Best years of their lives?
“Are teenage dreams so hard to beat
Everytime she walks down the street
Another girl in the neighbourhood
Wish she was mine, she looks so good.”
It’s almost 30 years since Derry band The Undertones released ‘Teenage Kicks’, the energetic romp that the late BBC DJ, John Peel, chose as his funeral anthem.
The year was 1978 and Ireland, despite flower power and punk rock, was still shrouded in a veil of conservatism. While the country was not quite replete with comely maidens strutting their stuff at rural crossroads, the Church still prevailed in our communities and classrooms, cosmopolitanism remained the preserve of the rich and the computer was an alien monster used only by nerds with hair like Albert Einstein and spectacles like Mr Magoo.
Today’s teenagers inhabit a world that is essentially alien to their parents’ adolescent experience. In the last decade the boundaries between reality and virtuality have become extremely murky. Mega bytes compete with love bites, web surfing contends with wave catching, while the delicate onset of puberty is moulded and manipulated in the slick boardrooms of multinational companies.
As that insatiable marketing monster sinks its increasingly invasive tentacles into the soft psyche of the impressionable teen, the pressure mounts to replicate air-brushed images of perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect make-up, perfect body. The fact that the daily pilgrimage to school entails carrying on average 8.6kg (19lb) of books, according to a recent Sunday Times survey which included schoolchildren from Mayo, is far from their heaviest burden.
Statistics show almost 90 per cent of girls wanting to lose weight, while young men are increasingly suffering from the so-called Adonis Complex, a body image syndrome which experts claim has achieved critical proportions. According to a review on the VHI website, of a study by three leading American academics, school boys are progressively becoming victims of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and may dread, for example, being ‘exposed’ as weedy or ‘bird-chested’ in the school gym or on the playing pitch.
In The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession, states the reviewer, “[the] researchers trace a burgeoning trend of steroid use, an increase in advertising images of barely dressed male models with washboard abs and a boom in men’s fitness magazines during the same time frame. Add it all up, they say, and you’ve got an unrealistic and unattainable male body ideal!”
The urgency of a dedicated member of staff employed to liaise with official agencies is stressed by Principal of St Joseph’s Girls’ Secondary School, Castlebar, Ms Áine Uí Mhóráin.
“Teenagers are facing so many challenges nowadays, on top of academic achievement. While every school has its own supports, class tutors, year heads, advisors, career guidance teachers, learning support and resource teachers, I believe there should be formal links with the HSE and other such agencies,” said Ms Uí Mhóráin. She suggests that these liaison officers could be responsible for a cluster of schools or all the schools in a large town, for example.
“Bullying is no longer confined to the school yard or the school bus, it is also very real in the world of IT, through both computers and mobile phones,” she continued. Ms Uí Mhóráin observed that while the economic boom is exciting and wonderful, it has simultaneously caused life to be much more daunting and challenging for teenagers.
Meanwhile, the country’s secondary school teachers had one less issue to deal with this month as thousands of teenagers returned to school. Access to Bebo, the controversial and hugely popular social networking site, has been banned in Irish schools. Government agency, the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE), has established a content filtering system blocking all these so-called social networking sites. It will also block all illegal and harmful sites, including pornography, hate sites and racist sites.
Bebo is the fastest-growing site of its type in the world and has 22 million members registered worldwide. Interestingly, while it is the 17th most popular site in the UK, it commands second position in Ireland.
The problem, however, is that while Bebo may be banned in schools, our adolescents can still access it in their homes and in Internet cafés. NCTE director, Mr Jerome Morrissey, told The Mayo News: “The problem is that many schools are finding themselves in a position where they have to deal with the fall-out in the classroom and in the schoolyard from inappropriate use of the web by students outside school.”
Morrissey said that this ban, however, is only temporary. “Ultimately, we need to learn how to use such sites in a systematic way for educational purposes. To blanket ban them ad infinitum would be naive.”
Is it surprising that the majority of the 450 recorded suicides in Ireland last year were by young people? Surely, it is ironic that the inheritors of the Celtic Tiger’s spoils are left needing more counselling, phoning help lines at an alarming rate, and feeling utterly isolated in a world that can reach right into their sitting rooms, their bedrooms and their dreams.
In 1978 Fergal Sharkey sang: “I wanna hold her wanna hold her tight/ Get teenage kicks right through the night.” What if, though, she feels like this 15-year-old who took part in a study on body-image in 2002: “I’m fat and ugly. I have to lose 20 pounds. I need a nose job. My hair is a mousy colour. My lips are too thin and I could use lip injections. I exercised my stomach muscles and now they’re hard, but I still have a belly.”
In today’s world, pressure rather than kicks seems to be the lot of the teenager.