In 2017, I’m glad I’m not 14,
Being that age was tough enough before Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. One can only imagine what it’s like now.
I’m not surprised (although am deeply saddened) by the fact Kids Helpline has reportedly had a massive 22,000 contacts from 14 year old girls in Australia in the past 4 years. The pressures of study, appearance, friendships, relationships and everything else can no longer be confined to the school day alone – it travels home with girls, on their smart phones and into their bedrooms.
But it’s not just social media that’s causing an anxiety epidemic for this demographic.
Journalist Madonna King realised there was something worth exploring about the age of 14 when she was emceeing an event in Brisbane and heard five school-leavers offer their one piece of advice to their younger peers. “Each of them said, ‘Year Nine Sux’,” she told me. “I went home and told my husband there’s something going on at that age.”
The age was also personal for Madonna, with two girls at home fast approaching adolescence. She started hearing warnings about what was to come. “I had a friend tell me she’d send me a bottle of French Champagne on my daughters’ 14th birthday, that I should immediately skull.”
Madonna interviewed 200 14-year-old girls and dozens of school principals and counsellors to try and figure out what’s going on. The result is her excellent new book, Being 14. Helping fierce teens become awesome women.
The book is aimed at parents of girls who’re 14, or approaching that age, who’re wondering (or worried about) what might be going on in their daughter’s head. Aiming to “give a voice” to every Australian 14-year-old girl, it asks how parents might be making life more difficult for their children and explores friendships, self-confidence, the selfie obsession, social media and FOMO (fear of missing out).
Madonna says teenage girls in 2017 are up against three significant challenges that are different to previous generations. The first major challenge is opportunity – they have numerous opportunities to participate in as many activities as possible. That sounds like a good thing, but from ballet to music and sport, such opportunities also place serious pressure on them in terms of getting into the right team or group, getting enough practice in and ultimately getting enough sleep.
Indeed, a lack of sleep is a significant issue for 14-year-old girls. Many face long, hectic days that can start with sports training before school, followed by additional extracurricular activities after school and then the day’s assigned homework (with hours of social media in between). Madonna cites research that finds seven out of ten 14-year-old girls are getting insufficient sleep, often recording less than eight hours a night.
The second major challenge is social media. While social media has now been around for a long time, certain aspects of it have become increasingly simpler over the past few years. Setting up fake sites is easy, as is stealing identities, manipulating images, and of course distributing images widely. “Many girls are actually safer at school than they are at home,” Madonna says. “And often they’re also coming home to an empty house.” Part of the issue is that girls voluntarily post selfies online, and are constantly having their picture taken. “A selfie is not a boomerang. It doesn’t come home. But it’s hard to teach our daughters that are 14.”
The third challenge is the heightened levels of anxiety teenage girls now experience. “Everyone’s saying there’s an anxiety epidemic,” Madonna says. “It’s the pressure they’re experiencing, the concerns they have about disappointing their parents.
“It’s the trying to be miss perfect. Eating disorders are on the wane, but self harm is on the rise as is school refusal. That’s when girls are so anxious they refuse to go to school.”
Madonna references what psychologist Stephen Hinshaw refers to as ‘The Triple Bind’, that’s seriously confusing for an adolescent. In his book of the same name, he found that girls are expected to act sweet, be a star athlete and student, and be attractive. “I think these girls want to win,” says Madonna. “They want to be good at science, good on the field and to smash the boys in the debating team. And then they get these mixed messages about their appearance, the ‘that’s a pretty dress to wear’.”
So what do we do? How can we help?
While more mothers are working than in previous generations, Madonna noted many are also increasingly involved in their childrens’ lives, although may not be as engaged “I didn’t meet any girls who didn’t want to be closer to her parents. They slam doors and grunt, but they still want their parents.”
The problem could be that their parents are not always listening. When Madonna asked a number of girls to scribble on a piece of paper something that they wanted their parents to know, she found they wanted to talk. “It was ‘mum please listen. Just hear what I’m trying to say. Stop stressing and listen’.”
Madonna adds there’s a problem with parents not being able to use social media, noting it’s the use of social media that’s dangerous, not the platforms themselves. “Parents are putting their heads in the sand, saying it’s too hard.”
A lack of resilience is also an issue. Madonna quoted research from Andrew Fuller that found a girls’ resilience falls with each grade they move through. She believes more emphasis should be placed on resilience and leadership, rather than academic scores alone.
They’re still just children, but we expect a lot of 14-year-old girls. At the same time, we may just be setting such young women up for a lifetime of anxiety and ill health. It’s time we started listening.
Check out Being 14 by Madonna King.
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 or www.kidshelpline.com.au
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636