I’ve been watching the Parkland survivor advocates feeling simultaneously in awe of their courage and fearful for their futures. I am absolutely astonished at their strength, power and passion. They have been able to achieve what many exceptionally accomplished adults have not. They have advanced the discussion on gun control, and they deserve our never-ending gratitude. Yes, we owe them for what they are trying to do for our children and country. But we also owe them for the potential damage they are unknowingly inflicting upon themselves.
Emma González, the face of the movement, is barely a day into adulthood. She believes she can change the world, and she’s certainly putting in her effort. But at 18, she doesn’t know about the pain of banging your head against the wall trying to help people understand why they should collectively care. She doesn’t know that she just lost her last bit of privacy, and that her life will never go as she originally planned. She doesn’t know how PTSD may affect her in the future or even what the effects will be of having lived through a mass shooting and watching friends die. She hasn’t had a second of time to grieve. As a social worker and parent I can’t help but worry about what the recent fame and opportunity is costing her and her friends.
In an essay for Harper’s Bazaar, González laments: “I’m 18 years old, Cuban and bisexual. I’m so indecisive that I can’t pick a favorite color, and I’m allergic to 12 things. I draw, paint, crochet, sew, embroider—anything productive I can do with my hands while watching Netflix. But none of this matters anymore.” Right now her life is all about gun control. At the same time, she is still developing her identity of who she is and who she wants to be. She still naively thinks everything will return to normal as soon as the adults wake up and change the laws. She writes, “We want to fix this problem so it doesn’t occur again, but mostly we want people to forget about us once this is over. We want to go back to our lives and live them to the fullest in respect for the dead”
An icon at 18, González has a verified Twitter account followed by 1.4 million. Emma and her friends don’t know what twitter trolls can do. Unfortunately, they are getting a crash course. Just yesterday a doctored animated video made the rounds on social media. It featured González ripping up a copy of the constitution. The name calling can be venomous by the anonymous. However, loads of people have no problem attaching their names to vicious hate speech. Take Leslie Gibson, former candidate for the Maine house and a man who called González a “skinhead lesbian” on Twitter. That’s one of the nicer comments I read.
Being an advocate and activist has a price, and Emma González and the other young people fronting this movement will pay it for us. It may take years but the price will come. I worry about anxiety and depression. I worry about PTSD and suicidal ideation. I worry about social isolation and credible threats to their safety. I worry about the toll of prolonged anger without outlets and something positive to balance it. These worries aren’t hyperbole or dramatic exaggeration. It’s the sad reality of being a nationally-recognized activist.
“I decided to cut my hair because it was a pain in the neck, if you’ll forgive the pun. It was really hot all the time; it was very cumbersome and very heavy, leading to a lot of headaches. It was expensive to keep it up, and as prom time came around, I figured it would be cheaper to not have to worry about doing my hair. The more my parents said no, the more I wanted it. Actually, I even made a powerpoint in order to convince them that I should do it. I figured I would look really good with it, and I do. So, it all worked out fine.”
A recent article in the New York Times chronicled the pain and suffering of young people who were suddenly thrown into the activist rolls. Due to various causes, five people from the Black Lives Matter movement have died in just the last two years. The kids from Parkland are already receiving death threats. González reported on 60 Minutes that she fears bombs being thrown through their office windows. This weight would be extremely difficult for an adult to handle, let alone adolescents. There is a lot of sacrifice and suffering that accompanies anyone shouting for change in the public eye. But the effects are more intense when the advocates are still coming of age.
It remains unclear how the #NeverAgain movement will affect Emma González and her peers from Parkland. They are doing a service for their country, and they should be recognized as such. I just hope the price tag for their effort isn’t irreparable damage.