The journalist Nick Cohen – in an article lamenting the fact that organisers of literary festivals expect writers to give their time free of charge – once pondered on the fact that “exposure” was offered in place of money. This was a strange word to use as bait, he thought, “when people die of exposure”.
The phrase lodged in my mind, and it came back again recently in another context, in response to the growing concern about the deteriorating mental health of children and teenagers, particularly girls. People do, of course, literally die of exposure when they are buffeted by the elements without the necessary layers to protect them. But what about the constant exposure of thoughts, life events and images?
More than one in three teenage girls now suffers from anxiety or depression, according to a recent Department of Education study of 30,000 pupils aged 14 to 15. When I speak to the mothers I know, anecdotes seem to bear this out: even if their own children are not afflicted, their girls will have a striking number of friends who are struggling with self-harm, eating disorders or suicidal thoughts. The problem seems even more intense among academically high-achieving teenagers from professional homes, who perhaps feel a greater degree of compulsion to excel.
Psychologists are divided on what, exactly, has created this rising unhappiness, but they generally attribute it to increased academic pressure, media images of an idealised body shape, the accessibility of online pornography and the near-constant interactions of social media.
It is difficult for someone of my generation to imagine exactly what it is like for a girl growing up now, in part because the social and technological climate was so different for us. I didn’t start using a computer regularly until I was about 24, and the internet arrived for me even later than that. By the time that anonymous members of the public were able to write comments beneath my newspaper articles online, I had a fully developed personality which was able to withstand insults without any great angst.
How such online jibes would have felt when I was 14 is hard to say, but I imagine that at that stage of acute self-consciousness they could have been much more wounding. For we teenagers in the 1980s were, in our own half-hidden way, every bit as self-obsessed as those today. My friend and I spent hours caking on elaborate make-up before descending to the prosaic excitements of the family dinner table; I was unduly preoccupied with trying to tame my thick, uncontrollable hair; and I can see from one small, faded photo-booth picture that I went through a mercifully short phase of trying out the weird “duck pout” that is endemic all over social media today.
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