Gap Years

While showing that some things will always remain murky between teens and their parents, the new Channel 2 documentary TV series '18' captures some of the elusiveness of adolescence.

Bat-El Rafael is scared to have her secret revealed, but at the same time yearns for that to happen. She is angry with her mother and clashes with her, but sometimes also clings to her, like a little girl. The conflicts between introversion and openness, and childishness and maturity, the extreme shifts from calm to inner tumult, and the volatility they create in the domestic space - all of this is also familiar to the rest of the protagonists in the new Channel 2 documentary series, "18," directed by Amalia Margolin. The series, which premiered this week and is produced by Ayelet Efrati for franchisee Keshet, follows the stories of seven 18 year-olds in their final and decisive year of high school, on the eve of being drafted into the army.

On the face of it, there is no common denominator between newly secular Chaim from Bnei Brak and gay rights activist Udi from Tel Aviv. Or between Mor from Be'er Sheva, who is having cosmetic surgery done on her breasts, Bat-El of Hod Hasharon, whose body is covered with tattoos and piercings, and a Bedouin girl named Rahma, who struggles against tradition and conservative norms. Nor, ostensibly, is there anything to connect Arsan (not his real name), a Russian boy at a facility for juvenile offenders, and Shahar, a salt-of-the-earth moshavnik whose parents won't allow him to enlist in a combat unit, because they have already lost a son in the army.

Nevertheless, the series manages to capture some of the elusiveness of adolescence by means of interviews with the teens conducted by literary critic and TV host Iri Rikin. Among the topics, some of which are not discussed so publicly at this age, are love and sex, the generation gap, relationships with parents, shame, pain, masculinity and femininity. Some of the conversations take place on camera, occasionally with the parents; others are conducted in a type of conference call over the Internet.

"The Internet allows for an intimacy that cannot be generated in the presence of a camera," explains Rikin. "A person is able to create intimacy mostly in the middle of the night, when he is tired and his defenses are down."

It is somewhat unusual to see young rebels like tattooed Bat-El or Chaim, the latter of whom has left the religious world for Tel Aviv, who are laden with doubt, but thoughtful and ready to confront fateful questions. The silly-teenager dimension is wholly absent here.

Rikin, who manages to encourage the protagonists to talk without being tiresome or fake, admits that these young people are a riddle to him.

"We are living in a crazy era that is constantly changing, technology-wise," he says. "If they had put me to sleep at 16 and woken me two years later, the world would have remained the same. But now change happens within two hours. I wonder whether the fact that people communicate through text messages - and must use a language there that is reduced to a given number of characters on a screen - is merely a technical matter, or something that will revolutionize our essence as human beings.

"When I was that age, I had longings that were difficult to satisfy. I was always dreaming of the next record album, but I had to save up for a month to be able to buy it. Now they download music for free. If everything is available, what do you dream of? The commercials you see on TV, for me it's almost like porn. In my day you'd never see an exposed breast. The availability of visual sex today - what does it do to the imagination, what does it do to the emotional system?" Rikin asks.

Eduardo Duniec, who specializes in adolescent clinic psychology and teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, organized a panel discussion to coincide with the debut of "18." Personally, he says he is not sure whether the changes Rikin mentions are so revolutionary.

Duniec: "On the one hand, tremendous changes have indeed taken place over the past few decades: The quantity of information keeps growing. There is more awareness regarding children's rights, and more consideration for the opinions of children and adolescents and their feelings. There is also evidence that the hierarchy within the home is being undermined, and of what is customarily termed 'erosion of parental authority,' including erosion of the authority of teachers and educators in general. In general, adolescence is also beginning physiologically a lot earlier than in previous generations.

"But, on the other hand, the theories on adolescence propounded by psychologists such as Erik Erikson and Peter Blos, which date back many years - about the need to seek and create an identity, about separating from parents and building your own unique identity - are still valid. The need to embark on a quest and to be adventurous, to experiment and even breach boundaries, this has always existed [among teens] and apparently always will."

Eye-shaped tattoos

Duniec points out that technological innovation has always been blamed for the confrontational behavior of teenagers: "For example, when there was a rise in crime among teenagers in England between the two world wars, movies were blamed. As time went by, the focus of accusation was video games, rock music and even the telephone. Then along came TV, computer games, the Internet and mobile phones.

"There is something natural about adolescent searching, adventurousness, experimentation. It attests to a natural curiosity, to a desire to blaze trails, which essentially powers development. And it gives adults massive headaches."

"Perhaps we are in the midst of some [new] process," Rikin agrees, "but in my experience, once I unpeel the layers, the language, the piercings and defensiveness - not very much has changed. Teenagers still want to love and be loved."

Bat-El Rafael says she agreed to take part in the series because of a commitment she had made to herself: to talk about the sexual abuse she endured, and about her need for tattoos in the shape of eyes, "to protect me," she declared in the series. "I am finally visible now." Now she wants to give voice to the cry of the mute girl she once was, she says.

"For years I didn't talk about [the abuse]. I hid it," she says in a phone conversation from the military base where she serves. "And ultimately it hurt me. Over the years I asked myself: Why didn't I tell Mom and direct the questions at her, since she is the protective figure? But in the end it made me seek the answers in myself."

Rafael blames her mother, a single parent, for not being available to her during times of crisis, and decides to confront her - on camera. The mother is angry and defensive, and the drama between them is tear provoking.

"She is the protective one, Superwoman, she is God, and so I throw everything in her face. I realized there is something unresolved between us," Rafael explains later.

Parents are afraid to approach their kids and really find out what is going on with them, she believes: "There is a wall between parents and children. Parents prefer that kids be glued to the TV screen. Intimacy is difficult. Communication between parents and children is screwed up. I worked in a Dungeons & Dragons club, and saw kids who felt a sense of abandonment - the kind who develop various problems, such as eating disorders. The parents didn't know about it because they didn't make a point of being home. The need to survive on a daily basis was my mom's excuse, too. My quality of life was good. I had new books, went to whatever after-school activities I liked, while she, with her lowly job at the municipality, worked herself to the bone so I wouldn't lack for anything. It came at the expense of something else. In the beginning I felt anger, but today I see her differently. I love and understand her. She didn't do anything from a 'bad place.' She only did her best for me."

Rafael reached this insight even before she participated in the TV series, but the exposure and discussion there expedited the process, she says: "There is something about the presence of a camera that is helpful to a person like me, who was looking to express her inner voice, to get these things out in the open."

Major gaps

The obstacles between parents and kids are highlighted in a survey that accompanies the series, which indicates a major gap between how parents and children perceive the connection between them, specifically in terms of the children's dependency on parents. The poll, involving 200 parents and 200 teens between the ages of 14 and 18, was carried out by Meida Shivuki C.I. pollsters. The discrepancy in the data is striking: 80 percent of the parents feel they are involved in and know about what is going on in their children's lives, but only 40 percent of the teenage respondents said they involve their parents in their lives at all and one-quarter said that they involve their parents only slightly.

When parents were asked whom they think their children would turn to if they were in trouble, 85 percent said that the kids would come to them, but only 46 percent of the teens surveyed said they would do that: About 40 percent said they would turn to their friends, and a negligible number (1.5 percent) said they would seek out an educational figure such as a teacher or guidance counselor.

"The series reveals that parents do not really know their children," says Rikin, himself a father of three. "It's not a matter of the generation gap: Parents and children simply speak different languages. This is doubly true today with teenagers' fluency in the language of technology. You see that interaction between parents and kids is problematic. Parents today have a yearning to be 'buddies' with their kids, to be young even to the point of acting childish. They need to understand that there is a natural, legitimate, impassable barrier between themselves and teenagers, and it does not necessarily have to be broken down."

In the poll, parents were also asked which of the following they most feared discovering about their kids: a tendency toward homosexuality, a desire to become religiously observant, a problem with drugs, an involvement in crime, or poor performance in school. Fifty-four percent said they were most worried about drugs; 28 percent were most concerned about their child breaking the law; 10 percent said their greatest fear is of homosexual tendencies; 7 percent were most concerned about their kids being poor students; and a mere 1 percent said they are worried the most by finding out that their children are in the process of becoming religious.

Furthermore, as in other studies, the poll presented on "18" found that the idea of homosexuality is more daunting to fathers (16 percent) than mothers (5 percent). Interestingly, among highly educated parents there is less openness toward a same-sex orientation - 12 percent, as compared to only 5 percent of those with lower education. Parents with low incomes were more concerned about their children breaking the law (36 percent) than those with higher incomes (25 percent).