Girls in crisis? Hold on a minute.

…it is becoming increasingly clear that teenage girls are a stand-alone demographic in crisis

So says a report in Sunday’s Observer, looking at the pressures faced by teenage girls and the effects it has on their lives, and it’s far from alone.

As Mark Pack reported here on Sunday, the Evening Standard and Telegraph both reported on concerns of girls becoming sexualised at ever younger ages.

Just hold on a moment, though.

Yes, teenage girls have problems. And it may well be that there are specific measures the State can take to reduce those problems, such as the regulation of airbrushing that became Lib Dem policy last September.

But “crisis”?

A couple of thing concern me about that sort of talk.

The first is that different sections of our society are, on a surprisingly regular basis, deemed to be in crisis by the media. Then, with not a lot having changed, the crisis seems to mysteriously vanish as media attention wanders elsewhere.

A few years ago, teenage boys were in crisis, outperformed by the girls in exams and unsure of their role in a post-feminist world.

Men were in crisis, stripped of their masculinity, their roles in society and in the family changing beyond recognition and the age-old male bastions of working-mens clubs, pubs and golf clubs either vanishing or, horror of horrors, allowing in women.

Last year we discovered that the white working class were in crisis, though it might as easily have been the elderly, modern women, babies or toddlers, all of whom have had their moment in The Sun.

Secondly, it’s surprisingly easy for journalists to take a couple of limited stories plus a few hand-picked anecdotes and turn them into a national crisis.

Take the Observer story. We’re led through one quite limited study (useful for what it shows, but it only relates to one area in Scotland). A couple of other studies are then mentioned in passing as supporting its conclusions.

The UK’s high teenage pregnancy is mentioned to support the thesis – fair enough, perhaps, but no mention is made of the fact that teenage pregnancy has been falling, having peaked in the 1960s.

And the anecdotal evidence is brought into play – all interesting, but no use in helping us figure out whether the thesis is true or not as it’s been selected by the journalist. Four Sheffield girls are interviewed – clearly chosen to illuminate aspects of the piece. Are they at all typical of girls in their area, never mind across the country? We’ve no way of knowing.

This sort of journalistic narrative draws us in. After a long list of things wrong with the lives of teenage girls today, who can deny the crisis?

But a journalist could easily have constructed a story to say the opposite. Improving exam grades, better health, falling teenage pregnancy and greater opportunities (once we come out of recession, anyway) could be reinforced by interviewing a few happy, high achieving, well-adjusted young women to convince us that things are great for teenage girls.

There are real problems in our society (and, needless to say, there always have been – though their nature changes as some are cracked and others emerge).

Some of those problems are old, some newer. There’s good evidence that many teenage girls are struggling and suffering as a result of increased pressure to be sexy, attractive and high achieving. Politicians are right to look for ways to help where the evidence shows a clear problem.

Talk of a “crisis” is good for journalists. The off-the-shelf narrative makes stories easy to write. As with Broken Britain, if we read it enough in the papers, we’ll start believing it – no matter how divorced it might be from most people’s everyday experiences.

It leads to terrible policy and law, though.

Good, successful, social policy involves understanding the real problems and taking a series of small steps to tackle them. Unintended consequences are a near certainty and the mantra “it’s more complicated that that” serves us well.

If you think the problem really is a full-scale crisis with everything going wrong and a whole class of people in meltdown, your chances of finding the right steps and identifying where you’re going wrong are next to zero.

Specific problems can be tackled – the Lib Dem’s Real Women paper aimed to do exactly that. And, as a reminder of those crises of yester-year,  just because an issue hasn’t been in the papers lately doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

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8 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Feb '10 - 1:49pm

    I’m happy to agree with your “it’s more compiicated than this” comment, but I’m unhappy with your dismissal of the problem. From my own contacts of various sorts, I am aware that this article notes an unhappiness that is widespread across many teenage girls. At the heart of it is the way our culture is being centralised and controlled by a small number of elite types whose aim is to make big money from it. In effect they are inventing a new religion, in which the celebrities are the gods that are worshipped, and they are the priests who tell us how to worship them and devise the stories that the gods are presented as embodying. The prime stated value of this religion is to achieve wealth and social dominance. The religion works by creating guilt about this, selling various forms of devices which are meant to assuage that guilt, but in reality creating a treadmill in which true holiness will never be reached, because they the priests have a monopoly on it. Well, they and the aristocracy of the wealthy, who are well-served by this religion. It is a religion which is an “opium of the people”, it creates temporary happiness, but dulls their senses and makes sure they never do anything radical to break out of their chains.

    OK, it’s a fanciful allusion, but try it and see how much it works. This is the sort of thing our political ancestors fought against. Too many of us still think of “liberalism” as fighting those old battles, which are actually largely won. So knocking old-time religion and “the state” (which in the 19th century was still largely the aristocracy) is a popular game here, and makes us feel good. Maybe we should try thinking a bit deeper about what are the liberal challenges of today. Who are the thought controllers and those who set up the mechanisms which imprison us into working to make them very rich?

  • I like Matthew’s comment, possibly because it chimes with my own views when I was an angry student. However, now that I’m slightly more cynical, I’d have to ask for proof – which is what the OP appears to be all about. Surely it can’t be that hard to devise a controlled study on the prevalence of mental illness amongst the young against their exposure to popular culture?

  • Andrew Suffield 22nd Feb '10 - 2:20pm

    From my own contacts of various sorts, I am aware that this article notes an unhappiness that is widespread across many teenage girls.

    The only part of this comment that I dispute is the implication that this is somehow limited to teenage girls. Surely what you’re saying is equally applicable to everybody else.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Feb '10 - 12:12pm

    Andrew Suffield

    The only part of this comment that I dispute is the implication that this is somehow limited to teenage girls. Surely what you’re saying is equally applicable to everybody else.

    The pressures on teenage boys are different, but also damaging. There does seem to be an emphasis on a certain stereotypical view of masculinity, one which involves domination and aggression.

    It’s more applicable to teenagers than to anyone else, because they are naturally seeking to move into independent adult life, but don’t have the more rooted experience which older people have.

    Adam Bell

    However, now that I’m slightly more cynical, I’d have to ask for proof – which is what the OP appears to be all about.

    The article in question did give some statistics, which pointed to some big changes in attitude over a relatively short period of time. It’s like climate change, you can look at some stats and think wow, this is really worrying stuff, you can look at others and think, oh, this is is all overdone. You can consider your own experience and think “hmm, yes, we don’t seem to be getting weather like we used to, when I was a kid we always used to go sledging on those hills, but now there’s never enough snow for that ” and you can consider your own experience and think “well, aren’t we having a cold winter this year, climate change is all a conspiracy by a few scientists hoping to make big bucks out of it”. My feeling is that on the whole there’s some real issues here, it isn’t all a made-up scare.


    Surely it can’t be that hard to devise a controlled study on the prevalence of mental illness amongst the young against their exposure to popular culture?

    I seem to recall studies on remotish places where television was only recently introduced which suggest that had quite a dramatic influence on just this sort of thing.

    Part of our problem is that many of us are wedded to the “Whig interpretation of history” in which society can only progress, or “things can only get better”. So we are very reluctant to concede that some social developments may be to the worse and not to the better.

  • Cllr Patrick Smith 24th Feb '10 - 6:16pm

    I believe that there is plenty of evidence to underpin the view that teenage girls are now more vulnerable in their adolescence teenage years then at any point in our history.

    Just take a look at the exponential rise of unplanned teenage pregnancies, greater numbers of teenage girls in bars at weekends embarking on ritual liver threatening and life shortening `binge drinking’ sessions, against the back cloth of a media culture that thrives on and only promotes enhanced female body images, as opposed to the integrity and intelligent life choices for young women.

    What is the solution ?

    I have been a school governor at a single sex state school for 20 years with an impressive record for turning out girls at 16 with ambitions for self worth and with most making good choices from good GCSE passes and enhanced collaborative learning social skills.

    I have observed Secondary Schools female Head Teachers often demonstarting strong dynamic leaderskip skills with a cleaner focus on the role of young women- besides young men.

    The testimonies emergent testimonies made by teenage girls themselves from the all too prevalent, inner city `gang culture’ starts to show examples of allegations made by these girls being sexually abused and exploited by male gang members and gang leaders and being used as sexual targets.

    The allegations that some of these `underworld girls’ are being raped suggests that out reach youth services need to get its act together. The example in the Sheffield Youth Centre `Aim High’ project is exactly the kind of front line youth work that should be more nationally widespread.

    I recall Chris Huhne MP Home Affairs has recently stated that our adult prison and youth detention centres are failing their vastly expanded populations, over the last decade and there are now almost 84,000 people of both sexes in prison–hence overcrowding and early releases.

    The main point, however Chris Huhne is making, is that this Government has made absolutely no attempt to separate out the offenders requiring specialised drugs rehabilitation and treatment from those with mental health and to identify how the need of the vastly overcrowded prison service can identify and respond to individual schemes of re-education and rehabilitation for youth or adult offenders.

    The rate of imprisonment for women has increased and doubled over this last ten years and many mothers now are at greater family risk with children, due to the higher rates of early pregnancies and drug and alcohol dependency.

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