Those of you who are a generation ahead of me are probably rolling your eyes right now. You walked 5 miles to school through sleet and hurricanes and A Levels were harder in your day and they knew how to discipline back then…. am I right? OK so I’m clearly taking the piss. There were obviously more physical hardships on teenagers in years gone by that young people today don’t have to experience. Getting to school is more convenient. Discipline is now called sanctions and is more about conversation than cane. Homework can be typed. Answers can be googled. And if your niche happens to be fencing stood on your head whilst reading feminist literature chances are your school can cater for that.
So what am I talking about when I say teens have it harder than I did? Than we did.
I didn’t get a mobile phone until I was 16. Maybe a year or two before that I had a pager. I know, so nineties right?! We had a computer but it wasn’t on the internet until I was a sixth former. When I came home from school I had a break. I had a change of scene. If I wanted to say something to a friend I picked up the phone and had a conversation or I hung out outside the one stop shop with the skater boys, but still I talked to people.
Teenagers today are missing out on two key things I’ve hi-lighted how I had it better than they do. The first is the change of scene. If your world is predominantly contained on a 3-inch screen which you keep with you at all times, there is no change of scene. There is no let up, no break, no escape. Of course I’m talking about mobiles.
The second thing is the conversation. So much human, but particularly teenage interaction takes place electronically now that face to face conversation is significantly diminished. Does it matter? Well yes. So many social cues are demonstrated through expression, tone of voice, pitch, body language and so on, all of which are lost in texts and IMs. If we’re reducing our exposure to these things we’re limiting our understanding of those around us which in turn limits our capacity for empathy.
I love my phone. I’m on several social media platforms and I check my phone regularly throughout the day. I’m exposed to the same amount of screen time as your average teenager so what’s the difference? Well, I’m an adult (some might say). My brain is developed. My sense of self-worth is mostly dictated by internal factors not the opinions of my contemporaries and for the most part, my hormones are pretty well balanced.
Had you given my teenage self a mobile in the form it takes today, with the pressures to keep up with posts, likes, retweets, to fit in, to stand out and all that comes with an online profile I would have crumbled. I would have got it wrong to devastating proportions. I would have felt the burden so heavily it would undoubtedly have affected my mental health. I know this of myself and thank my lucky stars I’m not a teenager today.
There is a mental health crisis amongst young people in the UK. We needn’t wonder why. A world beyond our understanding is carried with them in their pockets in which minute by minute expectations are high. And to navigate this complex world they have fewer opportunities to hone their skills of interpreting fellow human beings.
In the last 48 hours alone I’ve read relevant and worrying news articles ranging from cyber-bullying resulting in suicide (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hereford-worcester-37574528) to children not getting enough sleep because of the pressure to keep checking their phones at night (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37562259).
I am categorically not saying the answer is to remove them. This is the way in which society is evolving and to remove a teenager’s mobile for any length of time would be to remove a limb. Two things do need to happen. Understanding and compensation. We have to comprehend the social expectations that weigh on young people today and accept that they are far removed from those we experienced. We also have to encourage compensation for the lack of human interaction which takes place as a direct result of the way we use mobile phones. We need to teach, encourage and promote face to face opportunities to interact with others. Team sports, reading groups, karate, upside down fencing, whatever it takes but the more the better.
Teenage years are hard work. We’ve all been there. But take a minute to think back to your most angsty, most embarrassing, most emotional moment as a teen. Now imagine there are photos of it, videos of it, comments on it and they’re all there for everyone to see and they’re in your face, following you around all the time.
Teenagers today have it harder than we did. Fact.