By Selina Venier
IT’S reasonable to pick up Madonna King’s latest work, Being 14, and be alarmed at the reality of what this demographic is thinking, feeling and indeed, doing.
With one daughter who’s traversed the threshold of 14 and another within its depths, the title and its themes were a must-read.
Of course Madonna’s skillful knack of diving headfirst into truth was also a natural pull.
She synchronised a chorus of 192 female 14-year-old voices, from city and country areas, public and private schools, co-educational platforms and girls-only.
Ms King referenced countless parents, educators, professionals, and other school and community leaders.
With their identities changed, “a tidy picture emerged quickly of a generation of teens wrestling with where they fit, at school, in friendship groups, and even in their own families”, Ms King wrote.
From its beginning chapters I began to highlight what I found alarming.
“You will hear that Kids Helpline has been contacted over 22,000 times in the past four years by 14-year-old girls”, “24-hour connectivity can rule their lives”, “an epidemic in sleeplessness … most are learning nothing in the classroom”, “they feel disconnected from their parents … they’re in the same house but they are not connecting at all” and “… an alarming trend where girls are using blades to harm themselves” were all highlighted quotes barely into the book’s double digits.
“Aghast” at the suggestion of “turning off their phone” was proof in the pudding of dysfunctionality, Ms King saying, “this generation lives in the here and now”.
“(They live in) instant gratification, total connectivity, 24-hour music, 24-hour contact. So for them to understand delayed gratification, or to work towards something later, is a challenging concept.”
Equally challenged are parents and guardians in their response to a world “alien” to their upbringing.
Catching up with Ms King between promotional events, she said 14-year-old girls were in need of parental intervention, and adults should “aim” to foster qualities to equip daughters for the future.
“I think it’s easy for us, as adults, to decide what our teens should be feeling and how they should act,” she said. “(But) times have changed and what I’ve learnt from these girls is that they see the world so differently, they are aware of their challenges and they do want help.
“Perhaps adults probably need to move a bit here on how we deal with our teens because surely our aim is to grow strong, calm, kind, independent and clever women.”
With her eldest daughter on the cusp of being a 14-year-old, Ms King is ever-conscious of the 24-hour “plug in” of social media, saying teenagers can easily “turn off”.
“Many of them have (turned off), and feel as though they can’t talk to us without us pre-judging the situation,” she said.
“We can continue doing that, or just listen to them and encourage them to talk, in the hope we can help them.”
This advice was key, and clear in 14-year-old girls’ readiness to “talk” to organisations like Kids Helpline.
“Some are ringing Kids Helpline just to ask how to talk to us (parents and guardians) about their school marks,” Ms King said.
“There’s more pressure on our teens than ever before; so many of them are receiving extra tuition and extra assistance, that ‘average’ doesn’t cut it anymore.”
Ms King suggested parents and guardians see “average” as “good”, saying “being better than that requires persistence and hard work”.
In essence, she flagged the high anxiety of girls in this age bracket, as leading to any number of negatives.
Another alarming outcome of Ms King’s research was “the relationship now developing in teen relationships, between boys and girls”.
“The way boys are talking to girls is just horrible, and girls are accepting it,” she said.
“(But) it’s not our sons’ fault. They are learning it online and thinking girls want to be talked to, or treated, this way.
“(And) girls are accepting it because they don’t want to stand out. There’s a lot of kudos in having a boyfriend at 15.
“We have to teach our sons that respect is not an old-fashioned value and we have to teach our daughters to value respect more than they value an invite to the next dance.
“As a community, unless we do this, we are heading for a host of problems.”
Further suggestions from Ms King were practical ways to foster connectivity, beyond devices, and heightened rest.
“There’s lots we can’t do for our kids – we can’t pick their friends, we can’t watch them twenty-four hours a day,” she said. “But we can help them get sufficient sleep and for a fourteen-year-old that’s nine hours each night.”
Practicalities as simple as “no phones in bedrooms” and buying an alarm clock if needed (instead of relying on a phone for the same purpose).
“Don’t let them do so many extra-curricular activities that they are up at 10pm still doing homework,” Ms King said. “(And) turn off the devices at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before sleep time.
“Encourage them to have a hot chocolate or a bath before bedtime.
“We send our teens to good schools, and often pay big fees, so that they learn and then we are wasting that money by letting them be tired during class.”
Asked specifically about social media and mobile phone use, with 10.3 years referenced as the average age for acquiring a “Smart Phone”, Ms King said “it’s how it’s used” that can be the problem.
“I don’t think a child should be on social media at the age of ten and indeed that’s the law,” she said.
“(But) the phone might be the way a child communicates with a parent for example, so we should stop talking about phones, the devices, and start talking about the social media platforms they are on, and how they are used.”
Conversations with police, well documented in the book, brought to light how parents were unaware of what teenagers were accessing.
“Police told me that often, when someone gets into trouble, her parents are unaware of what the social media App does,” Ms King said.
“Surely that means the onus is also on us. If we are going to allow our child on Snapchat, for example, don’t we need to know how to use it also?”
With the rise of the “selfie”, or images with the potential to draw lewd or critical comments, parents, again, needed to be vigilant.
“(Teenage girls) are sending selfies, or allowing selfies to be sent because they don’t think beyond the ‘send button’,” Ms King said.
“They are not thinking about the consequences of that in a year’s time, or when they fall out with the person they’ve sent it to.
“My view is we should stop blaming our daughters, and explain that she can’t control what someone else does with it. That way we empower her to make the decision on doing it.”
Asked if she can imagine her daughters feeling “disconnected” while home, as was documented is the reality in households, Ms King reminisced on her teenage years.
“Our daughters love us, respect us – that came through very clearly – but they struggle with how to tell us stuff and often we’re too busy to really stop and listen,” she said.
“Being fourteen has been a challenge for decades. I remember trying a smoke behind the back shed.
“(But) those challenges are now so different, and reputation follows our teens everywhere because of social media.”
Ms King said earlier household dynamics changed outcomes.
“Connection was also often easier because one parent, often mum, was at home, so we’d come home, not have social media, so we’d talk,” she said. “Now our girls are often coming home to an empty house, or even if someone is home, they are walking straight into their room where any argument on social media can escalate and go late into the night.”
While the reality of the lives of 14-year-old girls may be alarming, after documenting the social media landscape, heightened levels of anxiety, the boy-girl tussle, peer-to-peer friendships, the mother-daughter relationship and parental influence or lack thereof, Ms King encouraged “working harder at listening”.
“(Fourteen-year-old girls) don’t see listening as one ear while we are washing up,” she said. They want us to stop, be calm, and really listen without judgment.
“Sometimes we spend hours on tuckshop or running fundraisers, when a simple cup of tea with them is more important to them.
“Sometimes it’s hard for them to open up, and the advice is to try and find places where they might. The car is a good idea because (first) no-one is looking at each other and (second) no-one can get out.”
Ms King will address a forum of parents on October 24 in Brisbane. It will be held at Mackillop Theatre, St Thomas Moreís College, Troughton Road and Turton Street, Sunnybank, at 6pm for 6.30pm start. Light refreshments will be provided. To register for the event go to www.pandf.org.au There is no charge.