I’m not too sure where I am going with this one so you may have to stick with it to see if it reaches any semblance of intelligible comment..
A number of things have made me think about the pressure and shear hard work it is trying to be a teenage child in the UK today. As such, I thought i may try my hand at a piece about social work with children and our ability to understand the pressures they are under. However you are now reading the third draft and it turns out that this was not the way to go. In fact I’m not entirely sure why I want to write this, maybe by the end of these blogs I will understand why.
I’ve never worked as a social worker within children settings either statutory or voluntary sector. In the early 90’s I volunteered at a twice weekly youth club that had been set up by a local police officer to try to address some local “youth” problems. Now I myself was only 19 / 20 so not that much older than some of those attending the club. It was a great experience if not a tad scary at times. I remember talking to one of the Met police officers who would visit regularly to try to build relations with the Children that attended. He had a theory, all the trouble that these children caused was because they didn’t have the hardship that he did growing up and in turn had no respect for anyone else. He went on to explain to me that “kids today, they’ve had never had it so good”. Now, this led to a bit of a debate / row about the 80s and politics, however it also marked the start of my hatred for that phrase. You see, I reckon that the kids have never had it so tough.
Since the mid 90s the world of being a child has changed, the ability to be childish has changed and the pain and wonder that was growing up most certainly has. I look at our teenagers and am generally in awe of what they achieve in a world that can despise them at the same time as demanding a level of expectation to achieve, constructed by politicians and the new middle classes. This coupled with the rapid development of technology and a new design on what childhood is has led to what must be unprecedented levels of pressure, stress and inability to make mistakes and ultimately learn.
I can just about remember being a teenager and I loved it. It was fun, scary, sad, confused and exciting. I did things then that now I frown upon. I wanted to do things then that now scare me but most of all I explored life. I got it wrong a lot and sometimes I got it right but most of all I learnt how to be me and to be a part of society. It was those moments of getting it wrong that made me a stronger person. Moments that often only I would know about. Moments that felt like the end of the world to me at 16. Tears, stomach churning fears and a general doom of the thought of the next week let alone the rest of my life were regular. However these fears and poor decisions were most often held within or maybe over a bottle of Thunderbirds in a field with my best friends Rob and Bobbie but rarely did they go further. I had learnt through the bitter experience of childhood contact who to trust and how to share my angst in safe ways. I could see the teens around me and I could also learn from their mistakes. I had learnt how to be self aware by sharing human contact with fellow children and we made a mess of it together, learning all the way. What we did have though was a portion of our life that was private. An area where our personalities grew and our angst thrived. where we worked things out and ultimately grew into the adults we became. On the occasions when the stupid things I did got out, there was no hard evidence as such and the life of the story, and my horror, were often over very quickly, moving on to some other poor child’s indiscretion in the teenage rule book.
When you’re a child you inexplicably explore and do things. Children today do the same, but their world, even after only a couple of decades, bears little likeness to mine as teenager. Last year I was shaken by the story of a young teen called Daniel Perry. He was a 17 years of age and had killed himself. Now when I say shaken I mean rocked to the core, for days I could not get this story out of my mind. It made me cry and it made me angry. Even now as I write this I struggle to contain my own sadness at the shear fear and panic that Daniel must have felt before and leading up to the moment he decided to take his life. The moment that the world lost Daniel is another moment that bitterly reflects the reality of life for our new generations. You see, Daniel had done nothing wrong, he had done what every teen in the world has always done, only he lived in today’s world.
Daniel had developed a relationship with a girl of his own age and started to explore the wonder and pain of relationships and sex as all teens do. Only Daniel had never met the 17 year old whom he thought lived in the states. Instead he had developed his contact via Skype, one thing led to another and Daniel had engaged in some form of sexual act over Skype which unbeknown to him had been recorded. From those moments on It was revealed to Daniel that the 17 year old girl whom he had clearly trusted turned out not to be a fellow teen but rather a group that went on too blackmail him and ultimately cause his death. Daniel was threatened with the recordings being shared publicly and with his family unless he deposited money in a specified bank account. In our modern world such threats must feel like the end of the world for a 17 year old child. For Daniel it was. Very soon after the realisation and the threats Daniel took his life by jumping from the Fourth Bridge.
The utter fear and pain that Daniel must have felt is unimaginable and unbearable. The loss of life so tragically bought about by a world that has sucked away that tiny yet protective private element of our teenagers lives. The world of children is now dominated by the ability to reach in to every element of their lives and share it instantly with a world far beyond their control. Social media and the power of mobile technology make the mistakes and learning of being a teenager an impossible task. The stupid things that teens do and should do are now open to scrutiny and judgment from the rest of their peers and the viewing pleasure of people (including adults) the world over.
This dawn of instant entertainment and judgement for some has removed empathy, care and compassion from the teen agenda, replaced by a form of peer cruelty and voyeurism that gives an unreal view of the world and more importantly a lack of understanding for the victims. The harshness of children is often used as a protection to deflect the gaze from them in the playground or at the unofficial house party. This however is a new phenomenon a harshness that is fed by the unreality of a situation and one that appears increasingly in the lives of children.
Our children need to make mistakes to learn and grow. They need to understand where the boundaries are and how to navigate them. In a world where that exploration is taking place on line and not in the realm of human contact or verbal and non verbal communication they have a much tougher job than we ever did to make sense of it all. Finding yourself in a situation where you may be humiliated the world over within seconds is unimaginable to me let alone a young 17 year old not emotionally equipped to deal with the situation, nor should they have to be. The consequences of this new world can be devastating and horrific. In Daniel Perry every adult should see a bit of themselves, the bit that led them on their journey to adulthood. The bit that has been lost to his family and the bit that he will never know. I did not know Daniel Perry nor do i know his family but this story still makes me cry. Society is a much poorer place for not having Daniel within it. In a way I and every other adult was Daniel once. Now as a father I fear that my own children do not understand the emotional and human risks that come with their new world and more terrifying is whether I have the knowledge and skill to protect them from it without damaging their right live and learn. For many children they will be on their own testing and trusting in a pool of millions with cameras rather than the hundred or so in my year at school.
Learning to be a teenager in a society that revels in opportunities for our children to get it wrong so publicly is harder than any life i knew growing up and any teenager in the decades before me. So “The Kids have never had it so good”, tell that to Daniels parents and every teenager trying desperately to learn and grow in a world ready to despise yet be entertained by every error they may make.