most likely be some mayhem, because if Y2K doesn't happen, if you look at how much money people have spent making sure it doesn't happen, then they'll most likely think, 'Okay these people made it up and we should get our money back.' They kind of have to make something happen, because if they don't, everybody's just going to lose money."
Dylan Fowler, 12, Toronto

"First there's going to be mayhem all around the world. Then an asteroid is going to go through the moon and then it's going to hit the Earth. Then the Earth is going to explode. . . . I think adults made it up. Because it's kind of weird for kids to make it up. So I think most of the adults are worried. And that sends the message to us."
Judy Chau, 12, Toronto
"The suicide rate is supposed to double because computers are supposedly going to die out in the year 2000 and people won't know what to do with themselves. . . . People are so attached to their electronic systems, if they were to lose them, they would think, 'Well, what's the point in living?'. . . I think the hype will be more dangerous than what will actually happen. If the suicide rate goes way up and nothing happens, then everyone will have committed suicide for nothing."
Andrew Horsburgh, 12, Toronto

"I've heard that a flood's going to go around. If you look at the year 1000, that's when the bubonic plague struck. So I think that's mainly why everybody's getting so scared. They think it's going to happen again."
Cody Lorne Ovans, 12, Toronto
"As far as we know, people could just disappear into thin air. I really hope the computers and lights don't go out. I don't feel like spending my 13th birthday in the dark."
Wendy Zhou, 12, Toronto

"I feel privileged to be here when the New Year comes. It makes me feel good to be here and know what's going on. I have a younger brother and he has no idea of what's going on. I'll be able to talk to him about it when he gets older."
Tallie Lowcock-Garey, 12, Toronto

"Isn't the new millennium in the year 2001, though?"
Alexander Aziz, 12, Toronto

"The year 2000 is like us. We're in between children and teenagers. We're not exactly teenagers and we're not exactly children. And it's not exactly 1999 and it's not exactly the next century. It's in the middle, like us."
Vanessa Taylor, 12, Toronto

"I heard that the Apocalypse was coming and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would, like, destroy the city. There's going to be a big battle between good and evil."
Joshua Harney, 12, Toronto

"I heard that the Earth will become a ball of fire and the end of the world will come. I heard that story from a show that my older brother watches on TV call The X-Files. I do not believe it will happen. I hope that in the next century, there will be world peace and the world will live in harmony with each other and there will be no more suffering (maybe even my younger sister and I can go a day without quarrelling)."
Elizabeth LeGay, 11, Halifax

"I've heard that all the electronic products will shut down, that planes will fall from the sky and that people will see Jesus in Jerusalem. I think Jesus has better things to do with his time."
Emily Hudson, 11, Halifax

"I'm looking forward to the next millennium so that I can tell everybody about the crazy worries that adults created and never came true!"
Allison Chua, 11, Halifax

"The millennium will hit somewhere else before it hits here because of the time difference. If everyone dies because they don't get in shelters fast enough, we have at least 14 hours to protect ourselves if everything explodes; then we'll be able to say, 'I survived 2000.' Or, '2000 was such a big flop. Nothing happened.' But it will change us, no matter what."
Vanessa Taylor, 12

"My friend told me that a one-eyed monster will come out of a cave. The one-eyed monster would destroy everybody who was one type of religion. If they weren't that religion -- or they were no religion at all -- he'd just let them live and run back to the cave.
Steve Selledurai, 12

"The Jehovah's Witnesses are saying one thing, the Christians are saying another thing and the Baptists are saying something else. You don't really know what to believe because there are a lot of different religions and they're all saying different things. So you don't know what to prepare for."
Matthew Thomas, 12

"We could survive in the dark. It's not that hard. But it could affect hospitals, people on life-support systems and the supermarkets. It could be bad."
Katie Morrison, 11

"People are saying that Jesus is coming. Like, Christians are getting ready for Judgment Day or something like that. And people are saying that God is making more natural disasters because he's getting more angry at us. On record, there have been more earthquakes and hurricanes in the last century. I'm not sure what to think."
Allan Lheng, 12

"Y2K is basically just a scam from the computer companies to get money. Cuz they're making all this money with Y2K-compatible computers. It's crazy."
Melina Geannelia, 12

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