Perhaps one of the most interesting societal trends is the widespread popularity of existentialism and nihilism among teenagers. It appears that there is something unique about adolescence that gives birth to the edgy high schooler who sits in his or her room all day thinking faux-deep thoughts about sadness, emptiness, and nothingness. However, considered in context, the adolescent proclivity to get lost in the existential sauce actually makes a lot of sense.
To begin with this exploration, we need to consider a bit of developmental psychology. G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924) was a pioneer in psychology, starting the American Journal of Psychology in 1887 and serving as the very first president of the American Psychological Association 5 years later in 1892. In 1904, he published the book Adolescence, which is considered the first serious academic work on the subject. Hall says that adolescence “craves strong feelings and new sensations,” and that awareness of both the self and the external world increases dramatically during this time. He also wrote in Youth: Its Education, Regiment, and Hygiene (note the sterling usage of the Oxford comma in this title!) that adolescence “is a new birth, for the higher and more completely human traits are now born.” It is in this period that children begin to understand value and meaning in the context of themselves. The period of adolescence is a time when people begin to question and re-evaluate the conceptions of meaning and value that they once held as children.
“Hold up; what does this have to do with existentialism?” you might be thinking. Well, it has to do with that last sentence about meaning and value. Looking at the writing of existentialist and nihilist authors, their work goes beyond the angsty vibe that accompanies it. The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus begins with a meditation on suicide and an acceptance that there are moments when humans come face to face with the absurdity of living life. To an adolescent mind that is rapidly re-evaluating many ideas that once provided simple structure and meaning to life, this kind of sentiment that life can be absurd makes a lot of sense. Some teenagers go no further than that, and they end up with the super nihilist outlook on life that “nothing matters anyway, so I’m going to do whatever I want.” The thing is, the existentialists don’t stop at that realization. The existentialists find that even if there is no essential purpose or meaning that underlies life in general, humans can create their own meaning. This is also why teenagers seem to grow out of their edgy phases. In fact, Hall’s findings (in addition to modern research) find that there is a sort of “curve of despondency” where adolescents are more susceptible to depression starting at age 11, peaking at age 15, and falling steadily until 23. As adolescence continues, and most people begin to figure out what they value in their lives, they tend to find that kind of meaning that the existentialists write about.
From that point, when people figure out what they think is meaningful, the guiding philosophies of their lives take shape. Some prefer strict rules guiding action. Others prefer to maximize their own contingent pleasures. The possibilities are virtually infinite.
So the next time an angsty, edgelord teenager you know starts spouting off about Sartre, Camus, or Kierkegaard, think about it for a bit. Perhaps what they’re saying isn’t complete and utter nonsense manufactured to get attention. Or maybe it is, teenagers are pretty foolish most of the time. I guess there is no intrinsically true answer I can give you. You’re just going to have to find it out for yourself, the way the existentialists would want you to.