What’s wrong with British teenagers?

Why are British teens so unhappy?

In light of a report earlier this year depicting British youth as a depressive, out-of-control, failing generation, Sophie McAdam spoke to teenagers and professionals to find out where it all went wrong- and what the Government should do about it.

In February, UNICEF published a report of child well-being in the world’s 21 richest countries. The UK’s astonishingly poor performance left us flailing around miserably at the foot of the table on three of the six categories assessed, and in the bottom third for another two. Its official: British children are more likely to be unhappy, failing at school, and have poor relationships with their families and peers. They are at higher risk of experiencing violence and bullying, drug and alcohol misuse, and underage sex than their contemporaries in other rich countries.

“We get judged all the time,” said Rocky, 16, when asked why the youth of today might have cause to be unhappy. She was one of eight girls I spoke to at the Calderdale Women’s Centre in Halifax, which runs evening workshops for teenage girls.

Her friend Emma, 15, agreed: “We get stereotyped as chavs. People think we go around beating people up, but we just choose to dress this way. It doesn’t mean we’re doing anything bad.”

The girls complained they get in trouble simply for being in a group of three or more people, and are stopped and searched regularly by the police “just for going to the shop”.

PC Carla Holmes (not her real name) has been an officer in Newcastle for 7 years and volunteered with young people before joining the police. “A lot of officers stop teenagers because of clothing; you expect them to be doing something wrong,” she admitted. “When someone calls to say teenagers are loitering, most of the time they’re nice kids just minding their own business.”
But of those children who are genuine offenders, PC Holmes believes strongly that punishments should be tougher. “Kids should be scared of the police, and more should be sent to detention centres,” she said. “Teenagers come in with major attitude problems but after being locked up with more intimidating people they vow never to go back.

“Then again, if you have no life to care about then you have no reason to stay out of trouble. The kids that come from really dysfunctional homes have no chance- when you meet children’s parents it’s often no wonder they’ve gone off the rails.”

To the girls, the issue of respect was simple. “They say respect your elders, but no-one respects us so why should we?” Emma answered defiantly. “Old people on buses are horrible to us.” When asked why this might be, the consensus was that the media was to blame: “They always say bad stuff about us. Always.”

It is true that the press would have us believe that all British youths are conscience-free, gun-toting louts. But as PC Holmes pointed out, “police officers only deal with naughty children, and the media only reports on them. It doesn’t mean they’re all like that; the ones looking after their disabled parents don’t get a mention.”

The media has changed dramatically over the last few decades. A rapid technological revolution means newspapers anxious to win back a declining readership are more likely to resort to feverish sensationalism. In the case of teenager portrayal, media stereotyping and hysteria has filtered into society, creating a nation of adults who are intimidated by young people and frequently cross the road to avoid a group of children wearing the dreaded ‘hoodie’.

Geoff Roland (not his real name) worked as a teacher in the North West for 21 years before qualifying as an educational psychologist in 1995. He feels that parents need to negotiate more, act as positive role models, and set down boundaries that make sense.

“We get asked how to control teenagers, but I always advocate understanding rather than making judgements which tend to be counter-productive,” he explained. “You have to take into account that there are more choices and more pressures today than ever before. We expect children to choose careers at 13 for example, where in some cultures this would be absurd.”

February’s UNICEF report, which was collated by Professor Jonathan Bradshaw at York University, found that although British teenagers scored highly for tests in Maths, English and Science, they are less likely to stay on for further education or training than their foreign counterparts.

Of the girls I met, all claimed to hate school and three dropped out altogether before reaching year 11. “They don’t teach us anything anyway,” was the general feeling in the group.

When asked what might make school more worthwhile, it was surprising to hear the girls suggest teachers need more power and should discipline the pupils more. It was the liberal programmes designed to give opportunities to the most disruptive children that made them angry, frustrated, and more likely to “doll off” school. “They treat them better; they get all the praise,” Kerry, 15, complained. “They should concentrate on the ones that are good.”

Joanna Parsons (not her real name) has worked as a teaching assistant on one of these pupil referral units in Leeds for 10 years. “The children learn teambuilding and improve their confidence and self-esteem,” she told me. “It gets results; it really works. We have a 100% attendance rate and small class sizes and pupil behaviour improves- the difference is they enjoy coming to school. The children do their GCSEs as well as the activities, and they have a school nurse that comes to teach sex education.”

Poor sex education is often blamed as the reason for Britain’s high teenage pregnancy rate, but Parsons believes the responsibility is not with the school at all: “It’s about educating the parent first, and breaking those barriers where families are too embarrassed to talk openly.”

Not only does Britain have the third highest teenage fertility rate, but gun and knife culture, self-harming, eating disorders and psychological problems were not assessed, so it may be that these damning findings are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of risky behaviour. Of the teenagers I met, 90% smoke and drink, but few have ever tried anything stronger than cannabis and the majority were not sexually active.

“I’m a virgin, and I’m proud- I’d shout it from those rooftops,” Jordan, 14, said, gesturing outside. “I wouldn’t dare have sex; I don’t want to be called a slag.”

The young people I spoke to were dismissive of the link between poor sex education and Britain’s high teenage pregnancy rate. Instead, they blamed alcohol consumption: “we drink because we’re bored,” one 16 year-old boy claimed, whilst Rocky reasoned, “we’ve got nowhere to go and everywhere we go the police move us. So what else are we supposed to do?”

A few of the teenager’s parents allow them to take friends in the house, keeping them off the streets. “But it’s not all the time, and you just want to spend time with your mates,” Kerry told me.

In fact a 2006 report overseen by the Children’s Society shows that close friendships, which are crucial to children’s happiness, have declined steadily since 1986.

Luke, 14, and Tom, 15 (not their real names) feel that as a teenager, friends are an important source of support, particularly if there is tension at home. “My mum won’t let my mates in and then nags that I’m out all the time,” said Tom. “I can’t stand my stepdad so I don’t want to be stuck inside. My mates know me better than anyone and I have a laugh with them.”

“If we had somewhere to go we wouldn’t have to be outside,” Luke chipped in. “There’s fuck all else to do.”
In the Netherlands, the state subsidises many activities for children and young people, meaning on any given day there’s something fun to get involved in, whether it’s swimming, dance or karate. It’s probably no coincidence that the Dutch topped the table in the UNICEF report overall, followed closely by Sweden, Denmark and Finland respectively.

Paul O’ Neill (not his real name) is a senior community link worker in a deprived area of Halifax. “Statistics show youth club attendance is low,” O’Neill said. “Teenagers don’t want adult interference, which is why they end up hanging around drinking cider or getting stoned. I think if youth centres did close later or allowed for the things that teenagers want to do, it would probably make a huge difference. Up until now though, no-one’s been brave enough to try.

“When you talk to young lads, they just want simple things- football and rugby for example. The council say they don’t have the budget, but I think youth service provision is something the Government need to focus on.”

One solution taking children off the streets and into a safe environment are underage club nights. The girls attend one of these events at a Halifax nightclub once a month and claimed they don’t think about drinking or smoking inside the club. These events are infrequent, however, and will not solve the problem of youths congregating on street corners unless they are held more often.

Ryan, 15, isn’t happy at home and says the Government could solve loitering by “giving them somewhere to be.”

Emma said her message to politicians would be: “Give them a job, let them work.”

Legally, children can work at 14, but complicated restrictions on job types and hours mean that some employers may be more likely to take on a school leaver or adult.

“If I had a job I wouldn’t even care what time of day it was, just as long as I had a job,” Shauna, 14, said, whilst Rocky and Kerry claimed they would work two or three jobs rather than rely on parents for pocket money.

“We’ve got the whole summer holidays to wait and there’s nothing to do if we can’t work. So we’re going to hang around the streets and drink more, aren’t we?” argued Emma.

Luke agreed, saying his lack of finances made him frustrated. “I’d never go out robbing or anything, but sometimes I can see why people do,” he admitted. “Most of the time I get no pocket money; I’ve tried to get a job but no-one wants to employ me. Until you’re 16, it’s shit. And even then there’s no chance of being able to move out because of house prices.”

There’s no denying the numerous factors involved in creating a generation of demoralised, angry teenagers: the breakdown of family, community structures and moral guidance, unhappy relationships within the home, the increasing pressures of living in a consumerist, materialistic culture with a daily diet of sex and aggressive advertising, a feeling of exclusion from the rest of society and persecution by the media, limited after-school activities, a lack of openness by parents on issues of sex, drugs and alcohol, an ineffective education system, the decline of close friendships, the inability to earn money and therefore gain independence from parents. But amid the screaming headlines and damning verdicts from the children’s charities, as a nation we can’t agree on how best to deal with these core problems.

On the one hand, there’s the rationale that tougher punishments for children who break the law and more discipline at school and home would quash ‘risky’ behaviour significantly, as it did in years gone by.

The alternate argument (which is just as logical, given the hugely impressive results of the Nordic countries) emphasises the success of child-centred societies like that of the Netherlands, in which young people are respected and their opinions valued.

Perhaps we need both. But whatever the case, there’s a crucial national debate to be had on tackling the factors behind these bleak findings.

Published in the Big Issue in the North, July 2007

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