I was hit hard this week by the news that more and more children in the UK are phoning the national helpline Childline because they feel ‘isolated’ and ‘lonely’; I read the research just minutes after delighting in a report confirming that babies are born with a natural disposition to dance whenever they hear rhythm.
It’s heart-tugging to think that the psychological arc for many of our teenagers takes them from babies born to boogie — and laugh more than 300 times a day — to lonely, sad adolescents who are increasingly likely to self-harm. UNICEF’s investigations into the physical and emotional well-being for children repeatedly tells us that kids in the UK are the unhappiest in the industrialised world. What the hell has gone wrong?
I used to produce a weekly ‘problem page’ phone-in on Radio 1 called the Sunday Surgery. By far the biggest response we got from listeners was when we discussed the still-taboo subject of self-harm. It was shocking to me to discover just how widespread the practices — which include cutting yourself, pulling eyelashes out and burning yourself — were amongst bright, articulate young people. So many were leading secret lives of misery, unnoticed by anyone.
The reasons were varied but four causes for concern came up repeatedly — being bullied, feeling ugly, regarding themselves as social hate-figures, and feeling neglected by busy parents, most of whose conversations, in their eyes, were either based on censure or revealed a forgetfulness about their lives bordering on indifference.
So this week’s figures showing a vast increase among young people being hospitalised as a result of self-harming and a big upturn in unhappy teenagers contacting helplines came as no surprise.
But it did make me angry and depressed that life seems to have got harder and more intimidating since I produced that programme seven years ago.
The media has a big part to play in this mess, and not just in terms of its general obsession with flawless A-list skin, shiny heiress hair and bulimic skinniness, which leaves kids feeling vulnerable, insecure and just not good enough.
Recent research revealed that when teenagers feature in news stories they are most commonly described as ‘yobs’, ‘thugs’, ‘louts’ or ‘scum’. Listen to any radio phone-in and you’ll hear how casually people assume that groups of teenagers mean trouble, and should therefore be presumed guilty and separated or curtailed in their activities before they’ve so much as crossed their front doors. It’s no wonder young people feel unloved and powerless in a world run by disapproving or disinterested adults.
But even more destructive has been the redrawing of society to facilitate adult aspiration and self-fulfilment at the cost of the time and attention needed to bring children up to feel secure, appreciated and, most crucially, of interest to their parents.
With each year comes a new Government promise to find ways to facilitate faster, earlier returns to work for mums who have just given birth — the latest is free childcare for two-year-olds.
The idea that happiness is reliant on two-earnings families and regular leaps up the housing ladder is challenged less and less.
But isn’t there something incredibly selfish about having children then refusing to make any serious life changes to suit them? Sitting potato-like watching TV all day, stopping only to stuff your children with microwaved garbage, is deplorable.
But filling up their days with Mandarin classes because you’re working until 7pm every night is no more caring.