5.3 C
New York
Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Kids of 'Teenager Therapy' Just Want You to #Feel

On a recent episode of Teenager Therapy, cohost Mark Hugo made a confession not uncommon on the podcast: “Dude, I cried this week.”

As is the show’s relaxed-but-altruistic nature, the other cohosts quickly chimed in. Was it stress? Something else? Extracurriculars were beginning to weigh on him, Hugo explained. His volleyball team suffered an embarrassing pre-season loss to a rival squad. Then there was the problem of the angry Spanish teacher who “likes to yell.” It was turning into a trying week—and it was only Tuesday. “I didn’t feel mad. I didn’t feel happy. But I didn’t feel sad,” he said in the episode. “I kinda wanted to feel something but didn’t. I was sorta just there. You know what I mean?” They did.


The next day, Hugo continued, a teammate extended words of encouragement that caught him completely off guard. “I started crying in front of everybody,” he said. For listeners, this is where the episode finds its warmth, its unassailable charm: Each cohost then offered up their own intimacies, and the conversation—which initially kicked off with suggestions of what to watch on Netflix—matured into one about the delicate moments when we reach our emotional ceilings.

The episode (“Netflix Recommendations + Feelings Update?”) crystallizes what the young people of Teenager Therapy do best: feel. It’s not just their soft-heartedness that makes what they talk about unique—all teens are plagued by endless and unexplainable #feels—it’s their totally brash transparency, the candor with which they speak around those subjects, that suggests what you’re listening to is no ordinary teen podcast.

Teenager Therapy debuted in September of 2018. The idea for the show came to Gael Aitor—a lanky and inquisitive 16-year-old from Anaheim, California—that summer after listening to episodes of Couples Therapy. “It was one of the first podcasts I really got into. I was so captivated by it,” he says of hosts Casey and Candance Neistat’s openness around issues like friendship, marriage, and forgiveness. Aitor decided to apply an equivalent framework to the experiences he and his friends were coming up against. “I thought, What if there was a podcast with teenagers literally talking about their problems and what’s going on in their lives? I would want to hear that,” he says. “I’m curious as to how others are living: what they’re going through, what issues they have, what they’ve done, what they haven’t done. I was 100 percent sure it was going to work because I thought it was such a great idea, but that may just be my ego.”

Teens have yet to saturate the audio narrative landscape with the same genre-distorting prowess they’ve brought to video platforms like Snapchat and TikTok. Several factors have contributed to that: a need for quality equipment, an entrenched old guard, the difficulty in standing out in a crowded ecosystem. Plus, the medium has a distinctly boomer vibe to it—audio without any visual effect can feel less radical to the rhythms of our networked world. Still, Teenager Therapy proved there was a huge untapped audience. Today, the podcast has 360,000 subscribers, 2.2 million streams, and 1.5 million downloads.

The genial campfire mood of the show is a credit to its hosts, who include, along with Aitor and Hugo, Thomas Pham and Kayla Suarez (both 16) and Isaac Hurtado (17). The common denominator among the crew is an eagerness to be vulnerable, the kind of forthrightness that only reveals itself among the closest of friends. What they have—it’s a rare thing, Suarez says. “I don’t think [other high schoolers] are as open with their feelings,” she says, adding that she hopes the podcast will change that. “Right now, there’s such an open discussion about mental health, about being vulnerable, it’s the perfect time to have a one-on-one conversation with your friends. There are other people going through the same things as you are.”

In the desert of ignored teen feelings, they’ve become a go-to resource on everything from dating to depression. Wrote one fan on the group’s Instagram page last September: “I have struggled with mental health since I was a kid, and tonight was a dark night for me. So I found this episode because I was hoping to feel less alone, and holy shit I got what I was hoping for … I hope you know that you’re helping people through difficult times ❤️.”

At its most essential, Teenager Therapy wants other young people to know that they’re not alone in what they’re facing, be it troubles at home, bullying or an embarrassing breakup. Nearly all of the episodes probe real-world issues—new crushes, how addicting social media can be, exam stress, challenging friendships—through a high school lens and sometimes shift into heavier topics. In an episode from earlier this year—“Jealousy/ Ego/ Confrontation/ Are You a Good Person?”—Aitor opened up about dealing with an inferiority complex. “That’s why I’ve been wanting to fail more,” he told everyone of how he planned to overcome it. “Being scared to fail means you’re not pushing yourself to your limits.” It was the same kind of lowkey observational advice you’d come across in a talk from Brene Brown or Jack Canfield and immediately jot down (which I did).

“The narrative that people try to push is that if you listen to a podcast, you have to be learning something. Some people just want to find comfort or entertainment,” Aitor says over the phone from his room in Anaheim. He understands the difficulty in breaking through, adding: “Teenagers do listen if the podcast is tailored to them.”

Major platforms, from NPR and Gimlet to legacy shows like This American Life, will devote one-off episodes to teen angst or juvenile incarceration but have been less eager to give young people a sustained platform. It’s a fact Michael Mignano, cofounder of Anchor, is aware of but not deterred by. “As podcast creation becomes easier and more mobile, the culture around it changes,” he says, adding that it comes down to teens experimenting with what works for them and their audiences. “Young people are so often the barometer for what’s on the cusp of becoming huge, and often also the group driving those trends.” Even as recruitment has been slow, he believes “teens getting into podcasting is one of the best things happening for the medium.”

Popular YouTuber Lele Pons will launch an original podcast with Spotify later this year, Liz Gateley says. A paragon of a certain brand of internet teen humor, Pons was the first user to hit 1 billion loops on Vine in 2015; she was 19 at the time. Gateley is a former MTV executive who midwifed cultural staples such as Laguna Beach, The Hills, 16 & Pregnant, and Teen Mom into the world. She now oversees network programming at Spotify and is assembling an audio outfit geared toward digitally native young people who want to create a “new brand pillar in these unusual times,” she tells me.

In spite of what an imminent expansion will bring, Aitor says he and his team are going to stick to what they know best. “When we first started, we had this notion that we had to put out hard-hitting episodes filled with emotion and real issues, and just a lot of truth in them,” he says. “Our whole premise was to be vulnerable.” Teenager Therapy is proof of concept. There is an audience that wants them and other teen-centered podcasts just like it. “Sometimes you don’t need advice,” Aitor says of the show’s impact, “just someone else telling you, ‘I’ve been feeling that exact same way too.’” It’s a message for every age.

Related Articles

Latest Articles