Barely a day seems to go by without a news report on the latest scientific research on a modern health issue. So many and conflicting do they appear to be, I tend to take them with a pinch of salt or ignore them. Last Monday was different.
“Research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health today reveals a sharp rise in 11-13yr old girls suffering from “emotional problems,” said the radio news reader. “Problems such as low self-confidence, mild anxiety, deep unhappiness and tearfulness rose by 55 per cent between 2009 to 2014,” she continued.
The cause? Increasing pressure at school and heightened self-consciousness about their physical appearance were believed to be the main culprits.
The timing of this news was remarkable. Just 24 hours earlier, I had been talking with friends about the worrying increase in cases of self harming amongst teenage girls at a couple of local secondary schools where their girls, or their friends, attended. One of these girls’ schools even has a ‘dress code’ for such girls – long sleeved tops are allowed. Whilst there was some disagreement about why they were doing it, most blamed the increased pressure teenagers are under – academic pressure mainly. Social pressure to conform, we all felt, has always been there but social media has exacerbated it.
What’s particularly alarming is that they found such a big increase in such a such a short space of time and that these symptoms are all risk factors for more serious mental illnesses (self-harming I imagine the start of that slippery slope).
So there it is, in black and white, what I and many, many others from a wide range of professions have been banging on about for some time now.
Our modern education system with its obsession with targets, performance and ‘being the best’ is damaging our kids. If they don’t hit the mark, what does it say about them as an individual? They’re a failure?
Education policy in recent years, that has favoured testing, targets and academic rigour has a lot to answer for. Is it a coincidence that this sharp increase in emotional stress occurred simultaneously with the tenure of deeply disliked Michael Gove, the former Minister for Education (2010-2014)?
My 10-year old daughter is about to enter this age group and will sit her SATS in a fortnight. Being the diligent girl that she is with a tendency to worry, she is already concerned she might fail. The likelihood of this is ridiculously slim. This testing thing is already tapping into her very female propensity to want to do the best, and to worry. It’s no surprise that piling on the pressure at school is taking its biggest toll on girls.
When will politicians start listening to people who know what they’re talking about (such as the eminent Save Childhood Movement)? The solution is not to add a sticking plaster to it by providing funding for counselling in schools but to make fundamental adjustments to how our children are taught and tested. Better still, why not remove political meddling and let teachers decide how to run schools? Forcing children to perform well in literacy and maths too early and at the cost of other subjects may improve our statistics on the global league tables, but it makes for unhappy teenagers and depressed adults. Since when is that good for our economy?
Not just a political solution
We also need to be taking a hard look at ourselves as a society that puts a high value on performance and perfectionism which pervades every area of life. We have it in our power to reduce pressure on our kids outside of school. Do they really need to be involved in quite so many extra-curricular activities, starting from a young age? Do we create time for just ‘hanging out’ as a family at weekends, before they even hit teenage years? What can we do to counter the message of perfect body= perfect person? According to Tanith Carey author of ‘Where has my little girl gone?’ building self esteem in girls from a young age is the best way to protect them from this ‘you’re not good enough’ culture.
These girls are the next generation of managers, teachers, politicians, mothers. When will this issue be taken seriously?
Siobhan Calthrop| Everyone Else Is Normal